How Playing It Safe Can Ruin Your Life

How Playing It Safe Can Ruin Your Life

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Have you ever missed out on a great opportunity because you played it safe?

Think about it. Look back over your life and think about the things you could have done. The opportunities you could have taken, the people you could have befriended, the experiences you could have savoured.

But back then those things seemed scary and risky. Wanting to play it safe, you elected to stay in your comfort zone at the time.

From where you sit now, you can easily and clearly see that you should have acted upon some of those things. In retrospect, those things were scary or risky at all – just different and new. They were, in all actuality, blessings that you walked away from.

It’s a sobering and outright sad feeling, isn’t it?

 

Playing It Safe Isn’t About Safety At All

You’re not the only one who has done that. Most of us have a tendency to play it safe.

Some of us equate playing it safe with being sensible and prudent. But most of the time, it’s something else all together.

The real problem isn’t safety or risk at all. The real problem is fear.

As humans, we are hard-wired to allow fear into our decision making. Most of us simply don’t understand fear, where it comes from, or the role it plays in what we choose to do or not do.

By understanding it more, you can prevent fear from clouding your decision-making process.

 

It’s Not Brain Surgery

What if I were to tell you that there was a little tiny part of your brain that pre-wires you to avoid risk and play it safe? Well, there actually is.

It’s called the amygdala and it plays a big part in what motivates us to behave the way we do. One of the functions of the amygdala is processing emotions – particularly those associated with survival. Like the emotion of fear for instance.

When you are in a familiar situation that you know to be safe, your amygdala is happy and secure – and so are you. But when something new or seemingly risky comes along, the amygdala kicks into high gear. It lets you know, “Hey, we’re outside our comfort zone here. Retreat! Withdrawal!”

Sometimes that reaction can save your life. Other times it can hold you back from a more fulfilling life.

The trick is learning to know the difference between valid fears of very real danger to our safety – and invalid fears of something new.

 

Mauled or Embarrassed – The Choice Is Yours

There are basically two types of decisions we make when we perceive danger or consequences. The first type, I call safe decisions – which are survival based. They keep us alive and assure we have adequate food and shelter. The second type I refer to as fearful decisions – which tend to keep us from taking less life-threatening risks and prevent us from spreading our wings.

Let’s take a look at some examples of both.

Safe or Feaurful

Safe decisions come from a very real fear of severe consequences to your health, life, or quality of life – while fearful decisions come from someplace completely different.

Look at that right hand column. If any one of those scenarios goes as badly as it’s capable of going, what happens? Does anyone die, go to prison, or lose their shelter? No. As it turns out the things we fear most seem to be much more about our feelings than they are about very serious consequences.

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” – Mark Twain

 

Our Five Most Common Baseless Fears

In my professional life, I’ve noticed time and time again that there are five major feelings-based fears that people let trip them up on their path to a better life. You’ll notice that they’re all very closely related.

 

1: Fear of failure

Have you ever passed on an opportunity to try something truly exciting because you were afraid you might fail at it? I have. The ironic thing is the fact that if you don’t try, you’ve already failed. So there’s really not much to lose. And yet we talk ourselves into believing that by not risking failure we’re somehow better off.

 

2: Fear of rejection

If you pitched your idea to the boss, or asked out that cute girl you like, or submitted your novel to a publisher, you might get rejected – and rejection hurts. So instead of feeling that emotion, we limit our potential and call it “playing it safe.”

 

3: Fear of inadequacy

This one usually manifests itself as, “I’m not good enough to do this thing I really want to do.” While this fear doesn’t necessarily originate from survival instinct, it’s no less powerful than any of the others.

 

4: Fear of unworthiness

Closely related to the fear of inadequacy, the self-talk associated with the fear of unworthiness sounds like, “Who am I to think that I might achieve that thing?” It comes from a place of humility, which normally is a good thing. But it’s also self-deprecating and destructive.

 

5: Fear of further commitment

This one should sound familiar, because we’re all guilty of it from time to time. We don’t always pass on opportunity because we’re afraid that we’re not good enough. Sometimes we know darn well that we’re good enough, but the ramifications of succeeding and the additional commitment needed after success is achieved scare the bejesus out of us.

 

Fighting Emotion With Logic

So now that you know that these fears are normal and that you’re not the only one who struggles with them, the question becomes: What can you do to get over them?

I find that instead of fighting raw innate human fears head-to-head, it’s best to use logic to take their power away.

When you find yourself letting any of those fears stop you from bettering yourself, run yourself through these three questions:

 

1: What is the worst thing that could happen if I ignored my fear and did this?

Take out a pen and paper and list all the potential (realistic) consequences. Would there be a loss of life, health, or livelihood? Or is the real risk just having to temporarily deal with an uncomfortable emotion like rejection or embarrassment?

 

2: What is the absolute best thing that could happen if I ignored my fear and went for it?

List all these, too. How might your life be different? What things might you learn? Who might you have the opportunity to connect with?

 

3: Are the possible consequences under #1 worth the potential benefits under #2?

Take a good look at both lists and give this question some thought. If the consequence of a particular action is death and the upside is a 10% pay raise – then your choice is simple. Avoid death.

But if the consequence of your action is rejection and the potential benefit is your dream career, swallow your fear and go for it.

 

Logic Tames The Beast

I know this seems incredibly simple – and it is. It’s simple and obvious because we just took an emotional issue and made it logical.

