a cold and timid soul who neither knows victory nor defeat
March 13, 2013 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Cautious/risk-averse Mefites - how did you train yourself to become braver?

This is a very general question because it applies to many aspects of my life. I am a very cautious and pessimistic person. Usually because I have either experienced negative consequences of taking risks or have seen these happening to other people.

This doesn't mean that I have lived my life in a sheltered cocoon - but I have always minimised risk when making decisions and this is something I would like to change - just to show myself I can do it, I guess. But it's sort of ingrained in me now. I mean, I haven't changed my hairstyle for 10 years!

I have issues with anxiety, and if I ever AM involved in something that might go wrong (handling a big work event was the most recent trigger), the fear about it tends to keep me awake at night.

So, heroes of Metafilter. How did you train yourself to take chances? It could be any kind of chance - jumping out of a plane; approaching the cute guy or girl at the bar; speaking in public - anything that scared you, could have gone completely wrong, and yet you went for it.

Inspire me! Thanks guys.

(This similar question only got 3 answers.)
posted by Ziggy500 to Human Relations (21 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Don't think about how things can go wrong. Think about how many ways they can go well.

Scared of a work presentation or event? Don't think about screwing it up. When it comes up in your mind, picture all the ways it can succeed. Your boss will be impressed with your knowledge. Your coworkers will respect your hard work. You'll get handed more opportunities because of your success. Picture them happening- really play them out as if in a dream.

I was seriously agoraphobic for the better part of a year and was terrified of everything that didn't involve staying at home and sitting on the couch. I pushed myself to do something small every week that made me uncomfortable or scared (going to the corner store, making a phone call), and when the little things don't scare you any longer, move onto bigger things. Keep going.

I'm sad I let myself be that way for so long. The longer you give in to your fears, no matter how minor, the stronger they get.
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:20 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

After watching my friend Nick pass away at 28 with lymphoma, I started realizing it's actually a privilege to have the opportunity to look like an idiot in front of other people. Some don't get that chance any more.

I also realized that what I felt when I failed - shame - was the same as what I felt if I didn't try. So the only way out of feeling shame is to give things a go and hopefully succeed sometimes.

So, when I try something and fail at it, I remember Nick and picture him laughing at me and it puts a smile on my face. Works for public speaking, open mics, karaoke, yoga class, approaching strangers, whatever.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 9:20 AM on March 13, 2013 [23 favorites]

Going through something so painful that for a while you wish you were dead anyway can give you a certain something to draw upon even when it's long over. Things like, say, job interviews or fear of public speaking just don't rate.

It may be possible to summon that feeling up without the bad experience by practicing the attitude where, when you've done the best you can to prepare and/or the outcome is out of your control, there comes a time to say, "Fuck it. Let's do this," and look at every moment that follows as if you're Slim Pickens riding an atom bomb to the ground.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:35 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try starting small.

Pick one thing that a) either has you just a tiny bit scared, or b) that you've never in your life done before, and just do it. Not anything so big that you will have to psych yourself up a lot the way you're asking us how to do now, but...enough that you feel just a twinge. Like, okay, you say you haven't changed your hairstyle in ten years. How about starting there?

And that will either succeed or fail, and you'll live with consequences either way, but you'll also notice that it was still a risk, and regardless of the outcome, it was still something you tried doing.

and then pick another small thing and do that again. And then again. And then gradually start making the risks a little bigger. And then bigger. And keep going.

And going.

This is a life-long journey, but it's supposed to be that way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:36 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I still struggle with this to some degree, but I've gotten a lot better. For me, what helped was the realization that however badly something went, it would eventually be over and would then be something I could laugh about later. I have to occasionally give presentations for my job, and I hate public speaking....but I realized that it really only lasts a short time and then it's over. I can then relax and move on.

