There was a time in my life when the idea of taking risks short circuited my brain and made me break out in a cold sweat. I was raised to believe that life is to be lived cautiously and safely, so I followed the well-worn path laid out in front of me. I went to college, chose to enter the mental health field, and did everything I could to set myself up for career success. This included dedicating myself to unpaid internships, foregoing countless vacations and other fun experiences, earning a Ph.D., and working full time throughout all of it. For me, becoming a therapist meant that I would get to make a living doing what I’ve always felt called to do: serve and support others. But early into the process, I decided that it also meant I would earn far less than most professionals my age. I convinced myself that it was enough for me to get to do the work I love, and that I didn’t need to earn much money to be happy. As long as I could pay my bills and gradually whittle down my student loan debt, I’d be satisfied.
When it came to my academic and professional life, I’d always taken the paint-by-number approach: I followed the rules and did things the way I was told they should be done. So when I finally earned my license and doctoral degree, I didn’t consider too many possibilities beyond the ones presented to me. I took a position as a lead therapist and director at a treatment facility and began the long, steady journey toward retirement. Most days I loved going to work. I was passionate about what I was doing, and I liked the security of getting the same sum deposited into my bank account every two weeks. But not long after accepting this position, a series of events in my personal life set a new process in motion—one that would have me question the value of playing it safe.
Just a couple of weeks after defending my doctoral dissertation, I got married to my long-term boyfriend. I had my doubts about the relationship, but not wanting to challenge conventions or face the prospect of taking a risk, I followed through with the plan to take my vows. On that day, and every day afterward, I knew that I’d made a mistake. In my efforts to avoid rocking the boat or stepping into uncharted territory, I’d committed myself to a life that didn’t feel right for me. While I struggled to adjust to my relationship at home, my experience at work was also getting more and more challenging. I began feeling underappreciated and undervalued, and the prospect of continuing to trade my time and energy for the paycheck I was earning started to become unbearable. I felt like I was coming apart at the seams; I developed insomnia and was frequently overwhelmed by anxiety. Though every piece of me knew that something needed to change, I was terrified by the idea of stepping out of my comfort zone and altering the predictable life I’d created.
Six months into my marriage, things reached a boiling point, and I decided that I’d had enough. I ended the relationship and followed through with my divorce, trusting that I was doing the right thing while simultaneously questioning my sanity. I anxiously wondered what would become of me, but I trudged forward anyway, as courageously as I could. I’ve never been so terrified in my life; but the truth is, I’ve also never felt so alive. Ironically, just a couple of months after finalizing my divorce, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which took my father’s life when I was 10 years old. Just as I was getting my bearings, I once again found myself unsteady and uncertain. I was so far out of my depth that sometimes I felt like I was drowning. But I committed myself to healing and did everything I could to keep my head above water.
It wasn’t long after getting my diagnosis that I realized the gifts I’d been given. I realized that life was showing up for me through these challenging events to help me see that safety and predictability are illusions of the mind, and nothing is promised. My divorce and my cancer, which I refer to as my greatest teachers, got me to realize that I didn’t need to fear the unknown, because it would show up anyway, and avoiding risks to avoid discomfort is no way to live. When everything I thought I knew got thrown into question, I finally got the courage to start doing some intentional questioning of my own. I looked at the professional life I’d set up and considered the prospect of continuing to do things the same way I’d been doing them. Then I turned my attention inward and—emboldened by the reality that life is precious and time is priceless—asked myself: “What do I want?” The answers that arose spontaneously to that question didn’t match up to the reality of my circumstances at the time. So I started the work of redesigning my career plan, once again freefalling out of my comfort zone.
It’s been less than two years since I made the decision to work for myself and carve out a new path for my career and life. I won’t lie, I’ve had my moments of questioning my decision and longing for the comfort and safety of a benefits package and steady paycheck. But I haven’t once regretted the risks I finally started taking to stop playing small and start living life on purpose. The life I now live is rich, meaningful, exhilarating, and fulfilling. I love the freedom I’ve claimed, and it thrills me to know that whether I thrive or perish in business is completely up to me. I know that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and I continue to see the many upsides of following a more conventional career path. But my personal experiences have led me to see that the less tethered life is for me.
Through my journey, I‘ve learned that most of the things we want in life reside on the other side of fear. If we can muster up the courage to look fear in the face and take a bold step in the direction of our dreams, we can have what we want. I’ve learned that we don’t have to settle for the life we’ve been told we’re supposed to live; we can color outside the lines and do it the way we desire. I’ve learned that change is inevitable, the future isn’t guaranteed, and there’s no such thing as a sure bet. I’ve learned that when it comes to pursuing a meaningful and fulfilling life, the risk is almost always worth the reward. Most importantly, I’ve learned that there really are no rules in life, and the greatest restrictions to our freedom are the ones crafted by our own minds.
Becoming my own boss and taking my life into my own hands has given me a sense of confidence and courage that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m grateful every day for the opportunity to do what I love and decide how, when, and with whom I do it. I’m excited about the future and enlivened by all the possibilities I now see for it. And, above all else, I’m delighted to know what it’s like to dance with fear and dare to live freely.
[Dr. Denise Fournier is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, coach, and consultant. She owns and operates Evergreen Therapy in Miami, Florida and is an adjunct professor for Nova Southeastern University. Visit her at www.evergreen-therapy.com to learn more about her work and read her blog.]