Building Your Bravery Muscles in Midlife

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we build our bravery muscles.

I met a woman, Paula, a couple of weeks ago. Paula’s in her late 40s. She went into corporate marketing right out of college and worked her way up to senior management.

Talking to Paula was like talking to a rain cloud.

I don’t mean that to sound judgey. It’s just that she was so resigned to staying in a life that didn’t do it for her anymore that I felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over her.

There wasn’t much about her life that excited her. Everything was just sort of meh.

I was curious about why Paula didn’t change things up—a new career, a passion project, start dating after her divorce.

So, I asked her.

What would it mean for you to have a full, rich life?

Yeah, I know. That’s a woo-woo question. But Paula stopped for a few moments and just looked at me. Then, tears came to her eyes and she said,

“I’m too afraid of what it would take to have that.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

I’m not brave.”

I learned that Paula’s mother had told her growing up that girls have to play it safe. They can’t take risks. Paula had lived that opinion for 40+ years.

I thought about Paula’s options:

  1. She could believe that she’s not brave and continue to live an unfulfilled life.

  2. She could take on a series of tiny risks until she got to her full, rich life. But that might take years.

  3. She could conquer a short-term BHAC (Big Hairy Audacious Challenge) that would help her create a new bravery belief about herself.

I wanted her to choose #3.

Now, I’m not in the habit of torturing people so my desire to choose the third option was not because I wanted to see Paula suffer.

Here’s why I wanted her to choose Option 3:


I’m going to do a deep dive into saboteurs next week. But, briefly, saboteurs are those voices inside your head that tell you not to do things, that you aren’t smart, brave, strong enough. They are your brain’s way of keeping you safe. Saboteurs hate risk.

The good news is that it is possible to override your saboteurs. It takes practice and taking on bold challenges is a great way to tell your saboteurs to bugger off.


Risk-taking will impact the chemistry of your prefrontal cortex (PFC)—primarily your dopamine and norepinephrine (adrenaline) levels. If you are feeling meh, your PFC may be under-calibrated. Risk-taking, which for many is highly stimulating, might give you just what you need to sharpen your focus and become more motivated.

Note: If you are already highly stressed out, huge risk taking might put you over the edge where you can’t focus. The trick is to find the right level of risk that pushes you just far enough, but not so far that you shut down. (I help my clients find this edge).

(Thank you Ann Betz for this explanation).


Action is the most powerful antidote to fear. And there is neuroscience to back this up. The common phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together” applies here.

If you start taking risks, you can begin to create new neural pathways. And the risks don’t have to be big and bold. Breaking out of habits that keep you stuck will begin the process. You will start to rewire your brain and associate risk taking with confidence, exhilaration and accomplishment.

(Thank you David Johansson and Stephanie Meriaux for their wisdom on this).

I wouldn't give every client a BHAC. Some of us need to push ourselves more gradually into risk taking.

What about you? Are you ready to go bungee jumping or would you prefer to simply switch up the flavor of ice cream usually order?

Have a great week!

Kirsten Bunch