Cultivate Courage Through Commitment
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Hello and welcome. This is Kate's Nuggets, the podcast where I share bite-size nuggets of wisdom about self-leadership. I am your host, Kate Arms. I invite you to listen lightly, let these ideas wash over you. Take what you take and let the rest go. You can always come back and listen again.
Hello. Today I want to talk about courage and commitment, and the relationship between them.
Fear comes up every time we want to try something new. Fear is a warning from our brains that we need to pay attention. Fear often pushes us into the behaviors that come under the fight, flight, freeze, fawn responses. And these behaviors come alongside a narrowing of our focus, a lack of creativity, a lack of compassion because once the cortisol and the adrenaline are running through our systems and we have a sense of fear and threat in place, our focus narrows. Our energy is completely driven to getting us out of the scary situation. And what commitment does is a strong enough commitment becomes part of the definition of out of the situation so that the fear actually drives us into the thing that we're committed to doing.
If you've heard stories of heroic rescues of children by their parents in the face of enormous dangers, the commitment to their children is part of what they're afraid about. The commitment actually becomes part of their sense of identity. The children are part of the parent's sense of self. The threat to the child is perceived as a threat to the parent, and so the energy of that sense of threat actually includes getting the child and the parent out of the situation.
Similarly, when you have a commitment to anything else so strong that it becomes part of your sense of identity, then all of that fear energy actually serves to forward your action towards maintaining that commitment. I once dated somebody who was madly in love with me, but was terrified of commitment. And in fact, it wasn't that they were terrified of commitment, they were terrified of feeling trapped in a relationship, and so they were actively committed to not being in close relationship.
And so every time that they had a loving impulse towards me to try and get closer to me, their commitment to not being in a relationship actually drove them to do the opposite. So, they drove me away. And this is somebody who actually loved me very much and who, after we broke up, became friends with me and we talked about this, and we debriefed about this. And it was so fascinating that this dynamic had happened. They were so committed to not feeling trapped in relationship, that in fact anything that brought them closer into relationship became a threat. And their commitment to not being in relationship drove all of their behaviors.
A strong enough commitment to something becomes the source of our boundaries, our motivation, our behavior, and our creative problem solving whether that commitment is conscious or unconscious.
So, if we want to achieve our conscious goals, we have to make sure that our unconscious commitments are lined up with our conscious goals. And this can actually be very difficult if we are not self-aware. So the first thing that we need to do is actually figure out what's really important enough to us to be worth committing to, to really understand our commitments.
When I'm working with coaching clients and they say they want something and they're not doing it, we get curious about what is it that they're more committed to than the goal they say they want. This summer, I participated in a race that was more than a thousand kilometers long. And I walked it, I didn't run it, but I had never taken on a challenge at that level before. My brother, who's a marathoner, had signed up for it when the marathons over the summer got canceled because of the COVID pandemic, and he recruited me and his girlfriend to participate with him because he thought it would be fun to do something with us.
And when I was saying, I don't know whether I'm going to do this or not, I don't know whether I can, I don't know how I'm going to find the time. He said to me, sign up and then you'll find the time, signing up being the commitment. And in fact, I found the time. I walked two hours every day on average for four months in order to finish the race before the officials packed up shop. And in the third month, I was starting to think, I don't know whether this is actually a good use of my time, and my commitment kept me in it and I finished and now I'm done and I completed it. And in fact, I was so committed to it that during the period of time where I wasn't sure that it was a good use of my time, I couldn't convince myself not to walk. I was so committed to finishing this challenge.
So commitment is tricky because we have to actually commit to the things that are going to get us what we want or we find ourselves walking down paths that are not leading us in the direction that we want to go. And lots of people are committed to things that aren't actually helpful. Lots of people are committed to comfort and safety.
Lots of people are committed to particular people who don't have good impact on their lives. This is what happens in bad marriages that people don't leave, the commitment to the marriage, if it's stronger than your commitment to your own mental health, you're going to stay in a marriage that makes you mentally ill. On the flip side, commitment can get us so that we are not triggered by things that might otherwise have triggered us.
So if you think about non-violent protests where the protestors are met by police force or force applied to them by the people they are protesting, what keeps them from being triggered and reactive and getting violent themselves, it's their commitment to the cause they believe in and their commitment to nonviolence, and that becomes the boundary that they will not cross.
Commitment is incredibly powerful. So how should we choose what we commit to? Because we really should choose the things that we commit to, if we want to feel like we're in control of our lives. We need to decide what values we have that are worth pursuing at almost all costs. Because once we're really committed, we will pursue them at almost all costs. We need to think about what is going to be good for our relationships, what is going to give us enough positive feelings, not just happiness, but also joy and contentment and pride. We need to think about what is going to give us a sense of accomplishment.
