Braving the leap: our motivation for embracing risks and the fear behind avoiding them

It seems that I have been encountering numerous circumstances that involve risk-taking lately, both in my own life and with some of my clients.  This interesting connection is not a coincidence, but, I believe, a necessary sign that risk-taking is a major factor in achieving our goals in life.  Personally, I am currently taking risks that involve my career path, such as donating more time to growing it and pooling many of my own resources so that I can create the fulfilling and vibrant practice of which I dream.  I know that without this dedication and perseverence, my career will not have the foundation to bloom into a lifelong successful practice in which I help clients on every walk of life.

Risk-taking is also a crucial element in finding recovery in eating disorders and other types of complicated issues.  Lately, I have been gently encouraging several clients to look at what types of risks they are currently facing and how they can tackle those opportunities to enhance a life in recovery and wellness.  These parallels between my own path and those of my clients are not surprising or rare; I find often in my therapy practice that experiences from my own life (present-day or in the past) can aid me in empathizing with clients’ stories and showing them that results can be produced by making changes in their lives — and taking risks. 

Where do you take risks in your life — personal, professional, and a combination of both?  What motivates you to take that risk, and what holds you back from leaping?  I would say out of my own experience, fear and anxiety about “what’s going to happen if I jump?” can dictate a course of action (or inaction).  Just like jumping off of a cliff, you do not know where this risk will take you and if you will fall flat on your face or if you will soar to solid ground (the healthy way to look at is is not in extremes but in the balanced middle ground — you may encounter some turbulence along the way).  The push-pull of the decision making process emotionally takes into account past risks that you have (or haven’t) taken and filters them into the present day situation.  It can be overwhelming to combine all of these factors in making a decision and sometimes the adrenaline of embracing a risky situation propels us into leaping without looking where we’re going.

Who’s to say there’s a correct way to evaluate risks?  In many ways, we take risks each and every day that we may not be aware of (if you are prone to paranoia and worrying I would caution you about the next few sentences).  We risk while walking through each street intersection that the stopped cars will not spontaneously lurch forward and hit us or that while driving at high speeds on the highway that the car in the next lane will not suddenly swerve into your car.  We risk that electricity will power our lights each day and that the water will run from our faucets.  We risk that the loved one we sent off to work in the morning will return again in the evening.  Unfortunately, some of these very risks come dreadfully true for unlucky souls.  However, the majority of the time taking these risks does not harm us and in fact pushes us forward on our daily paths.

In eating disorder recovery, we must risk tasting and consuming new foods — a threat to the exact nature of the eating disorder.  What will happen if we do?  We might gain some weight or have an emotional reaction to this risk.  But what can you gain from it (no pun intended)?  Self-confidence, health, and hope for a peaceful and eating disorder-free life.  In recovery from sexual abuse, we must eventually try to form new relationships with members of the sex that assaulted us and left emotional and physical scars.  Trust is a significant aspect of taking risks — we must feel certain that our teammates will be there to catch us when we fall backwards.  Similarly, we must trust that taking the risk to open up to a new partner will not retraumatize us, or that if it does that our partner will support whatever healing process we must embark upon.

As someone who has taken quite a few risks in her life and would like to take a few more, I know that I would not have the awareness, competency, and curiosity that I possess if I had not opened myself to taking several big leaps.  I also know that I have so much more to learn and experience.  If you have a risk or opportunity presenting itself to you — don’t shy away.  Look at it.  What is it whispering to you?  What could you learn from it?  What does it tell you about yourself?  How could it help you color the path toward your dreams?

Expressing ourselves (or not) in therapy

I have been on both sides of “the couch”.  I have been a client for many years and currently also inhabit the role of therapist with my own clients.  I know how it feels to sit and talk to someone who you do not know on a personal level but still feel this uncanny and close connection to.  I also am familiar with the sensation of sitting down with a client, sensing that certain natural anxiety that accompanies every session (even if I’ve been meeting with that person for a long time).  Both therapists and clients have feelings and reactions.  That is in part why people become therapists: because they can empathize, feel, and connect so deeply with their clients. Experts at adoption specialist Becca Leitman speaks about their experience when clients come to therapy, they would like to sort through some of the feelings and reactions they have to life circumstances…or to try to understand why they DON’T have feelings or reactions to those circumstances.

Feelings and emotions are natural and normal, and everyone has them.  In therapy, where the room is safe and secure and there is a degree of comfort between client and therapist, emotions can play and explore the open air between the participants.  A psychotherapy blog that I read talks about reactions that clients might have towards their therapists or towards a situation that are really not about that certain thing at all.  Psychodynamic therapists call this projection.  In this blog, the writer talks about feeling angry at her therapist and feeling that “the connection was lost” between them.  As she works through this with her therapist, she realizes that she was upset with him because he was going on vacation for three weeks and she feared being lonely and losing her identity without him.  Through this confrontation, she was able to work with her therapist towards developing more autonomy and she explored defense mechanisms that, according to psychodynamic theory, have been in place since the age of three.

In the above example, we can see how a reaction to a situation brought out some deep-seated feelings that the client was unaware of herself, and processing these with her therapist allowed her more freedom and release.  This is an instance where the timing was right (the client was able and ready to go to the level of processing she needed to) and the relationship was built from enough trust that the two could sort through some uncomfortable feelings.  But those circumstances are not always in place.  Sometimes, the client is not able to yet make the steps towards understanding the deeper levels of his/her reactions and feelings, or the therapist is not prepared to hold the anxiety of such a situation and may allow her own feelings to enter the picture.

I have had clients expose a wide variety of emotions in session, and I am grateful that those clients felt safe enough with me to allow me to see them.  There have been clients who have let me into their deepest thoughts, thoughts that they sometimes do not feel are “okay” to have.  When working through challenging situations, such as when clients are trying to recover from an eating disorder, thoughts and feelings that have not been allowed to come out for fear of rejection can enter the therapy room.  This is a healthy dynamic of the therapeutic process, as clients feel accepted despite their struggles.  It is crucial that both therapist and client are prepared to work with these sensitive emotions when they are expressed, as they could be stuffed back down at any sign of judgment.

Fear of judgment or being unaccepted can be presented in forms of anxiety, withdrawal, dismissal, and aggression.  I had a client that I had been working with for a long time whose eating disorder was spinning out of control.  I could tell that she was terrified of this disorder because she felt torn between two very powerful forces: the temptation and addiction of the eating disordered behaviors, and the desire to be healthy and free.  We worked for months exploring this tug of war and attempting to empower the voice of recovery that was buried inside of her.  When we finally got to the point of challenging the eating disorder, she responded with anger and retreated back inside.  The anger was a natural reaction that, if given the chance to work through it, could have been a tool for her to turn against the disorder.  However, we did not get to explore that possibility and she never returned.

Timing and readiness for change are essential components to progress in therapy.  The therapist must have the tools and experience needed to help support clients as they take steps towards expressing themselves freely and finding those answers that they came into treatment to uncover.  One of the most difficult things for therapists to accept is if their clients are not yet ready for change.  This is something only the client can decide, as it is ultimately their work.  Through my learnings and wanderings as a therapist, I have come to accept that clients will make that commitment when they are ready and that is it my role to support them (and not push them) as they grow.