Healthy and Unhealthy Risk
How does managing risk affect success in life?
Posted Sep 13, 2017
John has panic attacks every time he has to speak to a group, Peter can't write the novel he has painstakingly plotted out, Jonathan refuses to play tennis, even though people told him he was more talented than his older brother. And Barbara took all of her pension money out of the stock market when she was 35-years-old because she could not stand the idea that the DOW might go down. All of these people suffer from an unhealthy fear of risk. John can't bear the risk that his talk will not be brilliant, Peter is upended by the possibility that his novel won’t be a best seller, Jonathan is afraid he won’t outdo his brother—so much so that he won’t even try. And Barbara can’t stand the idea of losing money, so she sells when it’s low and misses the probability that it will go up at some point. None of them can tolerate any risk. Being risk averse stifles and prevents all of them from growing emotionally and financially.
On the other hand, many people seek out risk. Gamblers are attracted to risk—some are even addicted to it. Casinos are supported by people who LOVE risk. But people who are attracted to risk gamble more than just money—they risk their businesses, marriages, or their children’s futures. While risk averse people are terrified of being shamed, those attracted to risk are not put off by the potential for shame.
A notable example is the philandering that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment. Regardless of whether you believe he should have been impeached or that his sex life had nothing to do with his presidency, Clinton’s behavior put his career in jeopardy more than once. Why was he so reckless with his career?
My patient, Thomas, while he did not risk impeachment, he did put his marriage and his career at risk by having an affair with a colleague at work. Yet, he did not want to end his marriage. When I confronted him with the risk he was taking, he scoffed.
Patrick, a psychiatrist, had an affair with a patient and knew he risked losing his medical license if it ever became known. When his wife found out about the affair, she began divorce proceedings and threatened to send an email to the American Psychiatric Association ethics committee unless he ended the affair. He continued.
How can we understand such recklessness? One aspect of it is sheer grandiosity—the conviction of invincibility. Other people get caught, divorced, impeached or disbarred, but “not me.” That conviction is very difficult to shake. Sometimes patients get angry at me if I try to shake it.
Risk is an inescapable part of life and one’s ability to manage it is on a continuum from risk averse (keep your cash under the mattress) to reckless (mortgage your house and play craps with the money). Knowing how much risk you can tolerate or how much you crave is an important part of being a responsible adult. But for those on either extreme of the risk continuum, those who are stilted in their growth because of fear of failure or self-destructive risk-takers, their reality testing is distorted and they are not able to evaluate risk in a reasonable way. As a psychotherapist, I have sometimes found it painful to watch patients hurting themselves and those they love because of their difficulty weighing risk. It is only in hindsight, after realizing what they have missed (for the risk avoidant) or picking up the pieces (for those who crave risk) that they are able to develop better reality testing and hope for the future.