How To Be Brave

100116_crowdWhen I walked off the stage after talking about my experience with suicide loss at the Kansas City Out of the Darkness Walk, a woman I’d never met approached me and said, “You are so brave!”

For 20 years, I rarely spoke about my mother’s suicide, and certainly never in public. I tried to ignore the pain and hide the shame, unwilling to forgive myself for the role I believed I played in her decision, and afraid to be labeled, or worse, pitied. I once heard someone speak about their experience, and wished I had the guts to do it myself. I couldn’t imagine being that person.

Fast forward a couple years, and I’ve written and performed a one-man show about my experience for audiences ranging from ages 13 to 83.

Like the woman at the walk, people come up to me after shows and say they admire my bravery, but I’m surprised how many people follow up by saying they wish they could write or speak about their experience, but aren’t “brave enough to put themselves out there like that.”

But they are.

It all starts with a simple concept: bravery is not something you have to be born with. It can be learned and improved upon. You get better at being brave the same way you get better at, say, golf: practice.

Now, like golf, people have different ceilings for their ability. Sometimes you put in hours of practice and win major titles, like Tiger Woods. Sometimes you put in hours of practice and break a three wood over your knee that your wife won’t let you replace because such public fits are — in her opinion — unacceptable for a man your age. The point is, the course is open to the public, and if you show keep showing up, you will start to hit those great shots that keep you coming back.

Here are a couple things that helped me get going:

Start a blog and share your posts (even if you think they suck).

Contrary to popular belief and my behavior on Facebook/Twitter, not every thought needs to be made public. But if you want to write for public consumption, the public has to come into the equation at some point.

When my first son was born, I took the opportunity to finally share my writing. I wrote four posts in the first week, but they seemed to get worse the closer I got to the share button. Finally, I held my nose and put them out there for friends and family to ridicule. But they didn’t, and neither will yours. They will actually tell you your work is better than it really is. That’s ok. In fact, it’s crucial to keep you going early on. Eventually, you need critical feedback, but you can build up those bravery muscles by sharing your crappy early work first.

Take an improv class.

If you live in an area where improv is offered, I highly recommend taking a class. Improv is daunting and difficult, so join other beginners and make fools of yourself together. Nobody gets better or braver without a safe place to fail, and there is no environment where you’ll feel safer failing harder than an improv class.

Note: I took improv to get over my stage fright enough to do standup comedy open mics. That was exactly the right order. Standup is easier in that you get to prepare your material and practice it, but much tougher in that the audience is often made up of other comics and they are not impressed. Standup comedy is a masters course in bravery, not a level 1 course.

Find a support network.

This is specific to sharing personal stories around issues like suicide, mental illness, and substance abuse. Find a group of people who can relate to what you have gone through, and continue to go through. Your story can help people if you share it, but the most important step in sharing your story is truly knowing it.

I didn’t attend a group of any kind for 19 years after my mom died. In the two years since I have, I’ve become stronger and more comfortable with everything, largely because I know I’m not alone.

There is no substitute for people to confide in and learn from. Find those people, and you’ll find yourself.

So there it is. Go write. Go talk. Get brave. I know you have it in you.

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