What Is Courage? Do We Need Courage In Psychotherapy?

Written by Dr Linda Berman.


‘David Slaying Goliath.’ Peter Paul Rubens.

“Freedom lies in being bold.”
Robert Frost

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Nelson Mandela

What is Courage?

Courage is:

Having the mental and physical strength and tenacity to carry something through, despite opposition and even when you know the odds are against you.

Being fearful of pain, uncertainty, scandal or danger, yet still being brave and persevering.

In spite of the risk of personal loss, having the commitment and belief that what you are doing is right for you and for others..

 Courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.

Rollo May

Living a full life takes courage.

Human beings are possessed of enormous strength and fortitude, often more than they know.

Most of us are able to go through life with a reasonable sense of wellbeing. We can  usually enjoy the benefits of life and love, laugh, socialise, work, rest, play.

Yet everyday, we all face the realities of danger, on the roads, in the sky…… we cope with the possibilities of loss, poverty, fire, flood, illness, war, personal attack, death……

For many people some of these tragedies have already occurred, and they bravely live with the consequences.

We may be fearful, yet our fears are usually put aside and we soldier on.

Somehow, and sometimes, we find the strength to focus our attention elsewhere and to live reasonably contentedly despite the vicissitudes. THAT TAKES COURAGE.

To dare to be aware of the facts of the universe in which we are existing calls for courage.

No matter what path we may choose in our lives, we will inevitably face difficulties along the way.  Life is hard. We sometimes encounter enormous challenges, perhaps at work or personally, and often it might feel tempting to give up.

Some people will say that we should admit defeat, that what we are doing is too hard, impossible to achieve. In the face of such disheartening messages, it takes courage to continue onwards.

The demoralising  voice may also echo a similar voice inside us. Ignoring these voices is tough. Carrying on regardless and persevering along the road we have chosen takes enormous energy and determination.

An Example of Courage


Greta Thunberg. © World Economic Forum/Manuel Lopez. 2019 Flickr.

The student climate change activist Greta Thunberg shows enormous courage; she has been mercilessly criticised and personally insulted by her detractors, yet she shrugs off all the hate and denunciations and carries on regardless.

She is determined to spread her highly worthwhile message around the world, showing great wisdom and courage at such a young age.


Malizia II.  XRiss . Andreas Lindlahr. Wikimedia Commons

“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”
William Faulkner

The Courage To Have Psychotherapy

How come we need courage to have psychotherapy?

Making the decision to embark on psychotherapy does take strength of mind and determination. Most psychotherapists are kind and empathic, however, what demands  courage is facing the journey into the self.

We could choose not to have therapy, to avoid getting to know our darker, difficult aspects.

“It takes courage…to endure the sharp pains of self discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” —Marianne Williamson

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

Abraham Maslow

We could opt to dodge the experience of reliving the pain of a difficult past, of childhood abuse, of trauma or neglect.

Having survived such torment is in itself evidence of strength and resilience. Being willing to work through the subsequent damaging effects in therapy demonstrates further courage.

Developing self-awareness can be a long and painful process. Coming to terms with one’s inner demons needs time and commitment and determination to work towards new ways of being.

Therapists also need courage. Therapy is a considerable challenge in terms of being with another who is beset with pain and likely to be fearful of what may be to come.

It requires the therapist to be courageous in maintaining safety and calmness for the other in the midst of a maelstrom of feelings.

“Courage is grace under pressure.” Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway’s words nicely link the theme of last week’s post with this one.

He was referring to the fact that courage involves maintaining one’s composure, staying calm during a crisis or in times of great difficulty and adversity.

It is ‘keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs…’ (Kipling).

Courage is a quality that we learn, gradually, through our lives. Often we might follow the example of others, feeling inspired by the courage they show.

We can build on the experiences we have of risking going outside our comfort zone. Each time we gain more confidence in trusting our ability to cope with all that life throws at us.

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’

Eleanor Roosevelt


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