“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” —T. S. Eliot
Susan, a good friend of mine, caught me off guard when she revealed that she might have cancer. She openly said, “I’m really worried about these lumps I found under my skin.” I quickly inquired, “When do you have an appointment with your doctor to get them checked?”
“Oh, I’m not going to the doctor,” Susan said. “He might tell me that these lumps really are cancer.”
“What!? You’ve got to be kidding me! The earlier you get this checked out the better,” I insisted.
She looked me in the eye and with all seriousness said, “If I go to my doctor and he tells me it’s cancer then it’s real. Right now it’s just something I’m worried about.”
Not only was Susan trying to avoid the risk of knowing the truth, she was also content to merely worry rather than do something about the problem.
Life is full of risks and some people are able to face risks squarely by dealing with problems as they arise. Others prefer to avoid perceived risks by distorting reality with a common defense mechanism called denial.
This illustrates an interesting paradox about avoiding risks. The greatest risk we can take in life is to try to avoid taking risks. For example, by avoiding the risk of hearing bad news Susan increases the chance that she will die from cancer.
Think of life as a series of choices and each choice we make can be pegged on a scale from low risk to high risk. Living life at either extreme is fraught with danger. Choosing to live as an adrenaline junkie is definitely dangerous, but avoiding risks at all costs can be dangerous too—and it is guaranteed to fail. Finding balance and managing risk appropriately is the key to healthy living.
What makes someone as risk avoidant as Susan? This is a complex question with many influential factors. Here are just a few:
Nature/nurture: Some of us are genetically predisposed to being cautious and averse to risk. Anyone who has had children knows that even babies have unique personalities with different levels of risk aversion and shyness.
Susan reports that she was a quiet, inhibited child in elementary school. She was never one to raise her hand in class to answer a question from the teacher, and she hated being called upon to be a team leader for any sport or activity.
Early attachment: Healthy bonding also sets the stage for later willingness to take risks. Insecure attachments in the early years can create lasting insecurity in later relationships.
Susan’s parents divorced when she was a young child and she recalls feeling horrible separation anxiety when not in the presence of her mother. This insecure attachment in her first relationship may help to explain why subsequent relationships are characterized by a deep fear of rejection. Although lonely, she would prefer to be alone than risk the pain of another broken heart.
Trauma: Unresolved trauma can create a generalized anxious apprehension that influences one’s willingness to take risks.
After witnessing her parents fight repeatedly when she was a child, Susan worries that her most important relationships will end in unresolved conflict as well. She strives to please everyone and feels emotionally triggered and responsible if someone is not happy, even when their unhappiness has nothing to do with her.
If you can relate to Susan in some of these influencing factors, or with some of her symptoms, then you might wonder what you can do about your aversion to risk.
Counseling for early attachment issues or trauma will help with aversion to risk. Good counselors don’t make decisions for you but help you weigh pros and cons of decisions that involve risk. Therapy helps people get off the fence by facing choices and their consequences.
Immobilizing fears can be irrational and are frequently based on “what if” thinking of worst-case scenarios. Therapy helps people figure out what is rational and what is irrational in order to make courageous decisions even when fear is present.
Fortunately, our Savior did not let fear stop him from facing one of the most horrific deaths imaginable. When we keep Jesus as our example, then we can endure all opposition and face our fears courageously (Hebrews 12:1-3).
— by Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D.
Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Psychological Services in Mission Valley. He is also a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. Learn more at www.lighthousepsy.com.