Risk Taking. How To Make It More Effectively
Of course, risk taking is not to be confused with thrill-seeking. With the latter, you may even place your life in unnecessary danger in order to experience the intense excitement of fear. Thrill-seeking is sometimes even used as a way of acting out depression.
So we need to look at the point when taking a risk is prudent, and when is it wiser to play it safe. These are questions that we all need to evaluate throughout our entire lives. In looking at the attitudes necessary for learning effective risk taking, assume for now that you are the one who’s designed the limitations by which you live, not someone else, and that the risks we’re talking about don’t involve life-or-death danger.
Examples include confronting your boss when you believe he or she is wrong; approaching someone you would like to meet, perhaps a person you’re attracted to; being assertive with a waiter or waitress who’s either overcharged you or given you unsatisfactory service; going to a party where you don’t know a single soul, and somehow getting yourself included; and expressing views that are different from those of a group with which you are having a discussion.
I’m sure you can add to this list. You may want to do that now by thinking of some of the risks you’ve wanted to take but stopped yourself from taking. What was the perceived threat, and was the threat realistic? Were you telling yourself that if you tried, you might fail, and that that would be something you wouldn’t be able to stand? Or that you would look ridiculous? How did you hold yourself back?
Did you tell yourself that things were not so bad the way they were, or that they would change automatically without you taking the risk? If so, are these just rationalizations or excuses, or do you really believe them? Later on, we’ll challenge all of the excuses and many more, but first let’s look at a major attitude that can hold us back from prudent risk taking and moving ahead in almost any area of life.
Each of us has a comfort zone. I’m not referring to a physical space, but a state of mind. In this state of mind, there are few or no surprises. If you enjoy your life exactly the way it is, then you’ve managed to get into a positive comfort zone, but there’s also such a thing as a negative comfort zone.
Think about certain areas of your life, things about yourself, that are not to your liking, that you would advise your friends or children to do differently. Yet those things have somehow become a part of your comfort zone. Although you don’t like them, you give up the temporary discomfort of change in favor of this imaginary net of safety. It sounds like I’m describing a rut, doesn’t it?
Well, staying in your negative comfort zone, or what I previously referred to as a comfortable state of discomfort, is exactly what a rut is. The great humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow said the life process is one of choosing between the path of safety and the path of risk. How many times in our lives do we come up to that fork in the road?
One way to go represents safety, the known. Perhaps, this could be the job you have now, which doesn’t have a lot of advancement attached to it. The other option is the risky one. You don’t know where it’s going to lead. Perhaps in this example, it’s a better job opportunity, but one without the security you’ve become used to. The choice is always yours, but often it’s made by default, because your fears of leaving the comfort zone get in the way.
Let’s look at some of the fears and attitudes that may be keeping you chained to your comfort zone. Are you afraid of losing control, or of some dire consequence that’s probably unlikely to occur? Perhaps your fears are realistic. They could include losing your present relationship, if you were to bring up an unusually difficult issue; becoming involved in a love relationship and then losing it, a fear that makes many resist what could be a rewarding involvement; being rejected for reaching out to someone; being laughed at by someone that you’re attracted to or that you wish would respect you; being alone or abandoned; having lifelong friends become cruel and rejecting when you need them the most; losing your job or your financial security; being looked upon as a failure.
For some, the ultimate fear is death. Some people are so preoccupied with their fear of death that they greatly curtail the quality of their life. Possibly you avoid risk taking simply because you lack confidence in yourself to pull it off. As we’ve seen earlier, self-acceptance means accepting yourself with your losses, but these attitudes serve only to undermine our lives. So our comfort zone is simply an attitude—one we have chosen to protect us and one we can choose to change. How many of the things that you fear will happen to you in your lifetime actually do occur?
Think about times when you were anxious about an event or something specific. Try to get a sense of whether the things you feared the most actually did occur. Undoubtedly you will find that often your fear was real, but in actuality how dire was that threat, even though you may have feared it quite intensely?
Now let’s focus on a present issue—some way in which you are adhering to that comfort zone when you really would rather go in the other direction, toward genuinegrowth and change. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you let yourself take that risk? Do you fear that you’ll become overwhelmed, and that if you get just a little bit outside of your comfort zone you won’t be able to handle it?
