This article first appeared on Happify
It’s been a recurring theme in my life: Every time I’m offered an opportunity that stretches me beyond my comfort zone, an incessant mental chatter pulls the excitement out from under my feet:
“You’ll make a fool of yourself!” “They’ll realize you don’t know much at all!”
A running reel of images plays on my mental Jumbotron. It seems that the sole purpose of my power of imagination is to terrorize myself.
Perhaps you’ve heard that voice too. The one reminding you that you’re somehow not enough. Not smart enough, not intelligent enough, not witty enough, and certainly not worthy enough to do anything of much importance. It cautions you that as long as you continue playing small, you’ll come to no harm.
Why do so many of us struggle with this voice? Why has the magic of language also burdened us with a personal narrator that speaks to us mostly in negative terms? Is it blind to our potential, or is it wise in its assessment that despite sitting at the top of the food chain, we really don’t amount to much at all?
Perhaps it has something to do with the messages we receive from very early on in our lives that do little to strengthen our “courage” muscle. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that we’re exposed to far fewer stories of everyday heroism than we are to funny cat videos. Perhaps it even has something to do with the outcome-obsessed society we live in, which leaves little room to connect to the trial and error of rising to our boldest selves.
The reality is that we each have a hero inside of us. We’re a species that played with fire and came together in tribes to contemplate our place in the world. And now we’re a people who yearn to break free from our profane desires and belong to something larger than our selves.
Heroism is part of our nature. But we’re doing little to feed it. Instead, we look for fodder to feed the loud and hysterical part of us whose only purpose is to ensure our survival in the moment. And in a world where our survival is rarely jeopardized, it’s keeping us from living the life that wants to live within us.
If you hear the subtle messages of your higher self in the wee hours of the morning, or if you long for the courage to take a stand for what you believe in, then these four steps from Albert Bandura’s research on self-efficacy will help you feed the hero within.
Look to Your Past
We tend to downplay our acts of bravery because we get caught up by what we didn’t do right, the opportunities we missed, the chances we didn’t take. We forget that the fact that we’re still here, standing and fighting, means we’ve undoubtedly overcome many challenges. Remember that both memories and imagination involve similar regions in the brain—which means that the quality of your memories impacts the boldness with which you show up in your life.
Turn to Your Ideals
In contrast to the way they’re commonly perceived, heroes are not the men and women who go to war, who conquer lands, who take over empires. Those are warriors—and much revered in our patriarchal society. But heroes are different. According to Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who studies heroism, they are the men and women who voluntarily engage in acts that involve risks and costs, because they’re driven to help those in need without expecting any immediate gain from it. Who are your heroes? And what values do they live by?
Call on Your Cheerleaders
When emotions are loud, and logic and sensibility are barely getting a word in edgewise, it’s best to call on a cheerleader who sees your true potential and reminds you of it. It’s easy to forget that our greatest strength is our relationships, especially in our individualistic society where we each float away in our self-reflective bubbles. Identify your supportive friends and reach out to them when your own voice of courage is being drowned out by the noise of self-doubt and self-criticism.
Use Your Imagination
Napoleon Hill, one of the pioneers of the self-help industry, called imagination one of our six superpowers. Science later confirmed it in Zimbardo’s research, when he concluded that we can become more heroic by building our “heroic imagination.” It’s often said that everything is created twice—first in our mind, then in reality. That’s why vicarious experiences are a key source of believing in ourselves and finding the courage to do what we keep avoiding.
We’re living through challenging times. It’s easy to feel faint in the magnitude of crises, or to turn to needless distractions to keep us from being afraid. It’s easy to turn to leaders, politicians, and governments to save us from a future that looks darker the further down we peer.
What we forget is that we’re each the hero we’ve been waiting for. Let’s each harness the opportunities around us to perform acts of everyday heroism. Who knows which small and inconspicuous acts will go beyond our immediate reach, and form a network of more people unafraid to bring their heroic impulses to life?