Another thing that helps me is being honest with other people about my anxieties. I used to think it was stupid to be nervous to speak in public, or get a new haircut, or try something new in general. But then I realized it's only stupid to not do something out of fear... it's totally fine to be anxious about it ahead of time. So I'll tell people I am anxious about starting a new hobby, or wearing a different type of clothing, or going to a certain social event. But then I'll go ahead and do it. It seems to take some of the power away when I'm honest about my feelings. (And in my experience, nobody makes fun of you if you're already laughing at yourself for being silly.)
posted by barnoley at 9:39 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I played poker obsessively for about a year. It really helped me internalize that there's a reward that goes along with the risk in every decision and to weigh both. In poker, that reward and risk can often be reliably quantified, but even when it can't, there's value to guessing (and guessing at how right you are) and making a call based on what little you know.

It also helped me get practice at pulling the trigger once I decided to do something that was opposed to my instincts. I got to reluctantly push stacks into the pot or grudgingly throw my cards into the muck over and over again.

You don't have to play poker, but – if you're that kind of person – maybe for intimidating decisions that involve risk, you can write out the following:
[Reward as positive number] * [Likelihood of reward as a fraction]
[Risk as a negative number] * [Likelihood of risk as a fraction]
Then fill in the variables and compare the two results. e.g.
Reward = 10 * 3/5 = 6
Risk = -20 * 1/10 = -2

Here, the reward and risk total is positive. So you stand more to gain than lose, even with the likelihood of the outcomes included.
This isn't going to help in cases in which it's very hard to guess at values, but sometimes there's cases where the upside is very big or very small and the downside is very big or very small, and writing it out like this can help you see just how worthwhile it is to take (or not take) a chance.

(It's actually helped me make more subtle decisions, but it sounds like you're talking about decisions with big upsides and downsides.)
posted by ignignokt at 9:40 AM on March 13, 2013

I remind myself of all the other times I was anxious and fearful and had a terrible sense of foreboding and absolutely KNEW something bad was going to happen . . . and everything turned out fine.
posted by HotToddy at 9:53 AM on March 13, 2013

Usually because I have either experienced negative consequences of taking risks or have seen these happening to other people.

To reframe: You have noticed negative consequences and decided those happened because a risky thing was done.

You do risky stuff all the time that you may not recognize as risky because you've never suffered bad outcomes, or the outcomes haven't been bad "enough" for you to consider the thing risky, or they're things you *have* to do (cross streets, drive a car) and your "Is this risky or not?" meter has been reset for those things. Being a pedestrian is a lot riskier than getting a haircut!

Minimizing risk in decision-making isn't necessarily bad, especially if you end up getting what you want anyway, but it's useful to begin to tease out what the actual risks are and what their consequences might be, and how likely it is that the worst possible outcome will happen.

How I've done it: I went from having hair all the down my back to very short hair; it took maybe a year of shorter and shorter cuts, until I finally really grasped that hair grows, and if I didn't like it when it was really short, I could endure several months of growing it back out to something approximating the length I preferred. That never happened and I still have hair short enough that "long" now means more than three inches and sends me running for a haircut.

I got a hobby that makes me be wrong in front of other people a lot - I mean, that's not why I got the hobby, but it's part and parcel of it. Nothing beyond feeling embarrassed sometimes for a few minutes has ever happened. I have never died of it and no one has ever shunned me because of it.

Asking people on dates: If you don't ask you don't get, and all they can really do is say no.
posted by rtha at 9:55 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't say "no" for them. "You miss 100% of the balls you don't swing at."

I hate risk. I just frame things differently than I used to. Taking small risks with some control over the situation equals hope of success. Being too risk averse equals guaranteed total loser. I try to keep my gambles in the range of "can afford to lose it all."

I also try to find the winding path up or down the mountain. You usually do not need to climb straight up a cliff, much less leap off a cliff. It is really rare that this is your one and only shot and there is no other path to success. It takes a bit more time, sort of -- except when you factor in extra time for having a heart attack and recovering, walking the long way around may actually be quicker.

At work, I had a teammate who was both very friendly and painfully shy. She needed a check overnighted. This involved taking a form to someone she had never met, in a different area and it was easy to get lost because all the cubicles looked the same. I walked her down, found the cubicle, did brief intros and let her take it from there. She was okay after that. It was just too much to deal with being physically lost, talking to a stranger without an intro, etc. After the intro, she was much more comfortable.

