Taking Risks Can Be Scary. Not Taking Them Can Be Depressing

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Taking Risks Can Be Scary. Not Taking Them Can Be Depressing

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
- T.S. Eliot 

Love this T.S. Elliot quote, and it made me wonder, “What is ‘going too far’ for you?”  Is it saying or doing something others may not like?  What about saying what you need or letting someone know how you feel? If you’re at a meeting, is it “going too far” to speak up? Is it “going too far” to let yourself be vulnerable?  If your answer is “yes” then I would say, you are holding back and you may never find out how far you can go.

It is easy to get caught up in the fear of the unknown – to risk rejection, disapproval, failure - and stay within our “comfort zones.”  Boundaries that may have protected us from “going too far” at difficult and painful points in our lives may have, over the years, become a part of “who we are.”  Exploring how these boundaries were created can be an important step towards opening up the possibility of expanding our capacity to take risks.  Taking risks can feel like stepping out of character, becoming other than who you are.  Yes, indeed, trying out what’s out of character is a risk worth taking! It is in actively creating new ways of being “who we are” that we can truly experience the joy of living.  Embracing risks allows us to break free from the shackles of fear and the boundaries that hold us back and experience life to its fullest. It can open doors to new experiences, opportunities, and personal growth.

Empowering Yourself to Embrace Risks: The First Step

Fear, of course, is a human emotion.  In our culture, fear is considered a weakness.  We have learned to keep our fears private, experience them alone, often shamefully.  Yet, when we do share our fears or anxiety, the advice we often get is that we need to overcome or conquer them in order to move forward.  In my experience, this advice has led to further paralysis, holding back from taking risks until the fear is overcome or conquered.   However, here’s the good news: fear and anxiety, as I mentioned above, are human emotions.  They do not have to hold us back from pursuing our dreams and aspirations.  Rather we can embrace our fears and take risks with our “knees knocking.”  Yes, it’s possible to move forward with our fears! We can pursue what we want, what we need to say, what we need to do with “our knees knocking.”  Whether it’s the fear of failure, rejection, or the unknown, if we create the support we need, we can begin to do and say things that magically seem beyond ourselves. 

Fear of Losing Approval

I remember a client I once worked with, a young college student, who majored in a subject her parents groomed her for.  It was supposed to lead to the perfect career. She enrolled in courses based on this trajectory and found herself depressed, skipping classes, generally unmotivated and getting poor grades.  Working with her in individual and group therapy, we discovered that her own interests were in the arts, a “forbidden” passion.  She feared her parents would not approve and would withdraw their emotional and financial support!  She began to create support in her therapy group which allowed her to explore and consider changing majors with her “knees knocking,” not knowing how her parents would respond. Of course, none of us knew how her parents would respond!  It was a collective risk we took with her! We moved into the unknown!  Over the course of many months, we helped her build and create with all the conflicted ways her family responded and in the process she developed tools for responding to them.  This was part of her growth.  Today, she continues to take risks and build her relationship with her parents as the adult she is becoming.

Embracing Vulnerability: Embracing Growth

Putting ourselves out there is taking the risk of being vulnerable.  Vulnerability (like fear) is often seen as a weakness, but, in reality, it is a strength.  When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves up to new experiences and connections. It is through vulnerability that we learn, grow, discover and create who we are and create our relationship to others.  Embracing risks requires us to embrace vulnerability.

The Power of Living Life Socially

We accept the notion that children need support to take risks, and, with that support, they tend to be much better risk-takers.  Somehow when we grow up and become adults, we’re supposed to be on our own and needing support is considered a weakness (like fear and vulnerability).  That social norm is holding us back!  We can do so much more and go so much further with others.  The world is an increasingly scary and challenging place.  We’re in it together and we need to get better at building community.  When we have a supportive community, our capacity to take risks expands.  Surround yourself with supportive and encouraging people who believe in you. You will be surprised to discover what you’re capable of!

Fear of Failure

I remember a particular client who struggled with self-doubt and negative thinking, particularly feeling that he was a hopeless failure. Through group therapy, we began to address a gap between how he saw himself and how others saw him.  He saw himself as incompetent, yet in group he was insightful, helpful, attentive, creative and greatly appreciated for his contribution.  The group urged him to consider that he could reframe his thoughts and see himself, in fact, be the person we saw rather than the person he thought he was.  The more he embraced his fear of failure and at the same time took the risk to perform who he wanted to become, the more he was able to take risks and do some new things in his personal and professional life.


Embracing risk is not about being reckless, but rather about building the environment – the community - that supports us stepping outside of our comfort zones, stepping out of character, being vulnerable - and embracing uncertainty.  We are all capable of building and creating our lives and going beyond ourselves!