THE BLOG
10/06/2016 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Risk Aversion And Anxiety

I'm standing on the edge of my life, as if on the shores of a cold but beautiful lake. I want to dive in but I'm scared, only the fear doesn't sound like fear as much as doubt, anxiety, uncertainty, and ambivalence. What if I make a mistake? What if the water is too cold and I can't breathe? What if there's a better lake out there: warmer, smoother, less dangerous? I'm here but I do not move, too scared to fail, too scared to risk, too scared to live. 

One of the hallmark characteristics of being on the sensitive-anxious-creative spectrum is the tendency to lean toward safety and away from risk. As sensitives who can see and imagine all possibilities, we're constantly scanning the horizon and imagining everything that can go terribly awry in any situation. As I've written in other blog posts, this quality served us very well when we were living in the wild and had to be constantly on guard for physical threats like predators, enemies, and natural disasters. But as modern humans living in relative safety, this primal brain pattern harms us more than it serves. In fact, the more we try to safeguard against the risk of loss, the smaller and more narrow our lives becomes and the more we eclipse our capacity to feel joy.

Nowhere does attempt to avoid risk harm us more than in intimate relationships. Yes, there's a time and a place to "scan the horizon" and make sure that you're with a loving, honest, well-matched partner with whom you share values and vision. But beyond the initial and thorough check, the anxious mind often spins into overdrive as it looks for a guarantee that the relationship will not end in failure. The anxious thoughts jolting you awake in the middle of the night and causing the squirrel of doubt to gnaw away at your serenity is likely what brought you to my site. If we could simmer relationship anxiety down to one sentence it would be this: The need to find certainty and avoid the risk of loss that causes incessant doubt in an otherwise solid, loving intimate relationship.

Of course, it's not just relationships that suffer from risk aversion. When people find their way to my virtual doorstep, even if the initial cause is relationship anxiety, they quickly realize that they fall into the common mold of personality that underscores my work, and they see that their aversion to risk has caused them to have difficultly making decisions and committing in many other areas in their lives. I've worked with clients who suffered over everything from deciding which college to attend to what to choose from the menu at a restaurant.

Let's drop down out of the thought realm and ground this in one of our greatest teachers: animals. A few weeks ago, on a brilliant autumn day, I was observing our cat in the yard. As both predator and prey she's on high alert for the hunt and the danger, and I watched her vacillate easily from sheer, embodied delight at chasing a leaf or a squirrel to ears-pinned-back alert every time a car passed or a dog walked down our road. She understands viscerally, beyond the realm of conscious mind, that a full life moves fluidly between joy and fear, excitement and anticipation. Or maybe it's all joy, for as a creature who doesn't split and compartmentalize into the duality of good/bad and right/wrong she only knows one state of being: the present moment. 

As her human caregivers, we know the risk involved in letting her adventure daily in our yard and beyond. We live on the edge of open space and a few miles from the mountains, and we've seen predators of all kinds exploring our property. Just last weekend, in fact, we saw a coyote at our back deck. While we hear them howling nightly, we've never seen a coyote so close to the house, but with summer's bounty waning and winter's scarcity just around the corner, they're searching more intently for food. My husband and I ran outside to scare it away and then spent hours looking for our cat. She finally sauntered nonchalantly over to us as my little one was swinging on the rope swing, perfectly fine and without a fur out of place. 

After the coyote incident, I saw some neighbors walking their dogs as I was getting into my car. They asked me to thank my husband for posting about the coyote on the neighborhood email group and asked if our cat was okay. "Yes, she's fine, thank God! I don't know what our boys would do if anything ever happened to her."

"Well, keep her inside!" the neighbor replied.

"We can't do that. She gets so depressed and it's against her nature. She has an amazing life on our land."

"Better depressed than dead," the neighbor remarked as she continued down the road.

Those words stuck with me: Better depressed than dead. And I had to wonder, "Is that true?" When I shared the exchange with my husband later he said, "Eventually the depression might kill her anyway. We can't keep her in." And our boys concurred.

