How can I become less risk-averse?
July 7, 2006 5:19 AM   Subscribe

How can I become less risk-averse?

I do have a history of anxiety and depression — I've posted about it here before — but I've mostly put that behind me. Therapy helped.

What I'm left with is a level head and an annoying aversion to taking risks. I'm one of those guys who eats the same thing for lunch every day, doesn't talk to new people, doesn't like to try new things or discuss subjects he doesn't know about. Therapy — and dude, I've been in a lot of therapy over the past few years — hasn't seemed to do a damn thing about that. My friends tell me it's just the sort of person I am.

But I'm tired of it. Short of more therapy (can't afford it anyway) or similarly expensive expedients like skydiving or extended world travel (which would be fun when I've got the money), what can a regular guy do to teach himself to take good risks gracefully?
posted by nebulawindphone to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you can make a list of things that you would want to do if you weren't so risk-averse, and try to do one a week. It can be anything from trying a new place for lunch, doing something completely different on your weekends (rent a bike, go horseback riding, etc), saying hello to strangers, etc. I think you're going to have to ease into this gradually - you can't go from being a creature of habit & comfort to someone who does new & different things all the time overnight.
posted by tastybrains at 5:27 AM on July 7, 2006

I'd weigh the risks more accurately. I talk to people I don't know every day. They think I'm weird, or funny, or annoying. Not really a risk.

I eat the same things every day, because they are good for me. Why eat something different? Change for the sake of change is silly.

Sky diving and world travel - these have finacial costs, and finacial and health risks... so these aren't as low risk as talking to strangers.

I've notice that nobody really knows much about anything. Feel free to have an opinion even if you don't know squat. Plus, changing you mind is easy. It's always nice to see the surprise on people's faces when you say, "Good point. Hadn't thought of that. I agree with you now."
posted by ewkpates at 5:52 AM on July 7, 2006

Risks are like drugs: take more and your tolerance rises. Your tolerance sounds pretty low if you're afraid to talk to people, so I think skydiving is way above that.

Basically, the way to become less risk-averse is to take risks. Start with Jay-walking and work up. Take a risk every day and before you know it you'll be reckless :)
posted by bonaldi at 5:56 AM on July 7, 2006

yeah, "who you are" is a series of habits. Of course there are underlying molecular structures that push certain habits, but your character is really the result of actions being repeated. If you ever wish you were different than you are, then there's enough conflict / flexibility in that molecular structure for you to change. (Aristotle argues that ethics are the result of character, and character is the result of habit: so in order to be a good person, you have to constantly practice being good.)

You can change things about yourself. I was extraordinarily shy when I was young and over the years have truly learned to be more outgoing. The thing is, it still doesn't really come naturally, and I still have to make conscious efforts, where some people just make new friends without thinking. So accept that altering this about yourself is something you're choosing to do, a little project you're embarking on, and don't expect for your entire personality to just melt away - you certainly wouldn't want 'who you are' to be that malleable, right? Habits can be changed, but they have worn real grooves, and won't just fall away easily.

Then set yourself some real goals. Start small - talk to one stranger today; look into taking a pottery class (or whatever); get lunch somewhere new. But give real thought to what exactly about yourself you wish to change. Are there specific outcomes you are imagining, or is it a vague sense that your life would be more interesting if not for this trait? If the latter, remember that almost no one's life is really a series of adventures like you see in movies, or that it's possible to have a lot of adventures without really getting anything out of them, or that you can find excitement and meaning in the most mundane parts of life if you want to...

That said, expanding your horizons is never a bad thing - just keep in mind it's both what you're doing and how you approach it that matters. Are you happy with your job? Do you know where it's leading? Having a good sense of the long-term plan is actually really useful in allowing you to fill out the other details. If you have extra time in your schedule, I would look into taking some kind of class - life drawing, martial arts, psychology 101, improv - something which both is an example of doing something new, and that will also give you a little insight into your behavior or ways to deal with unexpected situations etc...

I have had some aversion to risk issues myself and one thing that helped me was getting treated for cancer a few years ago. It's worth reminding yourself that you really do Only Live Once and You Could Die Tomorrow. Make it worthwhile.
posted by mdn at 6:03 AM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

an annoying aversion to taking risks

Annoyance with (as opposed to passive unhappiness about) the status quo is a really good motivator and in my experience is easier to summon up than positive enthusiasm for doing something different. It sounds like you're already half way there, just fan the flames a bit and allow yourself to get really pissed off, it should be enough to drive you into at least trying some new food.
posted by teleskiving at 6:04 AM on July 7, 2006

This has worked extremely well for me:

1. Identify areas where my risk aversion makes me unhappy.
2. Consider the reasonableness of my aversion.
3. Assuming it's not reasonable to be afraid, do it.
4. Repeat.

Step three is extremely hard at first, but it gets easier.

I have a job that requires me to make contact with strangers, develop empathy with them, and spend time talking to them. When I started, I used to hyperventilate and get cold sweats just before initiating contact.

After about six months or a year, it was no longer scary -- though definitely still not completely natural. Five years later, I'm completely comfortable talking to almost anyone about almost anything. It's pretty surprising, actually.

