We’re constantly being told that bravery isn’t about being fearless. It’s about being afraid and doing the thing anyway. But this flawed definition can lead to trouble. It implies that to be brave, we must do the thing we fear, no matter what that thing is. It ignores the fact that the thing we fear may not be right for us to do.

I am not an adventurous person. Many things other people enjoy, I find scary. All my life, I’ve forced myself to do things that terrified me, because they were supposed to be fun, and I didn’t want to admit I was scared.

I’ve been on amusement park rides that had me screaming in earnest because they went too fast. I had a panic attack at a water park, freezing halfway up the huge staircase to the top of a water slide, because I’m afraid of heights. I took my little sister into a haunted house though we’ve never liked horror movies. It was so dark inside, I couldn’t see a thing. We turned around and ran back out, a choice made easier for me by the fact that my 8-year-old sister was sobbing with terror.

Yesterday I read a wonderful story in Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed. She talked about taking her daughters to get their ears pierced. Her 12-year-old was eager and in a hurry. She had both ears done at once because she couldn’t wait, and the woman who pierced her ears was impressed with how brave she was. Her older sister, who had thought she was going to get her ears pierced, too, stood by, watched, and changed her mind. Both her sister and the piercer tried to talk her into it, but her mother didn’t. When her daughter said, “I’m not ready today,” she honored her decision.

What struck me about this was the lesson Doyle extracted from the experience. She knew that, if she didn’t say anything, her daughter was going to come away from this thinking that she wasn’t brave, that she was a weak person for not doing the scary thing. So she explained to her what had happened, and what it meant.

“. . . I know that lady made you feel unbrave today. People have different ideas about what’s brave. You did the brave thing, because the brave thing is doing what your Knowing tells you to do. You don’t ask others what’s brave, you feel and know what’s brave. What you know to do might be the opposite of what others are telling you to do. It takes special bravery to honor yourself when the crowd is pressuring you not to. It’s easier just to give in. You didn’t give in to the crowd today. You stood strong in what you felt and knew. To me, that’s the greatest bravery.”

Glennon Doyle, in Untamed

It takes a lot of self-knowledge to be able to tell the difference between fear that needs to be overcome and fear that doesn’t, but it seems like something worth developing. Knowing that you are a person who is afraid of rollercoasters because you find them physically unpleasant gives you the license to do the brave thing. Not to force yourself to get on the rollercoaster anyway, but to say, “No, thank you. That’s not for me.”

Doing what’s right for you, when the crowd is trying to convince you otherwise? That’s true bravery.

What is your definition of bravery?

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