The Anatomy of Brave.

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The core of her email– summed up into a pretty, little nutshell– was simple: You’re not brave. You might be this or you might be that, but you’re not brave. And you shouldn’t bother telling people that you’re brave because you’re too young to be brave, and life hasn’t hit you fully enough for you to be brave, and your life is too pretty to be brave. You need to do x, y, & z before you think you’re brave. Basically, you need to “LIVE A LITTLE” before you get to call yourself brave.

That’s the more eloquent version of the email that greeted me first in my inbox this morning. It was in response to a status I put up yesterday about handing in my first round of book rewrites and feeling in all of it, for the first time in my life, that I was brave. And I’d be all sorts of lying to you if I said I didn’t read the email, digest it, get a little sad, and call my best friend to ask her for a vent session so that I could keep this email from ruining my morning.

I know these kinds of words from a stranger aren’t supposed to matter to me. I’ve read all the advice from other writers who suggest you just tack on the line “Hi, I am a complete stranger dropping into your inbox to give you some advice on your own life…” before you read a single sentence and it will somehow soften the blow. But it doesn’t take away from the truth: words sting. Words cut. As one of my readers once told me, “Words can be weapons or balms, depending on how we use them.” And it hurts to read what people actually think about you– whether their addressing you out of truth, anger, jealousy, or genuine concern.



I get these emails. It’s not the first time. They can be a lot harsher than this. They can be a lot quicker. They can simply say, “I think you should die and I am going to go on wearing my leggings as pants.” Right on, you should. These emails arrive. And I still read most of them. And I brush it off after a few moments. And I have to make a real effort not to carry these negative words around with me for the rest of the day.

And I was never actually going to give this message from a girl who doesn’t know me a second thought until I realized that this email really bothered me. And it wasn’t her anger that bothered me, it wasn’t her mean words, it was just this: You don’t actually get to stand beside someone and tell them whether or not they’ve reached a level of bravery. You don’t actually get to determine what does or does not make a person brave, or lovely, or worthy, or good. That’s not your right. That’s not your calling. That’s just a tactic to try to keep someone else from reaching their full potential. If you ask me, the world already has enough of that floating around.



We’re surrounded by it. The negativity. It brews. And it’s thick. And it’s real. And this email didn’t make me bitter, it made me very genuinely worried. Because, you see, I have thick skin. And I can take criticism. But I remember a time when that wasn’t the case. And I remember that I was just waiting for someone to come and shut me up so I could use it as an excuse to never move and never try and never push and never break the box I kept putting myself in. I was hungry for someone to tell me I couldn’t do something because, as strange as it seems, I wanted to use that as an escape route for never stepping out there and daring to get my heart a little mangled by the chase of it all. And so truthfully, this email made me really worried for the person who can’t easily say that they’re strong when it comes to these kinds of things. It makes me really worried because we are surrounded by people who want to tell us what we can or cannot be and I guess I’m just really worried that you might be listening to them.



The things I face on my own journey call me to approach new levels of bravery that are relative for me on a daily basis. Bravery might look different to you. We all have different experiences with bravery, we all different ideas of it. To some, bravery is chemotherapy treatments that they endure week after week after week just to survive and keep scribbling in a leather-bound journal about the sunsets. To others, bravery is finding a way to feed 5 hungry mouths at the end of each day. To some, bravery is just being able to get out to bed and try. That, to some, takes a mammoth amount of bravery– to just stomach themselves in a mirror or stand in the middle of a relationship though they haven’t been honestly able to say since last September, “I love him. And I want to be faithful to him. And even when he hurts me, I stay.”

Here is the truth about bravery. Here is her essence– she can’t defined by a measuring cup or a yardstick or a square foot. Bravery isn’t the kind of thing you measure, it is the kind of thing you activate. It’s pretty obvious to everyone– we walked into a life that isn’t always kind or bearable or comfortable or good and it takes a real chunk of bravery to just get through a day sometimes.

Bravery– if you ask me– is the day my best friend told me that she was getting sober and I watched her hands tremble over the hurdles of what would come next. Bravery– if you ask me– is watching a dear friend of mine raise four beautiful children with all the grit she’s got, and showing up for those children even when she is tired & broken & worn. That, my friends, is titanical bravery to me. Bravery– if you ask me– is the day he was diagnosed with cancer and the only response on his lips was this, “I will fight this thing. I will be relentless and I will fight this thing.” Bravery– if you ask me– is just her showing up at my door, the one with the big red handle, and speaking the truth out loud, “I want more. I have been afraid to say it for a really long while but I want more for this life of mine.”

So no, you don’t get to stand here and tell someone that a hurdle that has taken them years to finally get over is something they should have learned to limbo under several yesterdays ago. That’s not kind. That’s not true. That’s just small.



