I was stuck, scared stuck, and nothing was unsticking me. Someone was not following through on an agreement with me, an important agreement involving money they owed me. A string of broken promises littered the past, and I was afraid to confront them. I was just plain scared stuck.
I’d tried the soft approach. I was nice, patient, good humored, positive, encouraging. (“Of course you’re going to pay me. I understand.”) I visualized success, and imagined the feeling of how good it would be to have this problem out of my hair. (Oh, it was yummy!)
I’d self coached, just like I suggest to my clients and students. I’d worked with a couple of my brilliant go-to coaches and each time, vowed to move forward. And didn’t.
Honestly, though, most of the time, I avoided thinking about it. Months went by, and nothing happened. My positive energy hadn’t gotten results, visualizing success was getting harder, my courage was AWOL, and every day that slipped by was costing me money and peace of mind.
Not a good place for a personal coach who helps people find the courage to overcome their doubts and fears. That didn’t feel good, either.
It was time to get tough and to call in the big guns—a lawyer. And that scared me too, notwithstanding the fact that I am a lawyer.
Late one night as I paced around and contemplated my dilemma, a grand idea struck. I’d create a courage vision board as inspiration. I grabbed a pile of magazines, poster board, scissors and glue, and furiously began thumbing through the magazines, searching for photos of brave deeds, ferocious animals, and deering-do.
But there was one problem.
All I had on hand was a pile of Yoga Journals and O Magazines. Photos of toothy, smiling waifs twisted like pretzels did not inspire courage. Neither did photos of Oprah’s dazzling gowns, luxe vacation home, or Tom Cruise jumping on her couch.
Where were the lions and tigers and bears when I needed them?
And then, serendipity jumped off of the pages of an old Vanity Fair, written shortly after the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in early 2010. Haiti, which has been called “The Best Nightmare on Earth,” has a special place in my heart. I’d been there twice, and it’s people and culture fascinated me. I knew the earthquake was a gargantuan tragedy in a place that was already at the breaking point. The magazine featured an article about Camp Penn, the relief site founded by the actor Sean Penn. Frustrated by the slow and meager response to the crisis from the world’s humanitarian community, and anguished by reports of people enduring unspeakable suffering without so much as aspirin available, Penn took matters into his own hands. He assembled a team of doctors, a supply of morphine and surgical equipment, an airplane, and flew into Haiti. He didn’t ask for permission, he simply took action. Penn personally supervised his operation, despite the huge dangers from the anarchy and panic engulfing the fragile country. The US military was so impressed with his courage and results, that they invited him to set up his operations within the borders of the military base they had established.
And there it was—Courage. In living color. A photo of Penn, squarely planted in a nightmarish, rubble-strewn scene in Haiti, looking as serious as a terminal illness and as mean as a snake. And in an instant, I got it. Sometimes that’s the stance that’s needed, that’s appropriate, that’s essential. Sometimes that’s what right action and love and heart look like.
If Penn could risk his life like that to alleviate suffering, what the hell was I doing draining my energy over collecting a debt, legitimately owed to me and long overdue? Was I waiting for permission from the other person to proceed? (Admittedly, I was. I wanted my money and I wanted to be liked. Oh, yeah, and respected too, for my kindness and restraint.) Was that likely to happen? (Duh. No.) Who was going to give me permission other than myself? Whose approval and respect did I really need here?
That was all the inspiration I needed. I ripped out the photo, clipped it to the lampshade in my office, and started moving forward. Yes, there was a lot of work to do. Yes, it wasn’t easy. Yes, my fears were triggered over and over. And each time they did, I looked at up that photo and asked myself a simple question. WWSD? What would Sean do? Would he hesitate? Hell no! He’d tell his lawyer to move forward, he’d take the action she recommended, and he’d say “Absolutely no more delay for any reason!”
Last month, my first check arrived. It felt so good.
The photo’s still up there on my lampshade, too. Just in case I need it.
Here are some simple exercises to inspire courage when you don’t have any:
1. Find a photograph (from a magazine, the internet, or your personal photo stash) of someone you admire doing something incredibly brave. Mount the photo where you can see it whenever you need a shot of courage. Ask yourself, over and over again: what would they do right now in my situation?
Here are a few examples, but it’s better if you find your own.
Augusto and Michaela Odone, the parents featured in the film Lorenzo’s Oil, who relentlessly searched for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s ALD.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger who masterfully landed a disabled jetliner in New York’s Hudson River, saving the lives of 150 passengers and 5 crew members.
Immaculée Ilibagiza who, during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, stood silently starving in a cramped bathroom with seven other women for 91 days and emerged still infused with hope, spirit, and a heart full of love.
2. Ask yourself: am I waiting for permission or encouragement from the person or situation I need to confront? Then ask if you need their consent or approval, whether you are likely to get it, and what life would be like without it. Ask yourself: am I approving of the way I’m proceeding here?
3. Hire help if you need it—a lawyer, a coach, an expert consultant.
4. Breathe. I’m serious about this. We tend to hold our breath when we’re afraid. Make sure your exhale is as long as your inhale.
5. Proceed forward in tiny little steps. Remember, the first few steps forward are often the hardest.
6. Keep going until the entire job is done. All of it. Each time you get stuck, take one or all of the above steps.