I'm addicted to the status quo
October 2, 2020 4:45 PM   Subscribe

I keep repeating a particular pattern of behaviour: work towards a desired change, get very anxious when it looks like the desired change is actually going to happen, and pull the plug on it to return to the status quo. I read so much about 'leaning into uncertainty' etc, but I simply do not know how to do that. How do you actually make a change in your life that looks good but could be risky?

This is an aspect of my behaviour that makes me very sad. I would like concrete tips on how to become more comfortable with taking risks.

I'm in my 30s. I should say, because I think it's probably relevant, that my early childhood was kind of tumultuous and I have grown up to make choices that favour security and stability over happiness and fulfilment.

There are many examples of this, so I'll go with a straightforward one from last year. I've always thought I wanted to meet someone nice and settle down. I met a person who seemed into me and like they could be someone I could actually see myself with. As soon as it became clear that this person was into me, I panic-spiralled about all the things that could go wrong, decided that that this level of anxiety was not worth the sacrifice of my independence, and pulled the plug on that. I do like being single, but this could have been a really positive development for me. I'll never know, though. That particular bird has flown.

This is not a dating question. This is a question about how to stop my anxiety from living my life for me. I'm in therapy, but we've not gotten to this yet. But it's been getting me down.

I have repeated this pattern in too many ways, big and small - in my work and personal life. But the general pattern follows the example outlined above:
- want a thing
- take steps to achieve a thing
- thing starts looking like it's actually going to happen
- I panic because of all the things that could go wrong
- I spend days ruminating or researching things that might go wrong on the internet
- I decide that nothing is worth this level of anxiety, and and put an end to the process

There is always an initial sense of relief, followed by a sense of deep regret.

This is a pattern I cannot seem to shake, and it holds me back from taking risks or doing things that could be enriching, fun or pleasurable. I feel like I spend too much of my life wanting and working towards but never actually doing or having them because I always let the process kind of founder and stop before reaching completion. I know people who just jump into jobs, situations or relationships with no idea of how it's going to pan out. I cannot conceive doing that. I just can't really see myself taking a big life risk if I'm not 100% sure it's going to work out, but because it's impossible to be 100% sure, I end up not doing anything.

Have any other Mefites successfully dealt with this kind of thing? What are some concrete steps I can actually DO to actually achieve positive, if scary changes in my life?

Some of you will possibly suggest taking small risks (a new haircut etc) or other baby steps to grow comfortable with risk, but I'm already pretty comfortable with small risks.

I'm talking about the big stuff - life, relationships, work, money. Those are the areas that I feel paralysed to take action, even when I want to.

TIA, Mefites. You're the best.
posted by unicorn chaser to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Have you processed any deep seated anger or grief from your childhood? Repressed emotions can really hold us back.

Your inner child is so scared of big change. You've done such a good job of looking after him/her, but the safety is holding you back. Maybe you need to talk to him/her about what will help them feel safe in the face of a big change. I know I sound like a hippie, but I am a psychologist and the inner child work is really effective ;) - might not be your thing but if you're interested, I highly recommend Christine Hassler's podcast for growth around this kind of thing. Look for episode titles that seem relevant.

All the best to you! :)
posted by beccyjoe at 5:16 PM on October 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Well, I certainly struggle with anxiety on occasion, especially at the start of large projects. I tell my wife it feels like I've gotten in a roller coaster and we're heading up the first hill and it's only going to get harder and crazier from this point on. The kinds of things I'm talking about include financial planning for retirement, having our kitchen remodeled, switching to part-time for semi-retirement, etc.

Partially she helps keep me stay sane, partially we try to do our homework to avoid pitfalls and partially we try to work with people who have been recommended. And yet still I can say the first couple financial planners were duds (but the current one is great), our kitchen remodel went badly but other remodels went great (found better contractor) and we ended up going to semi-retirement in April of this year (seems to be going OK so far, too early to be sure). So I guess I'm saying that having someone to support you and bounce ideas/decisions off of (friend, relative) might help.

Also you might be "awfulizing" in the terminology of a book I like. The link is to a chart that summarizes the approach to improving your thought processes, especially with regard to "self talk".

Also, I recently read about the Ulysses Pact as a way to coax yourself to commit and follow-through on projects, but I think that's more about overcoming procrastination than anxiety. But on the plus side this link does have a cute cat gif.

I hope this was of some help.
posted by forthright at 6:20 PM on October 2, 2020

The quote I use to describe this is "vertigo at apogee" (thanks to Lois McMaster Bujold Komarr). Just being able to remember that and repeat it when I become scared helps.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:50 PM on October 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

I had a very similar problem. Social change is good but feeling like a leader can be overwhelming. Therapy has helped, but nothing helps more than finding a team who can take the lead when I'm emotionally or physically unable to take part. Team assembly is a big risk. It involves vetting, review, rules, possibly a constitution.
posted by parmanparman at 3:58 AM on October 3, 2020

I have very similar tendencies and I did in fact (for the most part) overcome it.