And that is exactly the problem with the culture we are standing inside of today: we are constantly dictated by people that tell us that bravery is Elsewhere. And beauty is Elsewhere. And life, or a life you can actually be proud of, is Elsewhere. And Elsewhere is just a flimsy little measure we never plan to reach but it does its justice in keeping us from showing up to the life we’ve been given for this moment. Elsewhere is just a defense mechanism that allows you to keep your fists clenched and your heart not open to what life could look like when you grant it the permission to take your heart and run with it.

And as long as someone is telling us that we still need to do this and that and the other thing before we finally arrive into a space of worth, we get content with wasting space. And we don’t show up. And we stay on the insides of ourselves, just trying to fix every little thing that other people have told us is wrong, hoping we will eventually fix enough that we become adequate to help someone else. And darling, that’s not gonna amount to bravery, it’s only going to look cowardly of us in the end.

The criticism won’t stop coming. Really, it won’t. It will show up in big boxes and tiny vessels. At your front door and at your back window. And it will invite in the doubt & the fear & the worries. You make the action plan that gets you out of the grips of these things but it will surely keep coming. I can’t make many promises but I can promise you that.

No matter how far you go, or whatever kind of success or failure meets you, or whatever you do that seems noble or good or quite the opposite, people will continue to try to kick you down. They will try to tell you you’re not good enough. They will try to convince you that you’re not brave. That is the way of life. You can call it insecurity. You can call it anger. You know what, don’t even waste your time trying to give it a name. Just please don’t let it be the thing that keeps you from starting. You’re not supposed to stay standing in that one spot for too long.


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48 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Brave.

  1. I couldn’t help but think you might find these words helpful, as said by the wonderful Brene Brown: “I can’t be paralyzed anymore by the critics. My new mantra is, if you’re not in the arena [of being vulnerable] getting your ass kicked on occasion, then I’m not interested in your feedback. You don’t get to sit in the cheat seat and criticize my appearance or my work with mean-spiritedness if you’re also not in the arena. Now, if you’re also in the arena and you’re putting your ideas out and you’re owning them and you’re saying “I disagree with you about this and that, I think you’ve got this wrong” — then not only do I invite that, I freaking love that. I love that.”

    You get to not only BE in your arena Hannah but you also get to define it – and whatever bravery or vulnerability (same thing) means to you, own it, love it, embrace it, mess up, forgive yourself, get back up, and go kick ass all over again. You go girl!

  2. I’ve heard the snide & condescending way that people define bravery to our faces. And honestly, it’s the worst thing in the world. Yes, we should be grateful that we overcame our bravery or rather despite the obstacles still somehow manage to stay standing, but that doesn’t mean that her bravery is any more or any less than mine. Or that either or one of us isn’t actually brave because God forbid we aren’t battling death.
    But it isn’t just bravery that people decide to box up. There are so many other aspects that we are ridiculed for.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, Hannah! I would give you a big hug right now if i could! You deserve one!

  3. Kudos on leaving the email sting aside. Which is sooo hard sometimes. WE all feel that in the digital age. For me…sometimes being “brave” means being able to admit that at this moment—I am holding on to nothing. Not one whit of bravery. Like sweet surrender to the moment. Because invariably, it comes back when ready. Something special in just allowing fear/discomfort to pop up and flow away. At least that helps for moi:)

  4. This girl who says you’re not brave has clearly she never put her heart into pages and handed it to someone for scrutiny and criticism and rejection. That’s brave. That takes the kind of guts that most people don’t have. Maybe I’m young and have not “lived a little” as your email would say, but I believe someone should inform the peanut gallery that you would not be where you are today if you had not dared to be brave with your heart, with your words, with your calling. You, my dearest Hannah, are one of the bravest souls I’ve ever discovered. You challenge me, you call me out, you invest your heart in the lives of people you’ve never met. That’s brave. That’s beautiful. I’m grateful. Thank you.

  5. Age does not equal brave. Experience does not equal brave. Brave, your brave=brave. I don’t have to one -up you to feel brave. I know what it feels like to me, and you are so right- no one has the right to tell me whether something is, or is not brave. Some things I do, others think are brave but the truth is that there is a million things I do that I think is brave, that are entirely kept secret. Because it is scary. And no one knows that I am high five-ing myself because I know how hard, and how much bravery it took, to do that seemingly to others, small thing. But it was momentous to me…Brave=brave.

  6. Keep it coming.  Misery loves company and don’t be good company to those who are trying to drag you down.  Do what feels brave to you, however big or small.  You are brave!!!!