These days, I don't see too well. When people give me verbal directions, I sometimes say "I don't see too well. Can you just walk me over to it?" Most folks are very understanding. My point: You don't need someone else to be socially sensitive enough to volunteer to walk you through the first time. You can ask someone to walk you through. You also do not need to mention anxiety. Just tell them "I haven't done this before. Can you just show me one time? I should be fine after that."
posted by Michele in California at 10:09 AM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Like the above, I have a few mantras. "I life lived in fear is a life half-lived." and "Living in fear is just another way to die before your time."

I've also found areas where I can challenge myself without much risk, like the "start small" above. I did a sprint triathlon (slowly), I took up CrossFit. I'm fat and don't have much hope of ever being some elite athlete, but I do find that challenging myself in that sort of contrived circumstance has made me less afraid to challenge myself in other ways. Because usually the catastrophes I used to imagine ("everyone will laugh at me") are totally made-up catastrophes. Getting that reinforced often by challenging myself in these low-stakes ways has made me more adventurous.

So, try a new restaurant, new music, new gym class, new friend date - anything where the stakes are pretty low, and you can learn that taking risks can be fun.
posted by ldthomps at 10:29 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a reason the quote, "Life shrinks or expands, according to one's courage" is my favorite. It ties in very nicely with the old saying that you'll never regret the experiences in life you have, only the ones you didn't take.

Life is SHORT. People who don't want to go, die before they should. You know people (everyone does) mired in misery and pain. "If only" is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Just a few years ago, I had to decide what I wanted my life to be. Even just thinking about it was overwhelmingly scary, and I found myself too paralyzed to make any decisions at all. Looked at that way, it was too big...too much to contemplate. So instead, I made myself a promise - I would say yes to every opportunity that came my way.

Not that I would be braver. Not that I would stop being anxious over the things that could go wrong. Just that I would say yes instead of no.

Since then, I've climbed (literal and metaphoric) mountains. I've rappelled into canyons and gone caving underground (I am both afraid of heights and claustrophobic). I've gone to school and earned a degree. I've met people from all over the world, spent time doing things I didn't even know I loved, pursued causes that I care about, and howled at the moon.

Dude(tte), I'm 50. It's never too late.

Not all the experiences have been grand. Not all of them I ever want to repeat - but I did them, and now I know.

Life expands. You are capable of far more than you know. Just say yes.
posted by faineant at 11:16 AM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

I swear it's becoming my stock AskMe answer, but here it is: take an improv course. You will be in a room full of other people also taking risks, and supporting your risks. You will be taking "safe" risks - no physical injury, no job consequences. Improv has definitely improved my confidence and willingness to take risks. Plus it's a huge amount of fun.
posted by booksherpa at 11:35 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents used to make me flag waitstaff -- whether to send something back, or to get information, or whatever. Don't wait for them to come by -- stand and wave or whatever feels foreign/discomfiting to you. Come up with a random request (condiment, say) or an ingredient question, or anything. Just a baby step, in case making yourself visible and/or asking things of others are zones of dicomfort...
posted by acm at 12:30 PM on March 13, 2013

I'm going to be a little contrary here and say: It's okay to be scared.

I get anxious too. New things are scary. Things with people and loud noises are scary. For a long, long time I felt terrible guilt about this, telling myself life was short! and carpe diem! and give 100%! And then I'd not actually accomplish anything.

(As a child my father was also reaaaal into pushing me into things, and I know he meant well but it never helped).

So one day I said "self, this is okay. You can always feel scared. Let's figure out what it makes sense to be scared of though."

Jumping out of plane: YES FEAR RATIONAL
Public speaking: Fear acceptable but let's push past that 99% of the time. Work lectures = no backsies. Funeral speeches = yeah okay, you can hide from this one.
Telling the waiter the drink order is wrong: Self, you are being silly, this is 100% acceptable all of the time. Get over it.

So I made peace with the fact that I will never be one of the people who climb mountains and jump over guard rails or dye their hair blue and drop their day job for a jazz band. I'm sure it's awesome to be one of those people, and maybe I am hurting myself by giving this up. But I'm actually okay with that. I will read about them instead.