Often, we want to commit to projects that are going to be hard in the short term in order to have a sense of accomplishment in the long term. As a theater director, this was always an interesting thing. I worked a lot in community theaters and community theaters have a tendency to fall into two camps. One is groups of people who are committed to having fun all the way through the process, and they're so committed to having fun putting on a play that the play's quality may suffer. And then there's another group, a group into which I put myself, where I'm committed to putting on a good play with quite high standards and I'm committed to having as much fun as possible in the process of meeting those standards. And that change in value from prioritizing the production quality to the fun in the process actually tremendously changes the dynamic in rehearsal.
And people settle into working with a company that has the same values that they have because that's where it feels most meaningful for them. If the company isn't aligned with the values, there's no commitment. So one way we choose to commit is we commit to the things that are aligned with our values. Now, we can have bad values, just because the things that we are valuing right now are the things that we're valuing right now doesn't mean that they're that way forever.
Often when people talk about values, they talk about values in a way that suggests that your values never change, but actually, we often learn to value things differently. Children value fun over almost anything else, and lots of adults have sacrificed fun completely in order to achieve other goals. There are some adults who prioritized fun over everything else for their entire lives, and people who value accomplishment over fun, judge them as immature and they say they've never grown up.
You actually get to decide which values you want to prioritize, the kind of thing that you want to be your legacy. A very common coaching exercise is to imagine that you're at the end of your life. Maybe it's a eulogy at your funeral. Maybe it's a party on your retirement. Maybe it's your family celebrating your 90th birthday. Some period that is a marker when people might talk about you. And imagine at that event, people talking about you, celebrating your life and your accomplishments, and think about what is it that you want them to be saying about you in such a situation? What is the legacy you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered? Those are the values we should commit to. Anything that is a shorter-term value than that if we commit to it as a priority, we will sacrifice our long-term goals for the short term.
We often have things that we feel like we have to do, a job we have to do to make money, or a set of tasks that we need to do to maintain a household, things that we have to do to maintain relationships that are hard for us to do. When we've got things that we have to do or we feel like we have to do and our sense of commitment is not there, so we're not motivated and we're not actually doing the things, how can we increase our sense of commitment? We can link the tasks that we don't want to do with our important values and the things that we do want to accomplish in the world.
This is something that parents are very familiar with. We have long-term commitments to our kids, and on any given morning, we might not actually want to get out of bed and hustle them off to school. We might want to lie in bed ourselves, but our commitment to our children gets us out of bed and gets the food on the table and gets them to school.
And so our commitment can change our motivation for these tasks. Flip side, so you've got a job you don't really like. I've got a client who is working in a job where there is a coworker who behaves badly towards my client on a regular basis. And if my client could get out of this relationship with this coworker, it would radically decrease the amount of stress in their life.
And so, one of the things that we've done is we've talked about why he doesn't leave the job, and the answer is he feels like he needs the job. So here's fear. I need the job and I don't know about getting another job. And so what am I going to do? Well, we unpacked it a little bit. Why does he feel like he needs this job? He feels like he needs this job because he's got a family with young children to support. And this unpacks the commitment that actually provides the motivation to deal with this difficult coworker.
When, in the moment, my client is feeling really challenged by their coworker and wants to just throw in the towel and walk away, my client turns and looks at a picture on their desk of their children and that reminds my client why they want to behave reasonably with this coworker, why they don't want to be the one with the behavioral issues. And looking at the picture of their children reminds them, this is why I'm doing this.
One of the challenges with commitment is that if we are really committed to something, we may not quit soon enough. We all know people who have stayed in bad relationships too long. We all know people who have stayed in bad jobs too long. One of the things that becomes possible when you become conscious of your values and you become conscious of your commitments, because we all have values and we all have commitments, and often we're just not conscious of them. They're pushing us along all in the background.
And when we bring our conscious awareness to our values and our commitments, then it can be much easier to decide when to quit because we can actually look at, here's this situation which is difficult and challenging and it's meeting my values in this way, but not that way, or it's taking this much energy, but it's resulting in this much of the impact that I want to have in the world. And we can get a much better sense of when it's time to say, you know what? It's not worth it. This is not actually moving me in the direction that I want to go. I need to move in another direction.
What makes it possible to quit under those circumstances is that the commitment is to the underlying value, the underlying goal of the impact that you want to have in the world and not a commitment to the particular job or relationship or task or activity.
So that's a lot to think about in terms of commitment and courage. The courage is a byproduct of the commitment.
If you find your courage flagging, look at what your conscious and unconscious commitments are and see if there are changes that you want to make. Notice whether there are values that you are stepping on or want to bring to the forefront more. Look at the legacy you want to leave. Is your courage failing because there's a part of you that has decided that this thing that you say you want isn't actually a way of leaving the legacy you want?
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Kate's Nuggets is a Signal Fire Coaching production. The music is adapted under license from Heroic Age by Kevin McLeod.