Hand stopping dominoes from falling

How to deal with the anxiety of taking risks

If you’re risk-averse, the prospect of taking a risk typically brings to mind one of two outcomes that leave us dealing with anxiety: 1) either the attempt fails—or worse, it proves harmful—or 2) it succeeds but introduces new challenges and unknowns you might not feel equipped to handle.

The second outcome can be especially daunting. It sounds cynical, but success can add more responsibilities and unforeseen activities to your plate.

What if it’s too much? What if I can’t handle the extra time and effort that’s required to keep this going?

This fear of the unknown is a very real scenario for many people, which is why making real change in our lives feels so hard.

The Reality of Change

If you decide to create a new habit or tackle something challenging, you will definitely create new variables to manage.

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and they can create other little motions—there’s your physics lesson for today, from a non-physicist.

Often, instead of admitting that yes, we want to succeed at our goals but yes, we also feel uncertain about managing the outcomes, we label ourselves as lazy or procrastinators.

Now, we have a “personality trait” to blame, one we think we were born with and can’t change.

How can we change anything if we believe we’re just inherently slothful people who always procrastinate?

If you’re risk-averse, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

You beat yourself up for not doing “it,” whatever “it” is, and wonder when your current existence will become uncomfortable enough to finally push you to take that scary risk, make that decision, and just deal with whatever happens.

And to a great degree, that’s true.

For all of us, real change happens when we decide that the benefits of doing something different outweigh the costs of staying where we are:

  • You start eating healthy when your cardiologist puts you on notice.
  • You put your resume out there when you get passed over for a promotion again.
  • You invest in therapy because your out-of-control emotions are impacting your relationships.

But until you reach that point, there’s a mountain of explanations and rationalizations blocking your path. They all boil down to you being someone who “just doesn’t get it.”

Rather than accepting the more workable reality that “I’m choosing not to engage with this right now because I’m not willing to deal with the possible results,” we instead bring our best authoritarian voice to the party, hoping it will give us that swift kick to get motivated and “just do it already.”

We spend a lot of time in this mindset, and all it does is reinforce a wicked shame narrative.

Child being scolded by parent

The Shame Game

I recently saw a viral video where a young woman was yelling, pointing, and wagging her finger at the screen, animatedly telling her millions of viewers that they haven’t succeeded yet because they’re lazy.

I wish I was exaggerating for narrative effect, but sadly, it was as described.

Her rant was long and harsh. I felt like a scolded child with her hand fresh out of the cookie jar just watching it.

What was truly shocking were the thousands of “atta girl” comments on the video, thanking her for motivating them to stop being so lazy, to say what needed to be said, hearts and party-hat emojis scattered throughout. ❤️ 🎉

But the reality is, most of these commenters won’t change a thing about their life. They’ll just let the platform take them to the next video because that’s what we’re conditioned to now.

Contrary to popular belief, shame is a terrible and costly motivator and makes our struggle dealing with anxiety even worse.

To add insult to injury, this video even had a big brand sponsor, paying her to shame people like this.

I digress.

The point is, we quickly shame ourselves for not taking actions, and then we feel anxious because we know our current behaviors are keeping us stuck.

Risk and Reward

Ironically, no matter how we feel, changing anything involves encountering risk:

  • Eating heart-healthy often means spending more on groceries (have you ever seen kale BOGO?).
  • If your current employer finds out you’re job hunting, it could lead to awkward feelings or a preemptive push out the door.
  • Therapy requires both a financial and emotional commitment that may require you to confront some uncomfortable truths about yourself and your relationships.

Once we think about these possible outcomes, we either decide it’s worth it right now, or it isn’t.

We take our actions from there.

This dynamic repeats daily, creating decision paralysis when we feel tension between the “right” and “wrong” thing to do.

But this dynamic can also bring us what we actually want if we’re willing to accept the possibility of risk.

Sounds easy enough. Why is it so hard then?

Transformation from caterpillar to butterfly

Patience in the Process

Our modern challenge is that we have zero patience for any kind of process to unfold. We want to become the best version of ourselves by next Tuesday.

Marketers exploit this by playing on our fears that unless we take big, bold actions today—buy that membership, purchase the latest book, enroll in a high-intensity workshop—we won’t have peace of mind.

They draw us to their quick fixes promising fast transformations and a life devoid of dealing with anxiety.

In the first session with a client, I point out that our hour-long chat won’t magically change their life. In fact, it might even take several sessions to feel like you’re making any progress.

Given the mental gymnastics that clients perform just to get the courage to start therapy, this can be off-putting.

But if we can connect in the first session, and you walk away feel heard and seen, we’ve achieved our goal.

Picking apart your life to figure out what’s working and what’s not takes real time.

Today, most of the solutions we need to change something in our lives are right at our fingertips.

If you want to organize a cluttered closet, you’ll find limitless strategies online in one afternoon. You can tame that closet by sundown.

Finding options and strategies isn’t the issue.

The problem is the modern “go big or go home” approach.

Small Steps, Big Impact

We glorify great risk.

Our heroes today are those who defy gravity, overcome impossible odds, face political persecution, or stare death in the face. We are drawn to those who seem to risk everything to build a company, create a movement, or save a life.

We don’t often celebrate the small acts of bravery that no one sees.

You won’t see the local news interview someone who managed to take a brisk walk five days this week to improve their physical health.

Consequently, we think it’s no big deal when we actually do accomplish what we set out to do.

“I didn’t run a marathon or anything,” you might say.

But actually, you made a healthy choice five times this week, despite being tired, the weather, how goofy you think you look when you swing your arms, or whatever obstacle your mind presented you.

That’s a big deal.

By tackling these small risks, you build confidence and gradually increase your tolerance for bigger risks and challenges.

Maybe after a streak of brisk walks, you’ll decide to keep going, maybe even join a 1K walk for a cause you care about. Your consistent small steps lead to crossing the finish line with others who share your passion.

Look where you are now!

You can absolutely conquer your fear of heights by parachuting out of a plane.

But you’ll build more confidence to engage the risk and danger of heights by peeking out of a high-rise window first and working your way up.

Engaging with risk involves more than just weighing the probabilities of potential outcomes.

By taking manageable risks, you give yourself the opportunity to explore some new small aspect of life.

This crock-pot-style approach allows you to catch your breath, evaluate the results, and use those insights and experiences to guide your next steps.

What is one small risk you can take today?