    Kimberly Neagle Smith, Paralegal Harsh & Harsh Gallatin, TN

  7. Just jealousy and her desperately wanting to feel smug and superior to someone, possibly anyone else. Great words of advice and wisdom – yes, you are old enough to have gained wisdom, ha! As you say no one can say what another’s goals, fears and emotions are about so no one has the right to judge someone’s personal success. Women are constantly made to feel that we aren’t quite enough aren’t we, no wonder we are so keen to judge ourselves harshly!

  8. Bravery is not defined by how old you are and how much you’ve seen life. Bravery lies in things as basic as deciding to look into our issues and facing ourselves naked with all the layers of brushing up and lies peeled off. It lies in speaking up for ourselves when we stand alone. You do justice to the concept of bravery, Hannah. Keep up the good spirit!

  9. Reblogged this on The Self-Reclamation Project and commented:
    On Day 5 of my Self-reclamation challenge, this blog post by one of my new favorite bloggers, Hannah Brencher, was just what I needed to read. Because sometimes I forget how brave I am. I get lost in all of these inadequacies and self-doubt and I listen to that little voice in my head that says “Just stop, it’s no use. You’ll never be this or that. Just GIVE UP.”
    So, thank you, Hannah B., and to everyone else who has helped me stand tall and stake my claim on this beautiful, crazy life of mine. Even when I have my bad days, like yesterday, where I forget to be a light-bearer, and instead, through fire around because I’m still growing and healing and still hurting sometimes . . . even then . . . even now. As long as I get right back up and keep going, keep pushing, keep trucking along, I am strong, I am good, I am enough. I am brave. ❤

  10. I chose Brave as my word for the year, and oh how I’ve started to regret that. And the brave things I’ve been tackling in my life probably look mild on the outside but they’re big for me. Thank you for the reminder than bravery is different for everyone!
    “Bravery isn’t the kind of thing you measure, it is the kind of thing you activate.” – Great line!

  11. Wheeeeww!!!! That email definitely got you going! But hallelujah! Right On!! Awesome, wise and BRAVE words Hannah – they have needed saying for so long! Perfect encouragement to those struggling with a brave issue of their own – especially the writer of that email. I pray that writer finds healing for the hurting and broken spirit which caused them to write such hurtful words to you. Hope your book rewrites go well!

  12. Dear Hannah (You brave heart of a girl) Where is there a ballot box that the letter writer voted, who is brave and who is not? And who asked for her vote? Age has no hold on brave. Pay this person little attention dear girl and keep sharing your written words for all of us here that love what you write and who you are. I vote the letter writer off our island!

  13. Bravo, brave girl! I know what it is to hit publish and feel brave for baring your soul. And i know what it is to keep the fingers from typing for months, even when you know it’s in part what you were born to do, because you let the hardness of the life let you down and let you believe lies that you’re really not brave enough to do this thing called life, let alone write-so you might as well pull up the covers and crack open another carton of Ben and Jerry’s half-baked. I’ve been feeling this burning, this readiness to clack keys and be brave. To live life and let it spill onto the screen so people like me can read words like yours and remember nobody can tell me what brave means to me, what it requires of me-everything of me, but it’s the only thing that’ll liberate me. It is. Your bravery inspires bravery. Thanks, Hannah.

  14. So many of this will stay with me… but the biggest part, the most important part for me is how we don’t get to tell someone if they are brave or not. We don’t have the right to define someone like that. There does seem to be a counter movement… one with a mission of keeping people small… and I do think, unfortunately, many are listening. But it doesn’t have to win. It won’t win… because love wins. And being brave wins. I’m sure the person who emailed feels pretty knocked down by life, but dare I quote Taylor Swift? “the cycle ends right now…You can’t lead me down that road” — (I totally went there, didn’t I?) And I’m so glad you are writing books. And you will write books and books and books and books. 🙂

  15. I love this, because people truly cannot tell you how to feel, or that your definition of love or happiness or bravery is wrong. Our differences are what make us wonderful, and we are all at different steps of our own individual journeys.

  16. My favorite part…”that’s just small” People who thrive on making others feel small…its cowardly and weak. You are in that arena Hannah the critics will point and sneer…You. Are. The. Brave. Don’t let them take it from you girl!

  17. Awesome!

    It amazes and saddens me how anyone can take it upon themselves to define another person. In my experience (50 years) we have a hard enough time knowing our own selves, much less inside anyone else!

    I like your take on the criticism: it WAS small, an indication of someone who makes themselves feel better by bringing others down. A definite mark of our current society all the way from bottom (preschool) to top (government). It’s disheartening sometimes, for me, and works a kind of negative magic in my soul, pushing me to give up. Posts like yours inspire me to keep going.

    Thank you for sharing this difficult email with us!