Our cat isn't interested in living a narrow life, and we're not interested in cramping her style. Every few months we we hold an informal family meeting to make sure we're all on the same page regarding the risk we take letting her roam the land, and every time the vote in unanimous: Despite the danger, we must let her live her life fully. When my older son expresses concern, I say to him, "You love flying, right? Can you imagine if I said to you, 'I'm not going to let you become a pilot or fly in airplanes because it's too risky?' I would be crushing your passion, which would crush your soul. Despite how scared I feel every time you go up in a Cessna with a pilot I've never met before, I will never stand in your path. You have a passion, which is such a gift. Your dad and I will do everything we can to support you, which means working with our own fear that wants to keep you on the ground. The same is true for Tashi, yes?"

(By the way, by no means am I suggesting that all indoor cats are depressed, nor am I suggesting that everyone should or can let their cat outdoors. What I'm sharing here applies to our cat, and I'm simply using it as an inroad to talk about the connection between risk-taking and joy.)

He nods his head vigorously, imagining what a frustrating and ultimately soul-crushing existence it would be if we tried to clip his wings.

My son is in his highest self when he's flying, which, of course, is a risk. Our cat is the embodiment of joy when she's prancing and prowling around the yard which, of course, is a riskier life than keeping her inside. The willingness to take risks comes from self-trust because in order to risk you have to be willing to make a mistake, fail, or even die (if not literally then metaphorically).

We know that one of the attributes of happy people is the willingness to take risks. As an article from Psychology Today entitled "What Happy People Do Differently" reports:

Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people, are, simply put, curious. In a 2007 study, Todd Kashdan and Colorado State psychologist Michael Steger found that when participants monitored their own daily activities, as well as how they felt, over the course of 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life--and engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.

Yet curiosity--that pulsing, eager state of not knowing--is fundamentally an anxious state. When, for instance, psychologist Paul Silvia showed research participants a variety of paintings, calming images by Claude Monet and Claude Lorrain evoked happy feelings, whereas the mysterious, unsettling works by Egon Schiele and Francisco Goya evoked curiosity.

Curiosity, it seems, is largely about exploration--often at the price of momentary happiness. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser. In fact, a closer look at the study by Kashdan and Steger suggests that curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort as a springboard to higher psychological peaks.

If our cat were to run a cost-benefit analysis about going outside versus staying in (which she seems to do every morning in a split, nonverbal moment as she lingers at the threshold of the door) the benefits would clearly outweigh the costs. Yes, coyotes and cars lurk as fatal risks, dogs cause the tail to bush in fear and alarm, and stray cats pose the riskiest danger, but how can she resist the chase of the squirrels, the hunt of the mouse, not to mention the fresh air and pure sunshine? (Luckily she doesn't seem to have knack for hunting birds.) Her entire life is motivated by her curiosity! And I'm remembering the common adage: Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction brought it back. We must become curious if we're to live fully, which involves pushing ourselves our of our comfort zone and becoming vulnerable. 

As our wonderful current forum moderator, Ekeko, shared recently in response to a member's question about ROCD and HOCD:

As someone who has struggled with intrusive thoughts about my relationship as well as being gay, what I've come to realize is that my mind was looking for ANY WAY that it could find to minimize risk. I was recently talking with Sheryl about this, as people on the sensitive-anxious spectrum we're often severely risk adverse and we want to cover all of our bases in order to insure that we won't get divorced, break-up, etc. The problem is, when your mind is asking questions like "What if I'm gay?" or "What if I don't love my boyfriend enough?" those questions can never be answered with 100% certainty. Because of that it's extremely easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole of anxiety if we allow ourselves to be hooked by the question. At a certain point you have to breathe and come to peace with the fact that you will never know any of the answers to these questions with 100% certainty... and then you have to leap and trust that it will all be okay.

How do we leap and trust that it will all be okay? By cultivating a practice of self-trust, which connects us to the well of our deepest knowing where the answers to the unanswerable questions live. And these aren't answers so much signposts or hints at the paths we want to walk, the decisions we want to make, the risks we're willing to take. Because death exists life cannot be anything other than risk. Because loss exists relationships are the ultimate risk to our hearts and how can we do anything other than forgive our ego - that part of us that desperately attempts to safeguard against pain - for trying to protect us in the only way it knows how? 

But risk we must if we're to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops - as my son is itching to do - but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life's decisions, big and small.

If you would like to learn how to dive more fully into your life - whether your relationship, your work, or your own skin - please join me for my next round of Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt. The course will begin on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016, and it will be last time I will run it this year.