I was speaking recently with a colleague about the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, and the idea that clients benefit from taking a risk in every psychotherapy session. I believe there’s a lot of value to this idea, and that it goes beyond the therapy session itself – I believe it is just as, if not more important for clients (and therapists!) to take risks outside of sessions and in our personal lives. After all, without risk there is no change. When we take a risk, we learn what our capabilities actually are – it is no longer something we have to speculate about, we learn that in this instance we were capable of doing something that we thought we could not. When we take a risk, we learn that fear is something unpleasant but that it is manageable and can be surmounted. When we take a risk, our view of ourselves changes and we become more aware of our strengths and ability to overcome challenging situations.
That is, if we go about it in the right way. As with many things, there are good ways and not so good ways to take risks. If we do it right, we feel more confident and capable after taking a risk – we realise that our capacity has grown and that we are stronger than we thought. If we do it wrong, we can end up feeling more afraid and less capable as a result, and less inclined to take risks again.
When we experience something as a risk it is because of two things. Firstly, there is uncertainty about an outcome and some belief that there is a possibility of loss or harm. Secondly, we feel fear about that possibility. This is true whether the possible harm is physical – in the case of taking a risk on a mountain bike track or while rock climbing, or psychological – in the case of initiating a difficult conversation with a family member. Taking risks effectively involves both assessing realistically the degree of uncertainty and possibility of experiencing harm, and facing our fear about that possibility. We can do this as a series of steps:
First of all, it’s important that we do think about how likely a negative outcome actually is. Our fear usually relates to both how likely something is to happen, and how devastating we perceive it to be if it did happen. For example, most of us don’t experience getting on an aeroplane as particularly frightening or as being much of a risk. This is because although the consequences if something went wrong are potentially huge (death), we know that the chance of this happening is incredibly low. Similarly, most of us don’t see it as much of a risk or particularly frightening to tell a close friend what we think about something. In this case, this is because the potential consequence (that they disagree with us) is not perceived by most people as particularly devastating, even though the chance of it happening is potentially quite high.
Things feel like more of a risk when we believe there is a combination of a reasonable likelihood of something happening (even if we know, rationally, that there isn’t) combined with a sense that a negative outcome would be quite painful or harmful for us. It’s helpful before we take a risk to try and assess, as objectively as we can, both of these things: how likely is a negative outcome, and how bad would it really be if that happened? Sometimes we might reasonably conclude that this is not a risk worth taking – for example, if I’m an inexperienced climber, the idea of free-climbing a difficult mountain carries both a reasonable chance of something going wrong, and a reasonable chance of serious harm if it does. On the flip side, if I’m afraid of approaching a stranger and striking up conversation at a party, I can probably see (even though I don’t feel it) that the chance of something going wrong is probably low to moderate – at worst they might think I’m a bit awkward – and the impact on me if that happens is actually fairly minor.
In order to take risks effectively, it’s important to think about the realistic chances of something going wrong, and how badly that would affect us if it did – and start with the things that might feel scary but which are not actually going to cause us major problems.
The second part of taking risks effectively is facing and understanding our fear about it. Sometimes we take risks by blinding ourselves to our fear and just ‘taking the plunge’. I’m talking about the moment just before you jump off the diving board where you close your eyes, push all thoughts out of your mind and just step forward. Or maybe it’s that moment where you force words out of your mouth because you know that once you start you’ll have no choice but to continue. We all have this capacity to block out our feelings temporarily and ‘just do it’, and sometimes this is helpful – but often this can also create problems for us. If we don’t feel and experience our fear when we take a risk, we also don’t have the experience of overcoming our fear, and so we don’t learn that actually our fear is manageable, tolerable, and that we can act despite our fear.
It’s important that we allow ourselves to feel and know our fear for another reason as well. In order to take risks, we need to try things that make us uncomfortable and anxious, but not terrified, and so we need to notice and assess the level of fear that we feel. If we take risks when our fear is too high, then after doing it, instead of feeling proud and confident in ourselves, we mostly just feel relief or possibly more fear. This can lead to us feeling less inclined to take risks in the future if the overall experience was too unpleasant. This is why the classic desensitisation treatments for phobias don’t involve chucking you in a room full of spiders straight away – instead, you start with a picture of a spider, then a spider at a distance, then closer up etc. The key here is having a gradual exposure to the thing that is frightening so that it becomes easier to tolerate.
Effective risk-taking means noticing our fear, experiencing it and being aware of how it feels in our body, and accepting that it’s okay to feel fear and that we can tolerate it. If it is feeling overwhelming to us to the point that we find ourselves unable to think clearly or feel ourselves panicking, then our level of fear is too high and we should aim to find something more manageable but related to try first.
Once we’ve assessed the probable outcomes and acknowledged and felt our fear about a risk we want to take, the third and final step is to go through with it. Obviously this is easier said than done. It might be helpful at this point to remind yourself of the possible outcomes and the impact of this if you know rationally that they will not be that significant. For example, to remind yourself “If I tell my partner about something that I am unhappy about in the relationship, they might get angry and I might feel guilty about upsetting them – but I can live with that feeling and so can they”. Or perhaps “If I apply for this job, there’s a chance I won’t get it and then I’ll probably feel like I’m not good enough. But there will also be other jobs to apply for, and I can tolerate that feeling”.
You may also find it helpful to use techniques to calm yourself and bring your anxiety down a bit. Breathing techniques or mindfulness skills can both be useful here and are things you can easily practice at home. You probably won’t be able to feel totally calm about the risk you are taking, and it is actually important that you don’t. If you felt totally calm, you wouldn’t be taking a risk and you wouldn’t get the same benefit from the experience. Doing something despite feeling afraid or anxious helps us learn that actually our fear is not insurmountable and that it doesn’t have to hold us back.
If your fear feels at a manageable level and the chances of causing ourselves serious harm are not that high, then all that’s left is to do it!
Taking risks is important both to get the most out of therapy, but also to get the most out of our lives. It enables us to become more than we are now and to achieve things that once might have seemed impossible. However, effective risk taking requires that we be realistic about the possible outcomes, and that we take risks where our fear feels uncomfortable but not unmanageable. That way, when we take a risk we can become more confident in ourselves and more aware of our actual abilities and capacities rather than feeling overwhelmed or weakened by our experience.