When you take the emotional power away from your fear and look at the situation as data – good decisions become much easier.

Do me a favor. The next time you find yourself “playing it safe”, run yourself through this quick exercise. Reduce the emotional to the logical. Then come back and let us know how things turned out.

 

Time to speak up!

Share a time when you felt fearful but took the leap anyway. Or share a tip about taking calculated risks.

 

24 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! Unfortunately, sometimes the limitation isn’t fear but rather money which can turn what appears to be a fearful decision such as starting your own business into a safe decision. For some of us, there are very few fearful decisions and a larger amount of safe decisions because of a shortage of money.

  2. Good distinction between safe decisions and fearful decisions – reminds me of RAAF wartime pilot and Australian cricketer Keith Miller’s perspective on pressure/fear. When Michael Parkinson asked him about pressure in cricket, he answered ‘pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, cricket is not.’
    Helps with the logic of fear, especially if you have ever really had reason to be afraid.

  3. Awesome post, Gary! I’m not sure how many times I’ve had to talk myself off the ledge because I’ve let the fear run rampant. Luckily, I’m getting better at recognizing the signs of hysteria, so I can de-escalate the drama (with logic) before it gets out of hand. :)

    I can’t think of one time where I worried about something, and then said after the fact: “Phew, good thing I spent some much time freaking out; it really helped!”

    I can, however, think of several occasions where I pushed through the fear and the end result turned out exponentially better then I could have predicted.

    Hmmm, I think you’re on to something, Gary!

    Kimberley

    • Hey Kimberly…

      I know all too well the onset of hysteria. I’m one of those people cursed with a 50/50 emotion/logic mix in my brain. You’d think that would make things even, but guess which one always kicks in first??

      You really do need to talk yourself down and look at risk/reward rationally.

      Thanks for jumping in. Nice to see you as always!

  4. Ok,this one is more like a mix of death/bettering self fear.I went to a local lake for a swim.Warm summer day,some people swimming and tanning,not too loud.Everything’s cool.I go for a swim,which I don’t exactly enjoy,but the refreshing is nice.I get out of the water and see that there’s a diving board on the bridge near the shore.It’s a solid structure and at most 10 meters above the water.I decide to try it just for the heck of it.As I go up,I start getting filled up with fear.I’ve had a fear of heights for as long as I remember,so I’ll just say forever.I finally get to the top and come to the edge of the board.As I look down on the water the fear is almost paralyzing.It’s not a fear-excitement mix that you get when you go on an amusement park or something,it’s straight up unpleasant fear.Everything becomes darker for a few seconds,it was almost like there was a dark vortex in front of me.I jumped anyway.The fall was scary,the landing kinda hurt my ass,but it was all good.After a few minutes I came up to the board again,standing on that bridge and looking down to the water,just to check the feeling.The fear was ALMOST gone.
    I didn’t have a strong reason to jump or not to do it.I didn’t think of anything while on the board.I just felt fear and I JUST jumped.Don’t know what the moral of the story is here,because I didn’t feel like a hero afterwards either.And today I learned that I still got some fear of heights.My takeaway point would be that fear really is in the mind.If you don’t think(in my case,I didn’t think,I did all of that a lot of times before,like I thought that what if I fell over from this balcony,I would die,that would activate fear,and this program goes to the subconscious and then whenever you are physically high,you automatically turn on the fear mode,no thinking needed),you don’t fear.Be in the moment,and you will be in a quiet bliss.Thinking forward or even backwards is what activates fear.Being in the moment,just standing there on the edge and even falling into the water does not.
    Thanks for reading,hope you learned something :)

  5. Hey Gary – awesome post. I love the “logic tames the beast” phrase!

    I was recently fearful about starting acting classes.

    It felt like a good idea when I registered, but then when it came to going to the class a part of me really wanted to chicken out. I actually used it as a test in facing the “little fear” and just experienced what it felt like to be uncomfortable. By the time I got to the class I was completely relaxed and had an awesome time. I’ve since signed up for another course that lasts all summer… and I can’t wait for it to start. :)

    • Hey Laura!

      A great example of another great way to tame fear: Just feel it. You’re amazing at the psychological side of pretty much everything. I am constantly amazed by your insights :)

      Thanks for sharing that story.

  6. Great post, Gary! I really like your simple, logical approach to getting past our baseless fears. Sometimes you do have to just take emotion out of the process and resort to a more intellectual approach. Good stuff!

    • Agreed, Bobbi. As an admitted emotional person – I wish I could say it’s easy. It isn’t… but it is effective.

        • Sylva -

          I think there could be a couple things happening in that situation. Not knowing specifically what you’re speaking of, my first reaction is that just because you failed at something before doesn’t mean you will again. And if that’s the case, that fear really could be baseless. The second, third, or tenth attempt could very well succeed.

          That being said – if you fail at the same thing repeatedly, you probably need to look at how you’re trying to achieve it in the first place. Your approach my need to be changed.

          Also – even if you don’t achieve your goal, there is always a valuable lesson to be had. It’s like a hidden, unexpected success wrapped in what looks like a failure.

    • Thanks, Mary. I agree emotions run deeper than thoughts. That’s exactly why it takes some discipline to slow things down and look at the situation logically. In my opinion, that’s what makes emotions so difficult to control. But if you can try to replace the wildly emotional with logic, it sometimes helps to see a situation as it really is instead of how it feels.

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