Redefining Courage: Why We Should Stop Shaming People Who Struggle With Anxiety

Daniel Kahneman, the notable psychologist, warned that if we put pressure on another to do what we want them to, they would be just as unlikely to perform the task as they would have been had we remained silent. Shaming people into shape is the prevailing form of character development, at least in the US. Kahneman’s research into human potential led him to the conclusion that shame and anxiety, which (surprisingly) isn’t mitigated by shame, lead to a state of tension, which is most likely, then, avoided rather than resolved. (Resolution, here, meaning the unlikelihood of that tense state occurring in any significant way in the future.)

When we think of courage, we recall individuals who took great risks and acted despite the intensity of their fear. And, that way of thinking is magical, to say the least. For, why would someone simply choose to act in the face of great fear? In reality, that type of action sounds incredibly irrational. If I know that I’m likely going to die, why would I perform an act that will probably result in my death? Therefore, is it possible that the individuals whom we consider to be godlike in their courage aren’t so dissimilar to those whom we consider to be cowardly?

I want to focus on perceived cowardliness in relation to anxiety and anxiety disorders, but want to note that perceived cowardliness in narcissism and antisocial personalities has a different foundational source, as those individuals tend to not act courageously when being courageous wouldn’t benefit them in any way that matters to them. In essence, you can choose not to perform a difficult act because you simply don’t care to. A narcissist won’t run into a burning apartment in the same way that he wouldn’t offer help when there’s minimal to no risk involved; this sort of person is mostly concerned with himself.

However, a perceived lack of courage in an anxiety disorder, whether generalized or social, has the element of care; the person wants to be courageous, but is convinced that he shouldn’t be. Our brains spend a good portion of their time assessing risks and rewards and, subsequently, making choices based on those evaluations. So, if I witnessed someone drowning and knew I couldn’t swim, my mind would inform me that jumping into the ocean would inevitably lead to death, causing me to consider alternative options. In that case, I could be considered cowardly since I didn’t daringly jump in to save a person that, presumptively, could have survived.

That decision might appear understandable, but how about decisions that don’t make much sense? When I was a kid, I struggled with social anxiety and was frequently shamed for some of my choices. Instead of inquiring about what prevented me from attending family and other social functions, I was shamed into believing that I was selfish, which I was, but not for a lack of care. To others, attending birthdays and graduations was easy, so they inferred that I could have easily done so, too. The result? In feeling ashamed, in addition to my anxiety, I pulled backed even further.

As I consider those tactics now, I’m much less angry than I was then. They’re just symptoms of tradition, which is long overdue for a reframing. If someone had asked why I was shy, I would have told them that I was certain of rejection. In my mind, rejection wasn’t a possible outcome; it was the only one. My reasoning was off, and unqeustionably bad, but I was a child who didn’t know what distorted thinking was. And most kids, and even some adults, don’t, either. Generalized anxiety and social anxiety, the two prominent anxiety disorders, entail an inability to adequately assess risk. The minds of their captives place significance on every bit of information related to their worry. So, if I sense that someone is upset with me, I would automatically assume that they probably hate me. This is an example of catastrophic thinking, which, again, is irrational reasoning.

If courage is re-conceptualized, we should think of it as a mixture of a moderate-high level of confidence, the motivation to act on a value (e.g. I want to attempt to rescue that person because I should save a life if I can), and the decision to act on that foundation. As a firefighter, I would run into a burning building knowing that I’m equipped with the mental and physical tools needed to rescue and survive; thus, my level of anxiety is unlikely to be as high as that of an untrained civilian. Is the firefighter acting in the face of fear? Absolutely! But, is he also moderately-strongly confident in his ability to survive? Yes. And, if one were to shame a civilian for choosing to back away from flames, would that increase the likelihood of him entering the home? Probably not.

In reshaping the way we think of courage and anxiety, we create the possibility of fostering the former. If you were to tell me that being rejected is an unlikely outcome, reinforcing how much you love me and want me at your party, I likely would attend. Instead of adding shame, you may try to remove my obstacle. Our brains, for better or worse, are built to protect us; they don’t prioritize your approval when they believe they’re going to be harmed. It’s just how we’re built. In accepting my anxiety disorder, I came closer to accepting why I was cowardly. Simply put: my brain told me it was the best option.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Leon,
    Thank you for all your essays and for sharing your insights.

    I was reading the transcript of the speech given by Barack Obama to the graduating HS students of the class of 2020, and I do hope that many people of all ages will take some time to let the message sink in.

    Obama provided three pieces of advice: First do not be afraid as this too shall pass. Second, do what is right, Obama states that “what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s how little kids think.” Doing what is right listening to the truth that is inside and which is grounded in your values guides you toward being part of the solution.
    Last, but not least: Build a community. This goes beyond looking out for oneself, their own family or people that are alike.

    All three are powerful. In the end, it is not just about us. Doing what is right feels good and it builds confidence and when confidence builds, fear subsides. It is not easy. Many times we convince ourselves that it is not our place to stand up. But doing so, is courageous and inspires others.


    Liked by 1 person

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