Taking Risks in Love and Life
Are you a risk-taker? Or do you always take the safe, easy way out? Do you stay in your comfortable but dull job because going on job interviews is just too scary? Do you stay with Mr. Boring-But-He's-A-Nice Guy because the thought of being dateless on a Saturday night or trying to meet someone else is a terrifying prospect?
"Why not go out on a limb? That's where the fruit is," said Mark Twain, one of many who has suggested that a life without risks is not a life worth living.
Part of Your Personality
Like other personality traits such as shyness or perfectionism, the proclivity for risk taking seems to be a combination of nature and nurture. Some experts believe that birth order plays a part. Frank J. Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel, believes that second-born children are usually more adventurous than their older siblings. But regardless of birth order, the thought of taking a risk makes most of us feel vulnerable. And with good cause. The fears are endless. What if I fail? What if I make a fool of myself? What if everyone sees how incompetent I am?
Most of us fear failure, but the fear of success, of surpassing our parents, of separating from our past, of developing a new and stronger self image can be pretty scary, too. And any change, even a positive one, means we must let go of the past and mourn the loss before we can embrace the future.
There are a million reasons not to change or do anything that feels scary. But at some point, letting things stay the way they are feels smothering and constricting, and in most cases, the pain of not reaching for the sky eventually becomes unbearable.
Types of Risks
There are several categories of risks, and each has specific associated fears.
- Intellectual, creative or career-related risks such as going back to school, learning a new skill, or accepting a job promotion bring up fears of failure, fears of having the world discover your inadequacies ("the imposter syndrome") and/or fears of humiliation.
- Emotional or interpersonal risks like answering an online personal ad, leaving an unsatisfying relationship, confronting someone who has hurt your feelings, or trying to deepen the level of intimacy in an existing relationship can make us feel vulnerable and needy, stirring up fears of dependency. Feeling exposed, we worry about rejection and that letting others see us for what we really are will drive them away.
- Physical risks such as learning to scuba dive, going bungee jumping, or having a baby can bring up fears of injury, pain or even death. We worry that we're not agile enough or that we lack stamina and endurance.
Many new experiences incorporate a medley of intellectual, emotional, and financial risks, and determining what we're really afraid of is an essential step in the process of readying ourselves to make a move.
Assessing Your Risk-taking Style
In understanding your risk-taking style, it's important to consider a number of different factors.
Think about your general temperament.
- Are you cautious or daring?
- Do you welcome change or cling to the familiar?
- Are you a careless, impulsive risk taker?
- Are you overly cautious, or are you relatively balanced and moderate?
Examine how you decide which risks to take.
- Do you like to consider a number of different possibilities or do you prefer to come up with one or two options and choose between them?
- Do you trust your feelings or rule them out as irrelevant or distracting?
- What is your time frame?
- Do you mull over decisions for weeks or months or do you think about them for a day or two and then take the plunge?
Optimism vs. Pessimism
Consider your overall sense of optimism or pessimism.
- Do you believe that most things you do generally turn out well, or do you take a risk with a sense of dread, feeling that dire consequences could follow?
- Are you excited about taking a risk or does the anxiety become so overwhelming that there's no room for exhilaration?
Knowing your risk-taking style allows you to proceed comfortably, at your own pace, as you move through the necessary getting-ready steps.
Stages in the Risk-taking Process
The process of deciding to take a risk is quite complex, despite the urging of a popular footwear company to "Just Do It!" Following a series of orderly steps gives you a feeling of control, hopefully making your risk-taking experience a positive one.
- Discovery—the first step in the process is to become aware of your dissatisfaction with your current situation. This is followed by the recognition of the wish and the need, to change.
- Questioning—the second step is ambivalence, should I or shouldn't I? Uncertainty and anxiety can be minimized by gathering information and seeking support from others.
- Planning—reducing the scale of the risk by restructuring it is often useful. For example, rather than quitting your job to freelance full time, can you work part time so you'll have a steady income for a while? It's also good to reduce the irreversibility of the proposed risk by laying down safety nets. "Don't burn your bridges," my mother used to say. Thinking about possible outcomes and having a set of back-up game plans lessens the anxiety.
- Envisioning—try not to envision the worst. If you take a new job and it doesn't work out, the chances are slim that you'll actually be penniless and living under a bridge. But this all-or-nothing thinking can leave you unable to move forward, because it's so much easier to stay in your little cocoon, safe, secure, and stuck. This same fear can also confuse the issues in your mind and that confusion then becomes an excuse for not taking a leap of faith. Once you make the decision to go ahead and take a particular risk let it incubate for a while. Sleep on it. See what your dreams tell you. Envision yourself in your new situation and see what feelings come up.
- Making it happen—then, it's time to "do it." Get married, quit your job, buy your plane ticket, sign up for that course in computer graphics. He who doesn't risk never gets to drink champagne, according to an old Russian proverb. When it's done, celebrate, rejoice, and be happy, even if things don't work out the way you thought they would. Adventure is worthwhile in itself, said Amelia Earhart.
The path you've chosen may meander in surprisingly unexpected ways, but at least you're moving. As Jim McCormick, a professional exhibition skydiver and a motivational speaker and leading authority on risk taking, says, "The greatest rewards in life go to the risk takers...Don't let your fears hold you back."
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Last reviewed November 2007 by Theodor B. Rais, MD
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