If so, take a few steps back and ask yourself, “So what? So what if I try and fail?” Chances are you’ll come up with an answer or two, but you may need to ask “So what?” three or four times until you get to all the things you really fear. Do you tell yourself that failure is something you won’t be able to stand, that you could be rejected and that rejection would totally destroy you, that you’ll be embarrassed or humiliated, that other people around you will suffer? If you are telling yourself that last one, could you be exaggerating the impact on others that your risk taking would have?
I would like you to try an exercise I call the emotional fire drill. It’s very simple, and you can do it quite often with practically any fear or issue. Imagine the absolute worst thing that could occur as a result of your risk taking. In fact, exaggerate it to the hilt. If you’re catastrophizing, imagine that the catastrophe has occurred, and that it’s even a harder thing to deal with than anything that you could ever have suspected. Let yourself feel the emotions. See those other people around you laughing or having the reaction that you fear the most.
Now stop and ask yourself a few questions. How realistic is it that the catastrophic reactions that you have imagined will come true? Even if some of the things youimagined were to happen, would they be as bad as you may have feared them to be? Remember the difference between realistic fear and anxiety. The anxiety feels very similar to fear, but fear presents a real danger, whereas anxiety is in fact an imagined danger.
Next, think through what you would do to deal with the situation, in as much detail as possible. If the worst occurred, how long would it have an impact on you? Is it really the catastrophe you feared? When you bring yourself back into the present, notice the change in your mood. Remember that the feelings that you experience are ultimately under your control. It’s your thinking and your attitude that determines your outlook.
This emotional fire drill shows how it’s your attitude that will determine your reaction to a perceived outcome, much more than the outcome itself. Next, let’s try the opposite. Think of a time when you took a risk and it came out in your favor. Think about how exhilarating that may have been. Now plug the current risk you’re contemplating into that frame of mind and imagine things coming out the best possible way.
Imagine the reactions from the people you care about being sheer joy and admiration, at a crescendo pitch! Take a few moments to feel those good feelings and to know that they are just as much under your control and just as much a product of your own positive attitudes. You’ve taken a potential situation where leaving your comfort zone, risk taking, may have been called for. You’ve experienced it at its best, and you’ve experienced it at its worst. In reality, it will probably come out somewhere in the middle.
Fortunately, life doesn’t usually give us as many extremely negative consequences as we fear it will, or sadly as many extreme positives as we hope it will. So chances are that the last time you risked and it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to be, it wasn’t really the catastrophe you imagined, and chances are that when things do work out positively, it won’t be as exhilarating as you expected either; in fact, you may even be a little bit disappointed. But whether it turns out positively or negatively, you will have had an experience in risk taking that will make the next time that much easier.
That’s right: risk taking is like any other habit. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. I have found that losses are even more important than wins, because they are the things that test us. They are the things from which we learn the most and gain the most insight. If you can keep that in mind, you can turn your losses into no-lose situations, because when you’ve lost, you’ve proven that you can handle it. If you don’t let that undermine your self-confidence, risk taking will continue to become easier. This is what we call the elegant solution, and no one can take this attitude away from you once you’ve formed it. It brings with it the emotional muscle that’s so important to have in leading a happy life.
In my experience as a clinician, those who are usually most ill-equipped to handle a crisis are those who have very little experience in losing. They haven’t had the chance to develop the crucial emotional muscle that comes with meeting these ultimate tests.
By definition, a risk carries with it uncertain results, but isn’t certainty an illusion? Think about it. What do any of us really know for sure anyway? Do we know for certain that we’ll be alive five minutes from now? Of course, the probability is extremely high, but certainty is nonexistent. Those who wait for it before acting shut themselves off from the lion’s share of the life experience—the one that comes from taking that fork in the road that may be risky, but in the end provides us with most of our truly growth-filled experiences and long-term joy.
No one can tell you how broad or narrow your comfort zone should be, or the amount of risk that you should take or be comfortable with. Like everything else in life, this is a choice that only you can make for yourself, but the key is to choose it consciously. That can only be done when you look at the attitudes that hold you back and the emotions those attitudes conjure up. Then decide whether to give into that part of you that craves safety—and that’s OK too—or whether to open a new door that may lead to a richer and more fulfilling life.
Positive Attitude Training
How to Be an Unshakable Optimist
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
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