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Beyond Bravery

Thursday, April 16, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

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30 Days of Courage: a guide to bravery in action

Everything that matters takes courage - Marianne ElliottWe get started on our next round of 30 Days of Courage on Monday — and I’d love for you to join us:

Do you wish you could find the courage to do what you really feel called to do? Are you holding a dream or desire that feels too big or scary to act on? Is fear getting in the way of you saying what you really want and need to say?

I made this for you.

A guest post from Natalya Pemberton

I must have been about twelve years old. A blonde kid in a bathing suit, at the top of a tower on a gorgeous, Sydney summer day. A man gave me a plastic board with hand-holds in the sides. “Sit on the board, lean forward, and don’t let go.” I did as he said, heart racing. I looked down as water rushed over the steep incline. Wondered whether I could really do this. I’d barely made the waterslide’s height limit. I’d never been up this high before. What if I accidentally let go, or sat up, or fell off? I absolutely wasn’t ready. But the attendant was, and there was a line of people behind me, waiting. I tightened my grip on the plastic board and pushed off. Scared, but doing it.

When she collected me from the pool at the bottom, Mum looked at me with such pride. “You set out to do it, and you did it. You’re so brave, Tal.” My mother, the bravest person I knew, thought I was brave too. It made an impression.

It wasn’t intentional, but after that day at the waterpark “scared, but doing it” became something of a modus operandi. It’s how I learned to drive. It’s how I moved to a new country—twice. It’s how I got through the anchorless grief when, as a young adult, I lost both my parents to cancer. It’s how I succeeded in my first career.

Getting through it, getting on with it, despite my fears. Sounds good, right? I thought so for a long time.

But over the years, my bravery developed a bit of an edge. Something hard. Something a little unfeeling. Turns out, I was using the “doing it” to paper over the “scared”. As long as I was achieving the thing I was afraid of, I could pretend that the fear, or the awkwardness, or the discomfort didn’t matter. Uncomfortable? Suck it up, love, there’s important work to do. On the outside I was succeeding, but on the inside I wasn’t really growing anymore. I started taking less risks, or rather the risks I took were boring risks, ones I was pretty sure I wouldn’t fail at. There was not a lot of room for failure in my practice of bravery.

There was not a lot of room for vulnerability in my practice of bravery.

That is, until my MO started to shift a little, towards a practice of courage.

I’m not the first to draw a distinction between bravery and courage, so I’ll do my best not to make this seem stale or trite. (Also, the distinction I make is simply my way of processing these issues, not a value judgment or an attempt to redefine these words for anyone else.) Here’s how I think of it: whereas my practice of bravery is that combination of fear and determination that lets me be “scared, but doing it”, courage adds a heart-centered element to the mix. Courage gets things done, yet it also acknowledges and embraces the awkward, uncomfortable, messy stuff—the vulnerability—instead of plastering over it. I practiced bravery, for example, when I agreed to meet up with the man who’s now my husband, after we’d met online. I practiced courage when I told him I’d fallen in love with him, even though I didn’t know if he felt the same.

Looking back, that conversation might have been my “waterslide moment” for courage. But I didn’t think about it that way at the time. In fact, the link between vulnerability and courage only really started to make sense to me a couple of weeks ago.

I’d just got a response to an email I’d sent to a few friends and acquaintances, asking for help finding major donors for A Social Ignition, the non-profit I work with, and asking if they were personally able to make a small donation. Now, I get really uncomfortable asking for what I want. Especially if it involves money. It makes my skin feel all crawly. So it’s no surprise that I defaulted to bravery mode when I sent those emails (though I didn’t think of it that way at the time). Uncomfortable? Suck it up, love, there’s important non-profit work to do. The response I’d received that morning felt like a rejection, not just of my ask but of my choice to work with an organisation that deals with a decidedly un-sexy demographic (people with criminal records).

My first instinct was to walk away from fundraising efforts for the time being. I’d tried, right? I’d been scared, but I’d done it, and that was all anyone could have asked of me. But I also thought I’d failed, which is not a desirable outcome of my bravery MO. I felt raw and hurt. I thought about why I’d sent out those help requests. I believe in A Social Ignition, and in the amazing clients we work with. As a board member, it’s my duty to make the asks despite the awkward feeling. I found I was pressing my hand over my heart, and I wondered what it would be like to dig deeper into that awkwardness, to acknowledge it and work with it, instead of trying to blow past it. I decided to be open about how I felt, as much for my own ability to process all the feels as for anything else. I wrote a small post on social media, explaining how awkward and vulnerable I was, and yet how important this work is to me. I attached a link to our fundraiser. I wasn’t expecting anything from it. I’d made lots of posts about this fundraiser without much of an impact. But this one connected. Several friends reached out to let me know I had their support, and some were even able to make small donations. And something clicked into place for me. Opening up about that fragile, raw place in my heart had allowed me not only to process the rejection I felt from my earlier efforts, but to find a deeper connection with others.

I was practicing courage, not just bravery.

That experience started up a whole new line of thought for me. In retrospect, I can see my MO for dealing with challenges has to some extent shifted away from the “just do it” approach towards a more heart-centered one, since at least as far back as that Define The Relationship conversation five years ago. (Though there’s definitely still a place for the practice of bravery in my life, not least when it comes to making scary left-hand turns on busy streets!) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that for the past five years I’ve also been actively cultivating vulnerability: it may feel skin-crawly, but opening to vulnerability has been a prerequisite for some pretty important things, like building a healthy marriage, healing some old traumas, training as a yoga teacher, and building my new career.

The more I think about it, the more I see the practice of being vulnerable as fundamental to the practice of courage. And courage is the key to unlocking some other fabulous c-words like compassion, connection, and community. These are all critical to me, as a nascent strategist, as a non-profit board member, not to mention as just a regular old bumbling human being. So I guess it’s going to stay messy, and uncomfortable, and maybe just a little awkward around here for a while. And that’s scary, but I’m going to do it. With an open heart.

Natalya Pemberton - Marianne ElliottMeet Natalya.

Natalya Pemberton is avidly curious about the world and how to live in it. Growing up she worried that only those with a certain type of job could make a real difference in the world (like human rights workers, or first responders), but she has since learned something hugely important: we all have the power to change our communities – and through them, the world – if we exercise integrity, compassion, and connection.

Born and raised in Australia, Natalya has spent the last ten years living and working in Europe and the US, and is now a strategist, photographer and yoga enthusiast in Seattle, Washington.

You can find out more about A Social Ignition at



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