After talking down a gunman who’d invaded the Georgia elementary school were she works, Antoinette Tuff has gone from district bookkeeper to national hero (even President Obama called her). And she certainly is deserving of the accolades: Her quick-thinking likely saved the school—and the country—from another horrific massacre.
But her bravery wasn't bravado, rather it came from a deeper place insider her. Talking both to an emergency dispatcher and the 20-year-old gunman, Michael Brandon Hill, she sympathized with Hill's story of mental illness, telling him, "It's going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, though, okay? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you're just giving up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life. I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I'm still working and everything is okay."
While many of us have a difficult time even imagining what we'd do in such a situation, Avichai Feld, an Israeli Defense Forces veteran with Strides, a Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) program that provides special prosthetics for wounded vets, can empathize, as he lost one hand and all feeling in the other during an armed confrontation. And he has good news if you are unsure if you’d be tough enough in a crisis situation.
“Bravery is something that you learn," he says. "It is all about the education and values you have been raised with. In times of danger your instincts tell you to run away and save yourself, but bravery means doing the right thing, regardless of the fear."
So how exactly do you learn to be a hero?
1. Do something—anything. "Fear paralyzes you, especially when you are under life-threatening danger," Feld explains. So it's important to unfreeze and take some action. What that action is will be different in every situation, but just knowing that you can act is empowering. “Bravery is overcoming your emotional instincts to do the right thing that is expected of you, even though it’s against your nature," he says. And don't be afraid to make mistakes; doing something is always better than nothing.
2. Know that it's okay to be afraid and that being scared doesn't mean you're not brave. "Bravery is not the absence of fear," says Barbara Markway, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. In fact bravery doesn't always feel good, at least not in the moment, and you need to learn to tolerate the discomfort and just allow yourself to feel what you are feeling, she adds.
3. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Feld says that the most important thing that got him through his battle experiences was his belief in a higher power, and Tuff also credited God in an interview with CNN. "Believe that somebody or something is watching over you, guarding you, and expects you to do the right thing,” Feld says. “This helped me to overcome any obstacle."
4. Be a girl. You may have been told that girls are princesses in the tower while men are the brave knights, but in a 2004 study published in American Psychologist, researchers found that women, by a large margin, perform more heroic acts than men. Which isn't to say that men are bad or that women are better but simply that it is in your nature to be your own hero!
5. Practice taking risks. Acts of heroism are heroic because they are terribly risky, so it's no surprise that in the 2004 study "risk taking" was one of the highest personality traits correlated with being heroic. But even if you're not usually a risk taker, Markway points out that "being brave in the everyday" by practicing taking the lead or stepping out of your comfort zone even in little things can make you more willing to do so during a crisis.
6. Stay optimistic. Feld emphasizes hope in the face of difficult situations. "Believe that everything will be all right at the end of the day and hold by your values because this conviction will give you courage to succeed."
7. Be aware of the "bystander effect." Most people's instinct when something terrible is happening is to assume that someone else will take care of it and that that person doesn’t need help, a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. But you don't have to be a bystander! A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found the best way to stop being a bystander and start being a hero is simply to be aware of it. Once people know this effect exists, they quickly overcome it.