My inner personality is still unchanged -- I'm still an introvert who'd rather only deal with a small number of people in my home life. But the fear is gone, and that gives me a lot of freedom in the world.

I learned my method during cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, and it's helped me enormously.

The worst thing that can happen in most situations that you're unreasonably worried about: you'll wind up embarrassed. Most of the time you won't wind up embarrassed. But the times that you do, it won't be as bad as the discomfort that prevented you from taking the risk in the first place. And gradually embarrassment won't matter to you as much any more, which is incredibly freeing.

Of course, if you're highly neurotic you may develop new neuroses as you abandon the old ones. Or maybe that's just me.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:43 AM on July 7, 2006

if you want to become more risk-embracing, then start with little risks.

vary your routine. take a different way to work tomorrow. sit down at a different table at lunch. order something different for lunch. walk into your favourite multiplex tonight at 7pm sharp, and buy a ticket for the very next movie that will begin - don't even look at the titles, just buy the ticket and go in.

these little changes are easy. the harder part is within. why are you risk adverse right now? does it stem from the pleasure of the known, or the fear of the unknown? does it stem from satisfaction with your current situation or a fear of not being able to handle if something goes awry?

you are older and wiser now - and you've had years of good help. you will be able to tackle change far better than you think: that's your 'old self' still talking, the self you had prior to therapy. maybe it's high time to let that protective old self go, and replace it with the capable new self that you have built.

taking risks is not about jumping off buildings or going skydiving or joining in on a street fight already in progress - that's all about folly, not risks :) taking risks is introducing variety in your life, and building up the confidence that you have already seeded.

pick a little challenge every day and just do it. and congratulate yourself on expanding your boundaries. good luck.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:45 AM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would highly recommend a martial arts course. Being a little risk averse myself, I know that a big part of it comes from self confidence levels. Martial arts courses instill good discipline and self esteem. There are courses for beginners, and you don't need to be very athletic to get started. You will have to work at it a bit, but it's so worth it. Classes should be relatively inexpensive and may even be available free in some areas, and it would not only build your self confidence, but also give you an avenue to trying something new, meeting new people, etc.

Best of luck to you whatever you try...
posted by twiggy at 7:11 AM on July 7, 2006

There's aversion to taking risks and then there's self-defeating behavior. It can be a very fine line. I agree with the advice to "weigh the risks more accurately" - if you try something new for lunch, really, what's the risk? You won't like it. Is the world going to end if you have a bad lunch? What if you have a fantastic lunch? Do you not think you deserve that?

It really does take kicking your own ass to get out of this kind of spiral. It sounds like you've busted out of the really scary parts of depression but haven't quite started being nice to yourself - or stopped taking yourself so very seriously.

When I was stuck in this rut, I started asking myself this question: "Is anyone actually going to get hurt, killed, or put in jail?" because I was treating every single decision like one of those was a real possibility, catastrophizing everything. Yes, in fact, you could try something new for lunch, discover a food allergy you didn't know you had, and while you're laying on the floor gasping the restaurant could be invaded by crazed gun-wielding killers who will shoot you because you can't crawl away fast enough. That's the worst that could happen. That is also no way to live, with all those gangsters and emergency rooms in your head.

Start with baby steps. Once you start, your perception of risk will begin to fall in line with your real-world experience. Also, you'll start having more fun.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:19 AM on July 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

As you start with the baby steps that everyone has mentioned, stop describing yourself as "risk averse." Even when you're talking to yourself, change it to "I'm learning to take more risks." Even if you're in the middle of a sentence, if you call yourself "risk averse" or say something about how you never take chances, stop and correct it to "I'm learning to take more risks."

The process sounds silly, but it's amazing how much it will accomplish.
posted by occhiblu at 8:58 AM on July 7, 2006

As my mom always said, "Feel the fear, then do it anyway."

Dan Rather says, "Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow."

So don't let the fear stop you-- feel the fear, recognized that it's just fear and not actual paralysis, and then step forward and do whatever it is you are just about to do.

You said "gracefully"-- and that might be part of it. Have grace for yourself-- sometimes part of not taking the risk is fear of not doing it perfectly the first time. So what if there's an awkward silence when you talk to a new person?! You're new at this, and you'll get better. You could always ask them if they know if any fun restaurants in such-and-such neighborhood, or whatever. So what if your opinion wasn't presented perfectly in the debate?! You can always say, "Hey, I haven't really discussed this much before. Challenge me-- I'd like to understand more points of view on this."

Good luck to you!
posted by orangemiles at 9:36 AM on July 7, 2006

Learn to cook.

Seriously. And not just "learn to cook fried rice" or mackerel something like that, but learn enough about cooking to know how to cook anything. You don't have to become a chef or even very, very good. But cooking is all about risk and getting comfortable with it. It naturally spreads to the rest of life.

If not cooking, maybe gardening. Just trying to think outside the box. I find it also helps that, when actually recognizing yourself taking a risk, you should giggle like a school girl on the inside, instead of letting anxiety get the better of you. Order the octopus, giggle like a school girl, and take a couple bites.
posted by ontic at 10:10 AM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I find it also helps that, when actually recognizing yourself taking a risk, you should giggle like a school girl on the inside, instead of letting anxiety get the better of you.

