How many times have you heard, the best step you can take to grow as a person is to step outside your comfort zone and take risks?

This is the theme of just about every self-help book I have ever read, and it has been stated to me by just about every person I have interviewed. I take this advice to heart, and it governs most everything I do. But, even as a staunch practitioner, it’s not always easy advice to follow.

We are wired to avoid risks, so opening ourselves up to possible pain seems contradictory to all that is wise. But, playing it safe seldom leads to achieving goals and growth. Experiencing what may not always be a favorable outcome, while not enjoyable, really does have positive results.

A few years ago I was invited to attend a black tie charity event for an organization in which I am involved. My initial response was to decline the invitation because I would be attending by myself and I would not know anyone there. Since my divorce I had gotten accustomed to going to functions alone, but I knew this event would be different and uncomfortable for me. Not allowing fear to govern my actions, with the belief that I must step out of my comfort zone, and because I wanted to support the organization, I agreed to attend.

I purchased a new dress, did the whole glam thing, and psyched myself up for a wonderful evening!

As I drove to the car valet, I watched car after car of couples emerge and enter the venue, two by two, like animals boarding Noah’s Ark. A feeling of dread built inside me as everything I imagined was coming to fruition. It would have been so easy to hit the accelerator and drive out of the lot, but onward I went.

I surrendered my car (and, yes, it was a surrender) and entered the building. I was immediately overwhelmed by the crowd that surrounded me. It was a private world in which everyone there resided, and I was a visitor; there was no welcome mat.

Now, here’s the part where you usually hear that after experiencing a period of awkwardness, I met someone, spent the evening in tantalizing conversation, and everything worked out in the end. Nope! I walked around the room hoping to find an opening in which to engage, but none existed. After one hour of feeling like a fish out of water, went home. Rejected and sad, I berated myself for getting into the situation.

I’m usually very good in social settings, which is why I thought I could handle the situation, but, this evening was different and I was very wrong.

But here’s the good part … even though the event didn’t turn out as I planned, I was proud of myself for not avoiding the situation. It is only by experiencing that evening that I was able to grow and learn how to handle those types of activities differently in the future. I put myself out there and tried something outside my comfort zone. It wasn’t fun, but I have done it many times since … just differently.

When encountering something outside your comfort zone, here’s my advice:

Have a plan. What was I thinking? I knew going in that I did not know anyone attending so why didn’t I have a plan? I went with the flow, which isn’t always the best practice. Sometimes you need to strategize and know what to expect. I learned to bring a friend or colleague with me, or do my homework and be sure to have a person to meet there. It is always better with a partner in crime.

Develop a contingency. Even the best laid plans may not work. Always have an out. Know the escape route, if necessary.

Understand that it will be scary and be OK with it. Nothing that helps you grow is easy. If everything worked out, I would not be stronger today. That experience forced me to think and re-evaluate how I handled professional social situations.

Know that you are not alone. Most people, at one time or another, no matter who they are or what they do, have felt the way you do. We are human and experience human emotions. Just because someone else appears to be “all together” doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t hurt and isn’t afraid, too.

Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Do not give up! Learn and grow.

Remember, like the old adage states, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”