Taking Emotional Risks, part one
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
In my last blog, I said that being scared of a skill in the gym, or of going to the gym at all, is a normal reaction to a risky situation. Just because a fear has psychological origins (I'm scared) doesn't mean it's any less valid or scary than a fear with bodily origins (I have a bad hip). In fact, I think it's the opposite. A psychological fear, to me, is a much more imposing and commanding threat than a bad hip. Moreover, body fears can lead to mental fears before too long. (This movement caused me hip pain in the past.)
So it's actually all about the psychology, even though most of us scoff at ourselves for being silly when something scares us. All of this fear and anxiety stems from risk.
Now, I don't know shit about business risk, the risks of raising children, or financial risk. I'm terrified of kids and my financial risk assessment involves deciding whether to buy the same sneakers in four colors or five. I also don't jump off buildings or dive from moving cars. So I can't delve into any of the traditional thoughts of risk. This blog is about emotional risk, a topic with essentially no conclusive research behind it. After all, none of us can even agree on the best chain coffee to drink (ride or die Dunks, don't come @me with any Peet's bullshit), let alone agree on when and how it's appropriate to emote.
Nonetheless, we do know that emotions dictate our decisions much more than we'd like. Sometimes it's a great thing, like when anger over injustice spurs a response. And sometimes, it's not so great, like when we retreat from something we might like in order to spare any potential embarrassment. I'm not good at jumping off buildings, but I'm pretty happy to risk embarrassing myself:
Emotional risk-taking is automatically paired with some major emotional consequences. (Duh.) Failure, injury, loss, embarrassment. Knowing that any hits to your own self-identity and self-esteem were your own damn fault because you were the one who wanted to take the risk in the first place. Self-imposed emotional trauma! Ugh.
I put fitness risk into two different categories: Fear of Something Bad Happening To Your Psyche and Fear of Something Bad Happening To Your Body.
Today we're talking about Fear of Something Bad Happening to Your Psyche. (We'll go over Body in the next post.) Putting yourself out there—and I'm talking broadly now, not just athletically—is hard. Whether you're competing in a sport, going back to school, trying a new job, making a movie, or teaching a class, you're pouring time, effort, and emotion into it. When it goes well, it's a relief. When it goes badly, it feels like a personal commentary that you weren't capable of what you set out to do. You weren't good enough. My understanding is that mediocre white men don't experience this but I have to imagine everyone else does.
Rack up a certain number of "you weren't good enough today"s and it's easy to decide you're done with these unnecessary risks. You don't have to feel this way, so you decide not to nurture it. Give up competing, don't volunteer for extra work, don't bother starting your own business, definitely don't take on the expense of more school.
You don't have to do any of these things, so why am I suggesting you try anyway? Because humans have an unbalanced view of gains to losses. For most, the imagined joy of gain is not as powerful as the imagined pain of loss. We would rather avoid losing $20 than risk winning $20. Many people would even rather avoid losing $20 than take the risk of winning $100. Losses hurt.
In Kahneman and Tversky's landmark paper on prospect theory, they estimate that we mourn losses twice as hard as we celebrate gains. K&T (this sounds like a vodka I'd enjoy) also worked on the related idea of regret avoidance. Regret avoidance looks at two paths: continue the one that you're on, or make a change to a new path. They found that when people made the switch, they felt far more regret for a bad outcome. The subjects felt responsible for their bad fortune. When people didn't switch and had a bad outcome, they attributed it to bad circumstances, or similar. If you didn't choose your path to failure, then the failure doesn't feel as personal.
The imagined gain is not as powerful as the imagined loss.
How does this relate to the gym? Let's say person A goes to the gym regularly, and someone makes fun of an exercise they're doing. Person A might be annoyed, but probably won't stop going to the gym. They're continuing the path they were already on.
Person B never goes to the gym, but changes to a new path and tries out the gym. Someone makes fun of an exercise they're doing. The odds are high that person B will have a much bigger, and more personal, reaction. They chose to switch, and then suffered for it. My guess would be they won't step into a gym for another year or more. The emotional regret is too high.
(While we're here, people who make fun of other people at the gym can just fuck all the way off. If you're a newbie reading this, take heart. There aren't too many of these hosers around. But the fear of their existence alone is intimidating.)
Knowing that our brain is susceptible to these tricks makes it easier to recognize when it's happening. The number one reason that people (men and women, although the percentage of women is higher) stay away from exercise is that they're scared of looking stupid. Either they don't feel athletic enough, or they won't know what to do, or they feel ashamed of their weight, or they'll try something and not do it right, or they'll take a class and be the slowest one, or whatever. Self-esteem and exercise is not just a whole different post but a whole entire book, so we'll leave that for now. But risk-taking is tied into self-esteem, and doing athletic things when you don't know how it will turn out is emotionally risky.