I do need to be one of those people who tries new things and speaks to strangers. And I'm going to do those things. The fear is okay... it just can't stop me.

But it wasn't until I gave myself guard rails and allowed myself to feel anxious that I could start trying.
posted by blue_and_bronze at 12:52 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

After I was very sick, I decided life was too short to not take risks. Not that I take huge ones, but I just want to live now because I know what it is like not to be in good health. Also, I agree with booksherpa--take an improv class. It is fun and really helps in your everyday life.
posted by Vermillion at 2:29 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a painfully shy dad who would basically badger us kids into doing all the interaction for him at places like restaurants and calling people for information. It sucked and I hated it. I realized when I was getting older and occasionally asking my boyfriend to do the same things for me that

- my anxiety was mostly a learned behavior. I get along fine with most people, I just worry that I won't, for no real reason
- watching my father who was an otherwise capable individual (when he wasn't drinking) was a great exercise in "how to not be an adult" and I didn't want to be like him, as much as I loved him because he was my dad.

The other angle is a little weirder. But basically I've been one of those people who, while I really enjoy life and all the things in it, sort of suffer from a lack of planning/future goals. So I never really thought I would live to see the year 2000, not for any reason, just had a lack of imagination. So all this time feels like extra, free time where I sort of no longer care about what happens. Some of this is just getting a more Buddhist detached outlook and some of it may be low grade depression where I can't be bothered but it's actually made me less fearful of situations and other people. What's the worst that happens? I die. I'd prefer not to die but honestly I'm good at math and I know the risks are really low but just FEEL big, and I'm really unlikely to die by talking to a stranger and anything else I can power through.

Watching yourself handle situation after situation and realize you came out okay eventually helps you learn to ignore the anxious brain telling you that you're in trouble. When I look at the people in my life who I admire, it's often the people who are less fearful, who are more social, who do things that I find really interesting. not always the super analytic people who live a lot inside their own heads (like I often do) and so I want to move myself closer to that side of the number line.
posted by jessamyn at 3:11 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Take a series of improv classes, designed for the complete beginner. Seriously. It's physical and mental, serious and silly. It teaches you how to roll with anything that happens. It teaches you how to pick up on other people's body language, and riff on that to change the scene. It shows you that you're not the only one responsible for 99.99% of the situations you're in - it's about the vibe and willingness (or not) of other folks, and some luck. That's liberating to know, in that the outcome of everything isn't only dependent on YOU. You can only control so much, and the rest of it is up to others.

Do it!
posted by barnone at 4:28 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Near death experience (not recommended, but works).
posted by ead at 7:37 PM on March 13, 2013

I get anxious about mundane things sometimes, and I am pretty risk averse.

When I really want to do something scary I try to take a bigger perspective on it.
(1) take the long view in terms of time. Imagine yourself in 10 years looking back on this. Either it's so tiny you won't remember it (making a scary phone call), or it will seem otherwise different from this perspective (maybe funny instead of scary)
(2) take the perspective of an onlooker. Imagine you are watching someone else do what you are thinking about doing. It often doesn't seem as risky or scary in that case. Watching someone jump out of a plane is much less confronting than doing it yourself. And watching someone else call over a waiter and complain about cold soup is nothing at all. You don't think badly of them for doing it, so probably no one is thinking badly of you when you do it either. I often try to watch from "outside" myself while I am doing something nerve-wracking.
posted by lollusc at 3:06 AM on March 14, 2013

"Ships are safe in harbour, but that's not what ships are for"

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."

I came here looking for answers... But then I realised that I am brave! Thinking about my role models and imagining that they were at some point in my position, feeling as scared as I was but that they overcame it and came out the other side the awesome people they are really helps.

Good luck! :)
posted by dinosaurprincess at 7:57 AM on March 14, 2013

Thanks, guys :) What great, kind answers. I have best-answered a few that I thought interesting - ignignokt the poker-stuff was fascinating - but really all of your answers were helpful.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:24 AM on March 18, 2013

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