Brave Your Fear

Everyone experiences fear. We often associate fear with a response to a physical threat. But many of us experience emotional fear as well—we fear mistakes and imperfection, perhaps viewing even a single error as failure. Emotional fears can motivate us to work harder and achieve more, but they can also hold us back by deterring us from taking risks, so that in our effort to avoid failure, we cease to thrive. What if, rather than running away from failure, we embraced it? Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to participate in a workshop led by Crista Samaras, the founder of Brave Enterprises, who researches the science and psychology of fear as a foundation to empower women and girls to brave their fears and find fulfillment and success.

Fear, Crista explained, is not specific to any gender. But societal and cultural norms create differences in the way boys and girls react to it: Boys tend to be motivated by fear, while girls often feel paralyzed by it. This, of course, is unsurprising. Western culture stereotypes reward boys for seeking adventure, taking risks and trying new things. By contrast, the same norms generally commend girls for following rules, accommodating others and working hard. These lessons are hard to unlearn as we become adults and often result in what Crista calls a gender “Bravery Gap.” Crista and her team’s objective is to close that gap through bravery workshops based on cutting-edge research and self-discovery.

Crista defines bravery as “persistence and perseverance despite having fear.” Recognizing the universality and inevitability of fear, she advocates for identifying and facing one’s fears head-on, rather than minimizing them. According to Crista, while many of us fear failure, our past failures actually enable us to face new challenges and to ultimately overcome them. As a sophomore at Princeton, Crista felt so overwhelmed that she took a year off from school. She now counts the experience among the items on her “failure resume,” which ultimately served to fuel her later academic, athletic and professional success. Rather than trying to avoid failure, Crista counseled us to expect and prepare for it.

Crista’s work builds on the research of Carol Dweck, who teaches about the growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that they will grow and evolve over time, developing new skills and expertise as they internalize and learn from their errors. A growth mindset rewards process and progress over talent and intelligence. It asks, “Am I there yet?” and views the present as a starting point. A fixed mindset, by contrast, believes that personal attributes, talents and qualities do not change. The perpetual doubt of the fixed mindset is, “Am I enough?” Dweck does not discourage perfectionism per se. Rather, she distinguishes the self-critical perfectionism that comes from a fixed mindset, from the “striving for excellence” born of a growth mindset, which leads to higher achievement and greater life satisfaction. The growth mindset values “effortful success” and views mistakes as opportunities rather than setbacks.

A growth mindset is critical to cultivating bravery. If we see mistakes as a confirmation of incompetence and a lack of potential, stepping outside our comfort zone involves an almost existential threat to our identity and self-worth. But if we believe that competence and skill can only be increased through mistakes, braving our fears becomes just another step in our development.

Our mindset can have an incredible impact not only on our level of bravery, but also on our health and well-being. The research of Alia Crum demonstrates that a mindset that views stress as enhancing and positive, actually results in fewer negative health effects, and a higher level of engagement and performance at work.

That said, changing your mindset is no easy task. During the workshop, Crista used physical techniques like power posing—recently redubbed postural feedback— to challenge our perspectives and start the development of new ones. Power posing is based on research by social psychologist Amy Cuddy finding that our body language, as expressed by our posture and physical stance, can change the way we feel. Specifically, Cuddy posits that simply by assuming a “powerful” stance, we can boost our self-confidence and feel more powerful.

Such poses are stereotypically male—picture alpha baboons squaring off on the savannah or city bros manspreading on the subway. Women, on the other hand, are taught at a young age to cross our legs and sit up straight, and are often unaccustomed to striking open poses that take up space. Cuddy’s research, however, confirms that women should start posturing more often because it can lead to feelings of bravery and empowerment. Powerful people, in turn, are more assertive, confident and optimistic; they think more abstractly and take more risks. These are qualities that lead to persistence and perseverance in the face of very real fear. They make us brave.

Many of the exercises in Crista’s workshop, including the power posing exercises, required stepping out of our comfort zones, leading us to feel vulnerable in front of our colleagues. There was a lot of nervous laughter, with many of us looking around the room as if to say, “You want me to do what?” At Crista’s urging, however, we faced our collective fears, and eventually realized that we were actually having fun, and being brave, doing it. If you want to learn more about bravery, we recommend listening to Crista’s podcast.  In the meantime, take up space, expect failure and persevere.

Katie Aber and Emily Rebecca Hush are associates in Debevoise’s New York office.

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