It's also amazing how happy people are to hear you say, "I've never tried this before, I'm a little nervous." It gives them the opportunity either to play "expert," which can be fun and confidence-building for them, or to admit that they're as much at a loss as you are, which can be fun and bonding for you both.

Admitting I'm nervous or fearful also tends makes me less so -- I think a lot of the feelings we call nervousness or fear are actually stress from having to hide the fear. Once you let go of that, the remaining uncertainty is much easier to deal with.
posted by occhiblu at 10:45 AM on July 7, 2006

Instead of boycotting yourself by thinking of expensive big things you can't afford like travelling the whole world, why not start by travelling in your area as if you were a tourist? See the places you've never been to. Go to the nearest station, get on a train, and just go where it takes you, deciding on the spot, without planning, even just for one day. Browse listings for music/theatre/whatever in your area and pick something you've never heard of. Go camping. Anything you can think of that's out of the ordinary for you, but don't think about it, do it. (Well, within the limits of sanity, so do think about it, but not too much).

Therapy doesn't do anything for what you're describing, because it can only take you so far. There's only so much you can change your view of things and yourself by talking, but if you don't act differently, your brain doesn't register the change, it perceives a stasis even if you've already moved on psychologically.

Like teleskiving said, being annoyed and tired of it is already a great start. It means you're ready to do something about it because the desire to change has grown greater than the anxiety to try new things.
posted by funambulist at 11:18 AM on July 7, 2006

A little trick I developed for talking to strangers is to mentally tell myself "I'm never going to see this person again anyway, so who cares if I say something dumb." You will not believe how relaxed this makes you feel. It takes all the stress and anxiety out of the situation and allows you to focus on the here and now.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 11:58 AM on July 7, 2006

A typical solution to this, that can take many forms, is to engage in something that will teach you, at a very deep level, that you can handle whatever comes your way, without even blinking.

Once that is part of your personality - the assured knowledge that you deal with anything and do it well, then it doesn't bother you anymore to be doing things with unpredicatable results.

There are plenty of ways to get there, people find their own route. For some, it might be a big increase in independance, such as taking a job (or a backpacking trip) in a foreign country for a year, where you know no-one, and have to handle everything for yourself for that period.

For others, money (or their workplace) can buy a course such as Outward Bound, which is kind of hard to describe, but it's essentially a month where you are put in extremely challenging conditions (perhaps think elite / special-forces military survival training, but for soft civilians, minus the violence/killing/military aspect).

For others, it might be a really rough period of life. And so on.

Basically, something that shows you that your fears are unfounded - that your real limits (even your comfortable limits) are way way beyond what you are currently restricting yourself too.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:12 PM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Or to put it another way, some advice here is to take things a step at a time, but this problem is also something for which (unlike swimming) getting thrown into the deep end really works, and works fast. So "the deep end" is a viable option.

(So many people I know have done some kind of trial-by-fire and they all emerge as far more powerful, assured, people.)

posted by -harlequin- at 12:18 PM on July 7, 2006

It really does take kicking your own ass to get out of this kind of spiral.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:19 AM PST on July 7

This is the crux of it, I think. At my last corporate job there was a term that we peons got used to hearing whenever senior management dumped a new project on us where we complained that we didn't have the experience or resources to properly deal with it - JFDI, or 'Just F... Do It'. I didn't think that it was a particularly good way to run the business, but it's a good phrase to apply when you're trying to come up with excuses not to do something because you're afraid of failure or embarrassment.

Scour the InterWebs, maybe find something that you would enjoy doing or something that strikes you as a worthwhile cause and volunteer for a day or a weekend. Don't give yourself too long to fret about it and build up a list of all the potentially disastrous consequences - find something, commit yourself to doing it the next time you've got a free day and then JFDI. You'll probably be immensely apprehensive and uncomfortable when the day comes, but remind yourself that you're taking a positive step and that if you don't do it, you'll be spending another day stuck in the rut.

If a few things go wrong, don't spend weeks analyzing and beating yourself up about it, just consider it a learning experience and move on to another challenge. And congratulate yourself that whatever it was, no matter how seemingly insignificant, you had the guts to get stuck into it.

And besides, you'll probably surprise yourself at how well you cope, and how much better you feel for having had the experience.
posted by boosh at 12:51 PM on July 7, 2006

Or to put it another way, some advice here is to take things a step at a time, but this problem is also something for which (unlike swimming) getting thrown into the deep end really works, and works fast. So "the deep end" is a viable option.

I agree, harlequin, it can indeed work very well, but on the other hand, for someone with a history of anxiety and depression, even if it's mostly past them, the deep end is different than for someone who's never suffered anxiety but is just looking for a bit more excitement.

Then again this is all so individual it's hard to say. Maybe a combination of gradual steps, and a little more daring plunge once in a while, can both push things forward. I just think it's important to keep in mind one can back out a little and then move forward again - making progress in these things is never a straight line.
posted by funambulist at 2:21 PM on July 7, 2006

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