Please please please let me want what I want.
September 1, 2010 6:09 AM   Subscribe

I've realized that my fundamental drive is to avoid negative consequences, rather than to achieve positive outcomes. I'd like to change this. Can you help?

As an example, I hate (and try to avoid) making plans because I'm generally on call 24/7 at work, and I might have to cancel or change my plans, and that is very frustrating. I stick around at this job (which I don't like and feel that I don't have a particular aptitude for) because I don't want to end up unemployed and destitute, though I have a lot of good skills, a great resume and a large nest egg, and could do any number of things instead. I can always find 10 different horrors to avoid (sometimes entirely fantastical), but I have a hard time thinking--"I'm going to have a great time at the beach this Saturday with my friends!" or "I am really good at XYZ, I should do that instead of my current job!"

My life is replete with scenarios in which I take the "protected" path and minimize the chance of a bad outcome, but I find it constraining. I'd love to spend more time striving for the things I want, not fleeing from the things I don't.

I am already in therapy, but I'd appreciate hearing coping strategies you might have--mantras, books, success stories. Thanks!
posted by myaskme to Human Relations (11 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
It helps me to come up with a solution to possible negative outcomes - if I get called in to work, well, that won't be so bad because I brought my car and a change of clothes to the beach. If an asteroid hits the earth while I'm at the beach, well, at least I died with my loved ones and not at a job I hate. Think about times when something really awful did happen to you, and you made it through okay - you've done it before, you can do it again.

I don't have the same problem of avoiding positive outcomes to prevent negative things, but maybe try writing down a list of 10 awesome things to do this week - they don't have to be anything huge, and you can change them to make them more feasible over the week.
posted by fermezporte at 6:35 AM on September 1, 2010

There is an appropriate amount of risk to take in one's life, just as there is an appropriate amount of most elements of people's lives - reminding us of the Aristotelian principle of moderation in all things. Lots of people take excessive risks and wind up with huge disasters, such as drug addiction (I just wanted to try snorting cocaine to find out what it feels like) and so forth. In your case, you feel that you are trapped in an excess of caution, and therefore are not accomplishing enough. That is not a reason to throw caution to the winds. It is a reason to try something new, however.

I would recommend a methodical approach. Make a list of all the things that you would like to achieve that you are not presently achieving. then identify the one item on the list which seems most important. Then make another list, of all the things that you might do in order to achieve the objective identified in the first list. Then figure out which of those strategies would be most practical. Then do it. (And as the saying goes, rinse, lather, and repeat as needed.)
posted by grizzled at 6:40 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are choosing a goal and following that path to achieve that goal. In your case the goal is "avoid conflict." You just need to change the goal.

First you need to figure out why "avoid conflict" is so important to you. Is it because you have had bad things happen in your life or because your imagination is strong? If you can figure out why you are avoiding conflict, that will free you up to chose another goal.

Visualize what you want: better job, a day at the beach, a comfortable retirement, a lovely home, a vacation abroad, or whatever-- and then stratagize about how you will achieve that goal.

There will be obstacles in reaching your goal (you may be paged and have to go into work) but you will plan how to surmount these obstacles (I will take my pager with me to the beach and if paged I will leave to go to work) and not make the obstacles into a deal breaker (on the other hand I may not be paged and therefore I can enjoy the whole day at the beach) Having an imagination can work FOR you rather than against you because you can plan for all eventualities (here is my plan if I am paged before I leave for the beach, here is my plan if I am paged after I have gone swimming in the ocean, here is my plan if I have started eating, etc.)

Focus on the positive goals rather than stumbling blocks which may or may not arise.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:43 AM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Visualize the fact that sometimes taking the "safe" path at every juncture will sometimes end up with the worst possible conclusion because a series of "safe" decisions might not account for the possibility of long-term danger. For instance, if you opted to stay in a mediocre relationship, then you could end up stuck in a marriage that is genuinely bad. (Avoiding the "unsafe" steps of breaking up, moving out, dealing with fallout). Oftentimes, a series of small "safe" decisions will lead you to a worse place than one "risky" decision. Undoing or compensating for one bad choice might be easier than undoing many "good" ones.
posted by mikeh at 6:48 AM on September 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I am very much the "eliminate the negative" type, versus "accentuate the positive." What helped me was randomness.

Within reach in most places, I have a big dollar coin and a six-sided die, metal. Sometimes I have the D20 of Decision, which is large and made of steel and probably qualifies as a weapon.