It's about developing distress management, healthy coping skills (which DBT can help with) and actually accustoming yourself to feeling fear but pushing past it. Little stuff like haircuts isnt enough to build on for big life things. You have to find some thing that REALLY scares you. (Something reasonable, I'm not suggesting you take up BASE jumping or whatever)

I used learning to free dive in deep water coral reefs, and other ocean-related activities that are slightly risky but also require commitment once undertaken. Friend, it was awful. The all-consuming fear was intense. But I pushed through it and eventually realized that being afraid was a temporary unpleasantness that was overcome by continuing ahead with the plan. The time from feeling fear to moving past it gradually shortened over time.

You will need to accept that you will feel fear. The key is not to be afraid of your fear. It's ok to be afraid. You can still do things that you're afraid of.

Differentiating between actual danger versus anticipatory anxiety is key here. You're not trying to shut off a useful instinct. You're trying to dial it down in situations where it is overreacting, or triggering incorrectly. Fear is a useful tool. But you can develop other ways to deal with new situations (that's where DBT comes in).

Dont let fear be the hammer and the rest of your life be a series of nails.

Best of luck to you.
posted by ananci at 7:31 AM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Try asking yourself, what are the benefits of change? what are the benefits of not changing? what are the negatives of change? what are the negatives of not changing? This can help you work through if "status quo" is good or bad, and what may be your views for why status quo has its benefits.

I also like to try to tell myself a story of what are the best possible things that could happen with the change (since I intuitively tell myself a story of what are the worst things that could happen). Then, I try to tell myself a story of what's most likely to happen. Then, I assign an actual probability to each... and generally, I feel better that my worst anxieties are probably highly unlikely. This is a strategy from the "Worry Cure" book that I've personally found super helpful.
posted by ellerhodes at 9:04 AM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is the line I'm focused on where you have the leverage to change:

"decided that that this level of anxiety was not worth it and gave up"

Instead of responding to the anxiety by changing your plans (giving in and thereby, I'm sorry to say it, reinforcing internally that the anxiety was right) this is where you should be going to either your therapist or your pre-assembled therapeutic bag of tricks and saying, this level of anxiety isn't okay and I'm going to beat it.

The tricks recommended up above with the inner child are actually really good tricks, and I recommend them. Recognizing there are parts of your brain that aren't under your conscious control, but that you can negotiate and emotionally engage with, is really helpful for being able to get at your deeper feelings.

I also recommend you try to interrupt the step where you actually cancel the thing, especially since you find the relief turns into something negative later. Maybe it's 3:00 in the morning and you've been anxiety reading about how people who move to new cities sometimes never make friends and end up miserable and yada yada, that does not mean you have to immediately email the landlord you've been talking to and withdraw your application. You can make a note for yourself instead to say "consider withdrawing application in the morning" or even make a calendar reminder to do it in a few days, and then tell yourself it's done and it's all settled just as soon as you get a night's sleep. And then in the morning and the light of day when everything feels a little better you can keep testing that "well, it's all okay, I'm going to cancel it on Friday" feeling.
posted by Lady Li at 10:01 AM on October 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Is a part of you afraid of letting go of the identity of “unhappy and held back in life?” Like you don’t know who you are on the other side.

Were you made to feel bad for taking the initiative as a kid, belittled, cut down at the knees?

I have a touch of this and then I turned 40 in the year of our Covid and something in me said wow this is it. I pictured dying and thinking “but I never got to be who I am in my heart” and that thought terrified me enough to step into abyss.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:07 AM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Do you have a friend or therapist that could be a responsibility buddy? The workflow would roughly work like this:

1) When you are feeling calm and sane, you talk a good game about your plan with your buddy, and come up with a list of reasons it’s a good idea and the steps you’ll need to take (or avoid) to make it happen.
2) Responsibility Buddy expects a progress email once a week. Alternatively, plans to cancel get put on hold until you can ask the buddy at a reasonable hour. The buddy has your list of reasons. Have any of them changed? No? Then this is your brain telling you you don’t deserve good things. Keep going.

I have been this friend for people before. I’ve also had peers who have similar goals to mine that have served as something akin to this, and the regular checkins keep us both honest. I think it works less well for something like a romantic relationship but it would work for things like moving, getting a new job/shifting careers, coming out, etc, that involve a smaller number of choices to stay, and I think having one or two successes may help you push through the scary bit.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:48 PM on October 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

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