We had the good fortune of connecting with Amy Kessler and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Amy, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I’ve been averse to taking risks since I was a young teenager. I remember being scared to go to school or even to walk down a street in my neighborhood that was unfamiliar. I’m amazed I ever took gymnastics. For me, risk is a visceral feeling that speaks and says: If I take action and put myself out there, something really bad is going to happen; if I fail this test, I’ll never get into college; if I finish this creative project, it will be total garbage and I’ll be utterly humiliated. I used to imagine big, iron bars above me that might, at any moment, come crashing down.
This awful feeling held me back for years, whether it concerned my work, creative output or my relationships, and I still struggle with it. Only with years of therapy and coaching have I been able to understand the fearful, absolute quality of my experience. So, for me, this is a great question. I know that it’s an important one because, after all, there are still things I want to do in this life.
When we take risks we do things that feel scary because the outcome is unknown. What’s scarier than being vulnerable with someone else who may judge us for being who we are? Especially, if we are attracted to that person or we truly value their opinion. Like John Cusack said in Better Off Dead, “I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection.”
Here’s a recent example: A few years ago, I found myself at a small party given by one of my girlfriends. I was a bit nervous but doing okay talking with people I’d only just met. I was relaxed after a few drinks, and that’s when I noticed a handsome man making eye contact with me. My heart fluttered and my throat started to close. He didn’t seem over eager or aggressive, in fact, he seemed very relaxed, curious, and perfectly harmless. I wanted to talk to him, so I navigated to the kitchen, near where he was standing and when I slowly passed him by, he turned toward me, cocked his head to the side, smiled and said hi. What did I do? I gave him a crooked half-smile, lowered my head and abruptly walked right past him down the hall and out the door!
Now, I’ve been wanting to meet someone special since I was in kindergarten and here was this seemingly lovely guy, who looked very much like the Disney ‘Prince Charming’ I was raised on. It was strange because I felt like I wasn’t in control of my body. Something in me panicked and took over. It all just felt too risky but that didn’t make much sense. After all, I’ve had several long term relationships and I’ve been through the soul-sucking, factory outlet store we call online dating for nearly a decade.
After a very long stint of self-pity, blame and shame, I got curious. Why would I act this way? So, I started to investigate and here’s some of what I found:
Every risk I take is emotional. That is, I feel it in my body. I notice my body becoming flooded with emotion and sensation. It can feel mild, like the minor discomfort of a shrinking violet with social phobias; rapid heart rate, throat closing, sweaty palms and sparks of adrenaline in my chest and stomach. Or, it can feel overwhelming and dreadful, laying me out in bed for days, too depressed to move. For some of us, merely thinking about taking a risk can feel unsafe.
My behavior makes some sense if I’m trying to avoid overwhelming sensations or emotions. In that moment, at the party, perhaps my body took over because it didn’t feel safe enough to have a simple conversation. So, the question then became, why does my body not feel safe enough to have a conversation in a safe place, surrounded by friends and friendly strangers?
I recently spoke to my coach about this and we uncovered a series of experiences related to the power games boys and men had played with me from the 3rd-10th grades. I remembered every vivid event; direct criticisms of my body parts, the groping of my breasts and crotch, rubbing up against me with their erect penises in crowded buses, so I couldn’t move. I remember one time, I called a boy I had a crush on and while he pretended to be interested in me, all of his friends were secretly on the line and burst out laughing at a particularly vulnerable moment, and on and on.
As the conversation unfolded, it started to make more sense why I wasn’t comfortable in my own body and why, perhaps, the prospect of romantic love feels like risky business. It’s surely more complicated but we know that trauma affects all aspects of our being.
So, how do we heal from this kind of trauma, so that next time, we can make a different choice?
I might work with that little girl part of myself and the specific bodily responses I’ve already noticed. I could definitely let myself off the hook for my perceived cowardice. Next time an opportunity arises, I might stay more present and engaged in my own experience, perhaps asking, what does my body want to communicate here? Can I be present with this feeling and move slowly with it? I might also shift my perspective by asking, is this a risk that will help me move forward in a positive way, regardless of the outcome?
I’ve learned that developing a compassionate response to my experience is an empowering practice. I think risk-taking is less about managing my failures and more about self-awareness, developing inner resilience and external resources, so that I can feel a bit freer and braver to take a risk, even though I might still be scared.
Most of us want to accomplish something, whether it’s with finances, career or relationships; even The Dude wants to smoke pot and bowl! The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to reach our goals if we aren’t feeling okay on the inside. I’m still learning. I’ve heard many times, ‘If I just had more confidence I would try this new thing.’ We know that’s backwards because building confidence first requires taking healthy risks. This is why I try to offer myself and my coaching clients a way to build that inner resilience and self-care, which in my opinion, is the essence of it all.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Presently, I work as a life coach for creative professionals, many from the film and music industries, the arts and sciences, who want to refocus and move forward in their careers or creative practices. We work on issues like overcoming perfectionism and procrastination; building self-awareness, self-care and confidence; sustaining motivation, goal setting and creative life design. I also utilize MindBody Therapy, which is a body-centered approach to healing, with career and life coaching, so my clients can move forward from a grounded place and live whole-hearted, balanced lives doing what they love.
My clients are a constant source of motivation for me. They really give me the energy to keep going in my own life, as I help facilitate their own clarity, insight and forward momentum. There’s a mutuality there that is extremely satisfying. I look forward to inviting people to my once-a-month Creative Circle Group meetings.
When I worked on human rights documentaries, I very quickly learned that it’s possible to create a more equitable and humane society through a collaborative process of listening to one another, sharing our stories and taking action. Today, I coach creative professionals with the same perspective in mind. No one does it alone.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Pre-Covid19, I might take a visiting friend for a drive up the coast, to the Cinerama Dome or a Secret Movie Club screening and Sugarfish for dinner. It will be interesting to see how things change once we can move out of this very challenging and isolating time. It’s been difficult to watch so many small businesses shut down. Eventually, I think there will be a boom for new restaurants, cafes, theaters, music venues, public spaces and arts spaces, which have always nourished me and so many others in the past.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My shoutout is dedicated to my life coach, Mona Banzer. I found her on the Psychology Today website when I was at my lowest point in New York City, having suffered severe burnout and major health problems, a difficult career transition and a deep depression. Her intelligence, generous spirit and humor inspired me to find my own voice and a new way of being. She also mentored me into a new career path. I feel incredibly grateful for her wisdom and kindness, as well as, all the wonderful work we’ve done together.