Slap on an excessive amount of glitter.
I sucked in a big ninja competition last week. I've been out of training for four months now, but with my body feeling much healthier I decided to enter just for fun. Well what the fuck is fun about putting yourself, alone, on a starting block, in front of obstacles you've never touched, with a whole lot of people you respect watching you, with high financial stakes for doing well, and then falling on the second obstacle? Very little. Very little about that is fun.
Before I went, I was like, Mia, listen up. You haven't been in the gym for months. It's not a big deal if you fall. You're gonna see tons of friends. The competition is inspiring and motivating. Lots of hot dudes. Make sure your eyeliner looks great. Slap on an excessive amount of glitter. And just be excited that your body is healthy enough to try. Get out there and be cool, and don't worry about where you land in the standings. Be cool, Mia!
I was not cool.
I got on that course, had the tiniest struggle with hand placement, and was like HOLY FUCK TIME TO PANIC EVERYONE IS PROBABLY WATCHING IN HORROR AND TEXTING EACH OTHER ABOUT HOW TERRIBLE YOU ARE EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE PRETTY GOOD.
And then I fell.
The worst part is, after competition, my self-abuse gets so much more aggressive. Forget being cool, forget that I had good reason to be a little weaker than my norm, forget that no one else cares how I do. Forget all that. The worst is this thought:
You don't belong here.
That's the main thing that goes through my head any time I fall in any competition.
You don't belong here. What made you think you could do this?
And this, dearest crunchy buds of edamame, is why I'm writing to you today. It's the self-assessed "I don't belong" narrative that taunts from the sidelines of risk-taking. I know it well, because I go through it, but I also know that it's bullshit. You belong wherever the fuck you decide to show up. And I'll show up every time.
There are no Olympics in my future. But even on the old lady side of things, competition is stressful. Everything I compete in right now is, objectively, utterly inconsequential. But it isn't inconsequential to me. I take it super seriously. I feel sick in the morning when I wake up. It runs through my head all day while I mentally prepare. After it ends, whether I came in first or last, whether I had zero falls or three falls, I spend days, weeks, and often years reliving the parts I did wrong. I'm a grown-ass woman and some competitions have left me in tears. One-ply toilet paper has more fortitude than I do.
At this point in this blog you may be like "Hey-O, Mia, you're not exactly a poster child for optimal competitive mindset, you do realize that, yes?"
Oh god do I ever realize that.
But the point of this post is not How To Achieve A Perfect Competitive Mindset. (Someone please link me to that post when you find it kthx.)
The point of this post is Why You Should Take Risks Even When You Dread Them.
And I'm fucking great at that part. I compete in about twenty athletic competitions a year. Every single one makes me nervous poop and every single one I'm so happy afterwards, even when I sucked, and even when I'm obsessing about what went wrong.
I went back to school and spent twenty grand to be a doctor but never got into medical school. Paid that failure off for a real long time but I've been a failed medical school applicant for nine years now and I'm still proud of myself for trying it.
I'm terrified before giving talks and I panic while planning events at work. But I know, and I see this in my clients too, that I do better in life immediately after a competition. That motivation to improve somehow seeps into the day-to-day things that I struggle with. After last week's shitshow of a competition, I had a more productive week than I've had in months. I seem to want to do better in every aspect of my life, not just in sports. I folded so much laundry you wouldn't believe it.
You belong wherever the fuck you decide to show up.
Every time I'm going into a self-imposed Terrifying Event, I think, why do I do this to myself?
If I'm thinking it, I know other people are too.
So, uh...why should we do this to ourselves?
Because the upside is bigger than we can imagine. I'm not saying this as a hyperbolic platitude. There's actual research on this stuff. We literally can't imagine how good it feels to succeed. We only know how painful it is to miss. Like so many things relating to your body and fitness, when it comes to emotional risk, you can only trust in the process. I don't know how, I don't know why, but I know that people do better when they face fears instead of running from them.
So here's to taking a new risk tomorrow. Sign up for a race, step through the doors of a gym, try a class you've never been to, do some YouTube yoga. Or ask for an extra project at work, clear the air with that friend who pissed you off six months ago, share something personal with your kids, enter that photography contest.
Not everything will work. But more things are going to work than you expect. If you can find a way to untie some of the personal consequences from the simple choice to try, you'll be more likely to take the risk and ultimately succeed in it. Even if someone makes fun of you, first remember that it's not about you. They're a wanker, and wankers gonna wank. After that, send me their contact info. I just wanna talk.