Assign probabilities to The Safe Thing versus The Fun thing (the coin if you're going halfsies, the die if you want to do something like one-in-three or one-in-six, and the D20 of Decision if you absolutely have the need to combine multiple outcomes in 5% probabilities). Then flip or roll. I like heavy metal items because they land with the finality that says, "Yeah, you will go do this."

Then, go do that thing. Am I going to do laundry and defrost the refrigerator on Friday or am I going out to a movie? Who knows? What movie will I see? It's a surprise. Will I eat dinner or go hungry? Let's flip.

Do this over and over. You will not have fun the first times you go for the fun option. That's okay. You'll do it anyway. After a while, you can come to more easily distinguish the things that are probably going to happen and are important versus niggling little things that are not impactful and aren't going to happen anyway. Sometimes you discover supposedly fun things you were dreading doing aren't actually all that fun anyway, too, and that also reduces mental overhead.

Also, not knowing what you are going to do is fun in and of itself.
posted by adipocere at 7:04 AM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

One really robust finding in decision making research is that "losses loom larger than gains." That's true for pretty much everybody. In one classic study, they asked people how much they'd be willing to pay for a certain coffee mug, and on average people said about $1.50. For other people, they gave them the mug first, and then asked how much it would take for them to sell it. Those people asked for about $3. In other words, it hurt a lot more to lose something they already had.

But a lot of other research has shown that what counts as a loss versus a gain is really flexible -- it all depends on how you frame the situation. So, for instance, if you can re-frame it as "I'm going to have a really good time with my friends at the beach, but if I back out, I'm going to lose that good time," then your motivation to go will probably be a lot higher. In other words, whether something is a loss or a gain really depends on where you set the baseline.

Beyond that, there's evidence that people tend to be happier when they focus on what they can achieve rather than what they need to avoid. And just recognizing this fact about yourself means that you can try to compensate for it.

Good luck!
posted by svenx at 7:17 AM on September 1, 2010 [9 favorites]

Then, go do that thing. Am I going to do laundry and defrost the refrigerator on Friday or am I going out to a movie? Who knows? What movie will I see? It's a surprise. Will I eat dinner or go hungry? Let's flip.
posted by adipocere

It's probably true that you realize which of the alternatives you really want while that thing is in the air. Your gut is rarely wrong.
posted by nickjadlowe at 7:20 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Besides visualizing a positive goal and working to achieve it, there is something else you should work on: when the worst happens and your goal becomes impossible, you should look at what happened and focus on the most positive aspects of your failure to achieve that goal.

Take the beach example again. If you make plans with your friends, pack up your stuff, and get paged to go into work on your drive to the beach, what can you say about the experience? First, you can say that the world didn't end-- you and your friends handled the experience OK. Second, you can (hopefully) have something good to report on the work end of things (you got paid for overtime or your boss really appreciates you coming in instead of going to the beach.) There maybe other good things that came out of it as well, such as the fact that your bag is now packed and ready to go to the beach tomorrow.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:22 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Career-wise, I did the "safe" thing (taking the job that was most within my current abilities) several times. I ended up stagnating and frankly hating what I was doing. A manager at my company offered me a job in a different area and it revitalized my career. Now when I look for new assignments at my company, I choose the ones that are the most different from what I'm currently doing.

The result is a little nerve-racking in that I frequently get the feeling I have no business taking on the tasks I'm doing, but once I get into the learning curve a bit, I realize that I am learning new things, expanding my skill set, and enjoying work more. Seek out challenges, even if they seem a little over your head; that's where the satisfaction is at.
posted by Doohickie at 9:19 AM on September 1, 2010

The thing that taught me about how much fun failure is and how boring success is would be - no kidding - Nethack. That game, which I have yet to beat, allowed me to learn that failure is the shortest distance between ignorance and wisdom. Dying over and over and over and over in that game allowed me to let go of my fear of dying (mostly figuratively) and realize that insulating myself from making mistakes wasn't getting me anywhere. That led me to valuing the path rather then the goal - the Amulet of Yendor is still down there somewhere, but I don't care that much because I'm having too much fun dying far, far away from it.
posted by Dmenet at 9:22 AM on September 1, 2010

You might like The Now Habit (the cover looks as if it is just another self-help book, but I found it to be really high quality positive psychology reading, in terms that it explains the mechanism of fear of failure/fear of taking risks, the processes that we put ourselves through). It's overall a very systemic text, as the author goes through probably all major scenarios of occupational sabotage, and describes solutions of regaining your personal agency. Btw, be encouraged to get rid of "I should", "I have to"!
posted by Jurate at 12:10 PM on September 1, 2010

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