  18. Again you have taken an experience I believe most have had at some point, so eloquently and powerfully expressed it, and thank you for that. Feelings are perspective in my opinion. We can empathize, but never fully feel that ourselves, its personal to that individual’s experience, so why not just allow them the room to feel, to express, to grow? By doing so, allowing our own selves to feel discomfort of other’s pain, or celebrate their victories. I have to remind myself quite often to just “listen” not advise, fix, insert one’s agenda, etc. Simple acknowledgement can go very far. Don’t we all just want to be loved and acknowledged, to matter? Is it so very hard to allow that other’s light to shine? You are a most brilliant light Hannah, with such a powerful, positive message, so shine on, and keep showing the way!

  19. Hannah,
    You are one of the bravest young women that I know. Jumping into everything like you do. Bravery to me, means taking a chance to really live while you are alive instead of hiding in the shadows. Look at what you’ve done for lonely folks everywhere. Reaching out and touching a soul in need with your love letters, raw writing here on the blog and in your new book.

    keep being brave!

    Giulietta The Muse

  20. Another quote that gives another dash of perspective to your point: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” -Wendy Mass

    Your battle, my battle, his battle, her battle… it’s not a battle for who’s battle is the “hardest” or the “most meaningful.” Everyone’s battle is the hardest and most meaningful, and all we should really do as humans is jut be kind and once and a while say, “Hey I may not understand you, but I support you.” I think you are doing JUST fine, Ms. Brencher.

    Bisous from France,

  21. Kipling said it best:

    “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    but make allowance for their doubting too”

    The hardest part is knowing *when* to listen to the doubts (that sometimes manifest as ‘negative criticism’) of others. Not all feedback will be constructive, which is a pity, but the real tragedy is the struggle we face to discern whose opinions to give credence to. This is not a maturity that is perfected in a day, month or week – but it takes time.

    Well done in dealing with this particular matter with the serenity and reflective contemplation. But remember, the learning does not stop here…. 🙂

    With best regards,

  22. YES! Here’s to Bravery in all its shapes, sizes, forms and ways of appearing. Needed this, glad I saved it for today. Hugging you HARD.

  23. I don’t mean to just re-paste your own blog here, but I needed to tell you that I want to make mugs and magnets and posters and postcards out of this paragraph of yours. Because even though it wasn’t the main message of your post, these words are exactly what I needed right now.

    “And that is exactly the problem with the culture we are standing inside of today: we are constantly dictated by people that tell us that bravery is Elsewhere. And beauty is Elsewhere. And life, or a life you can actually be proud of, is Elsewhere. And Elsewhere is just a flimsy little measure we never plan to reach but it does its justice in keeping us from showing up to the life we’ve been given for this moment. Elsewhere is just a defense mechanism that allows you to keep your fists clenched and your heart not open to what life could look like when you grant it the permission to take your heart and run with it.”

  24. Your writing is so heartfelt. It hits someplace inside that inspires and comforts. No matter what it is that i’m going through or what it is that you wrote about it all comes together and brings fresh clarity. Your words have been a sort of compass for me.

  25. Frickin’ awesome response, and mindset. Really great. Seems the ‘new black’ is bagging people who are having a go, and I don’t like it. 👏👏👏

  26. Bravery is not a matter of age. I’ve known kids that are incredibly brave and adults that are cowards. And it can be different for everyone. 🙂 There’s always going to be those who feel better about themselves by bringing others down. Just realize it’s not that you’re doing anything wrong, it’s their own insecurity.

  27. Criticizing someone’s bravery is like invalidating their creativity, their sexuality, their spiritual realtiy. It’s criticizing their unique life force. And that’s worthy-of-a-punch-in-the-throat territory.

    I hear you in this post, I really do. I’ve walked through several invisible hells in this life, but it doesn’t show on my young-looking woman’s face, or my neat appearance, or my “formal” way of talking, which I just got hammered for by a drunk “friend” this past weekend. And so, what? I have nothing to offer? I’m naive, because my outsides don’t match the crazy wreck I often feel inside? I’d be even MORE judged if they DID match!

    There’s no way to win against the sick,sad folks that feel compelled to take you down. So I’ve taken refuge in “fuck you”. Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me if I’m brave or not, or wise, or sexy, or good. I know I am. And if a person wasn’t there to help, then they can’t stick around to judge.

  28. I am in awe of how you turned a not-nice email into a blog post with such soul to it. I ate up your words. My favorite part was where you talked about ‘elsewhere’ and how we are constantly saying everything is outside of ourselves, somewhere else, somewhere further down the line – as a mechanism to avoid being that thing, having that thing, doing that thing now. Going to go listen your TED talks now that I’ve been inspired from this one little post already!

  29. There is so much truth here.. Let it go. I’m currently learning to refuse the lies that I am not making a difference, and the big vague idea that somewhere out there I will finally arrive. Good gracious, I don’t have time for that. Best to you.

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