Why taking risks is good for you

I’m more than a little afraid of heights. But last year, I found out that my local Y was offering a parent/child climbing class-and my son, then 4, had been wanting to try the climbing wall. After watching Ryan effortlessly scramble up, I triple-checked my safety harness, wiped my sweaty hands on my shorts and started my first climb.

I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and forced myself not to look down as I climbed higher, slowly searching for my next handhold. I was shocked-and exhilarated-to discover that I’d made it to the top of the 25-foot wall on my first try!

I decided then to stretch myself more-in short, to take more risks (though I have no intention of going skydiving any time soon). Since then, I’ve started taking spinning and yoga classes, two activities I’d always been nervous about trying.

When psychologists study risk-taking behavior, it’s often in the context of things like taking drugs, engaging in unprotected sex, driving too fast and other activities that can have fatal consequences. So it’s not surprising that we tend to think of risk-taking as overly dangerous.

However, reasonable risk-taking can help you break out of a rut and lead to greater confidence as a woman-and help you be an excellent role model for your children.

The rewards of risk

You don’t have to scale a wall or speak in front of 300 people to feel like you’re taking a risk.

“Risk-taking is a way of going out of your comfort zone,” says clinical psychologist Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., author of The Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Things Done (2010, Gilford). “We limit ourselves by our perceptions of ourselves. If we perceive ourselves as being good at certain things, we want to do them-and if we perceive that we’re not as good at other things, we tend to shy away from them.”

It makes sense, right?

No one likes to look stupid, and the bigger the risk, the scarier it can seem. Your personal risk-taking quotient depends on your personality, the size and type of risk, and how you grew up.

“If you’re in a home environment where people are encouraged to try new things … in that kind of arena, more risk-taking is possible,” says Basco. “But if the risk is too great or the risk of criticism is too high, you may not be willing to do it.”

The potential rewards of a risk will also determine whether you’re willing to take it.

When Julie Devine moved to Downers Grove, she didn’t know anyone in the area. She’d been a working mom until her second daughter was born and she decided to stay home with her children.

“We had moved here when I was pregnant with Jillian, and I just never met anyone because I worked,” says Devine, 36. “So after Lainey was born, and I was home with two, and suddenly feeling more and more isolated, I started stalking the neighborhood on daily walks, trying to spy who had similar toddler toys in their yards. After a few weeks of daily walks, I made up fliers and put them in the mailboxes of the homes I’d identified-total strangers to me-inviting them to my house for a playgroup.”

Devine says it felt like a risk to reach out to people she didn’t know, but her effort was rewarded. “All six moms showed up, and four of them ended up being some of my best friends,” she says. “We’re still friends five-and-a-half years later, and so are all the kids.”

Risk as part of life

You may not think of yourself as a risk-taker, like the firefighters, police officers, pilots and soldiers who encounter danger almost every day. Yet, “risk-taking behavior is what moves the world forward. No change happens if someone doesn’t take a risk,” says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., (aka “Dr. Romance”), author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media, 2008). In fact, even loving someone is a risk, because you might get hurt, she points out.

And is there any bigger emotional risk than becoming a parent?

“Any time we learn something new, we are taking a risk-moving outside the comfort zone,” says Tessina. “Learning new things keeps us motivated, alive, energized. We need a certain (perhaps small) amount of risk to be happy.”

As a parent, there’s another issue as well-you want your children to understand how to evaluate risks so they know the difference between healthy and unhealthy risk-taking. It starts with teaching your children not to touch a stove, or to look both ways and hold a grownup’s hand before crossing the street. But as your children get older, they need to be able to make decisions (like wearing their seat belts, saying “no” to drugs and alcohol and staying safe online) to stay safe and healthy.

Even if you hate taking risks, you must expect your children to want to experiment with “scary” behaviors-that’s a normal part of adolescence.

Look (and plan) before you leap

If taking risks scares you, start off gradually.

“In fact, it’s better to take risks in increments,” says Basco. “If you’re worried about failure don’t take a giant leap-just take a small step. Sometimes it’s just gathering information.”

That information helps you determine the risk/benefit ratio. What are the potential benefits of taking the risk? Could the experience be fun, help you grow or make your life more interesting? And consider the potential risks. Could you lose money, invest your time in something that turns out to be worthwhile, or look foolish (at least in your own eyes)?

Consider Julie Devine-she could have worried about looking needy or lonely to her neighbors. Instead, she wound up with lifelong friends.

Show your kids how you evaluate risks. For example, if you’re training for a 5K race for the first time, you might say that you’re nervous about not being able to finish, but that you’re excited about challenging yourself in a new way.

“Learn to take calculated risks yourself, so you can teach your kids from what you know from your own experience,” says Tessina. “Talk to your kids about the benefits and problems associated with risk. Compare the reckless risks of drugs and extreme behavior with the risks that bring rewards, like trying something new, loving someone or being emotionally open.”

And if you’re not a risk-taker by nature, don’t worry-you don’t have to suddenly ditch your usual routine in favor of a new job, a new home and a new hairstyle all at once.

“Make it a calculated risk-figure out in advance what you might lose or gain,” says Tessina. “Take small risks at first, if you’re not used to it, and grow into the bigger risks.”

Those bigger risks-the ones that take you outside of your comfort zone-can feel scary as first. But they’ll also help you grow as a person, and help teach your kids to embrace appropriate risks-while hopefully avoiding the ones that can be truly dangerous.

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