Around this time last year, I did something brave.
I opened a box that had been sitting on my kitchen counter for nearly 4 months.
For 4 months I had seen the box with every meal prepared, with every pile of mail I brought in to sort, and with every trip to refill my water bottle. I had moved it around, sliding it to one end of the counter or the other to make room for groceries in their brown bags or to open my laptop and follow an online recipe. There sat the box, waiting for me.
I had asked for the box. I had ordered it myself, perhaps in a separate encounter with bravery, but for a while I felt a little mocked by it and it’s big, cheerful, and off-kilter letters declaring: ‘Let’s Make Art’.
‘Let’s not,’ is the response my sarcastic, ‘I’ll-protect-you’ inner critic often implanted in my head.
And so it sat until one day, somewhat inexplicably, I determined that I should accept the invitation of the box – open it up and make some art.
Years and years ago I would have considered myself ‘a creative’ and an eager one at that. A degree in music and a passion for instruments, for jazz, and for conducting, a history of sketching and pencil drawings from 4 years of high school art, a series of poems and short stories published in college, jewelry making and ample forays into all types of crafts, and even a home business making caned polymer clay items are all part of my past.
But I considered them very much my past. And somehow, even as I embraced the realization that ‘surviving’ was far too low of a bar for any of us to be living at, especially trauma survivors, I felt like my creativity had been replaced with something else: fear.
It was the fear of a lot of things: of not being ‘good’ anymore, of not being able to embrace that space like I once had, of spending time on something that might seem frivolous, and fear of the unknown too. Because while I had done a lot of things with art and creativity a long time ago, time wasn't the only driver of the fear. I had never used the materials in the ubiquitous kitchen-counter box: watercolors, which I selected and bought for no reason other than because they were on sale.
But, on one particular January night, I over-rode all of the inner dialogue, all the fear, sat down at that same kitchen counter, and opened the damn box.
As they say, the rest is history. The paint felt like magic almost instantly and I was sucked into places of swirly colors and soft brushes and almost right away a multitude of small, simple, but completely satisfying pieces emerged. I paint several hours most weeks now, consider it a part of my therapy, and place watercolor painting among my most-preferred ways to spend time. All from a box I initially couldn’t get myself to open.
Now a year in retrospect, I wonder about that moment. WHAT made me open the box? And what prevented me from doing it for the 4 months before? Was this actually brave? It felt brave. But how does bravery really work?
To accept that my opening the box was, in fact, an act of bravery, you have to accept a couple of things about the concept of being brave: The most important is that bravery isn’t always a Marvel-comic worthy moment. In fact, I’d suggest that the most brave things we do are often hidden in the small, quiet recesses of our minds.
Part of bravery is simply showing up.
Part of bravery is about navigating the unknown.
Part of bravery is overriding our own fear and anxiety.
It turns out there is neuroscience to the way of bravery. And what makes that so exciting is that it means bravery can be cultivated, developed, and embraced. It means that there’s no such thing as ‘not’ being brave, just not having practiced it enough.
Our fear center lives in our amygdala, sometimes called our ‘lizard brain’ or our ‘prehistoric brain’. Fear gets a bad rap because it can do things like keep us from opening a box, but fear is a pretty solid instinct rooted in self-protection and self-preservation. The trick with fear isn’t to call it names and belittle it but to take a step back and determine ‘why’ the fear is there and whether it’s needed right now. I had good reason to be fearful living with an abusive partner and my fear center learned how to be ‘hyper-alert’. That same fear center helped (and is still helping) a lot of us navigate COVID-19. The issue is that your ‘lizard brain’ isn’t perceptive enough to know whether the fear is rooted in the possibility of a serious illness, an abusive encounter, or just in the unknown of trying something new. That part is up to another part of your brain: one you can call on and develop with practice.
The competitor for your amygdala is the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). It’s a big name, but I find it easiest to think of it as the switch that will calm down or suppress our fear responses. Like a muscle, you can activate it with repetition of some simple exercises.
1) Visioning a positive result to the thing you are fearful of.
2) Determining your meaning for facing the fear – your big ‘why’.
3) Cultivating comfort with failure.
I opened the box because I was able to create a vision for the positive possibilities inside. My ‘why’ was about discovering an authentic version of me I am still on the road to discovering, and I did (and still do) have to remind myself that the worst that can happen is I ruin some paper while I make another discovery should the painting not turn out.
Of course, the stakes for some acts of bravery are much higher. But this technique will help you develop the ability to face those big moments too – in your personal life, in your work life, and in your relationships – you can build the way of Brave.
I have to tell you that the most important piece for me about bravery is approaching it with authenticity. There is a difference between pretending you are someone you are not and calling the disguise bravery, and embodying and releasing the pieces of you that may be buried but are truly who you are even if you're uncertain how it will turn out. It takes bravery to lend voice to things no one wants to talk about. It takes bravery to go against expectations to better align with your true spirit. It takes bravery to leave a toxic situation, and it also takes bravery to stand by a hurting, broken spirit. Sometimes, it even takes bravery to simply open a box.
If you answered your authentic call today, you were brave. If you found yourself looking at the box again, I'm here to tell you that's okay. Tomorrow is another day. Another chance to practice: to listen to yourself, create a beautiful vision, find your why, and reconcile that failure won’t be worse than just opening the box.
Be Well, friends.