I see many clients who live lives that don’t fulfill or challenge them. They are intelligent people with skills and talents, but they tend to have a debilitating fear of going outside their comfort zone. Even though they often wish their lives would change or improve in various ways, they do nothing to make this happen, since such efforts would entail taking even minor risks.
They rarely try anything new, stick to what they would already be good at, and try hard to avoid anything that could ever go wrong (which is most life activities). This attitude is rarely conscious or spoken, but it manifests in saying things such as:
- “That would just be too much.”
- “I definitely couldn’t add more to my plate right now.”
- “I need my downtime to function.”
- “I don’t have enough time.”
- “I’m just not that kind of person.”
These usually are responses to a variety of ideas or possibilities for life enhancement: taking a trip to a new or faraway place; going back to school; trying a new hobby; joining a group or club; hosting or attending a social event; learning a new skill; meeting new people or getting into the dating scene; or improving diet and exercise, just to name a few.
Although people who speak in this way don’t openly identify as anxious, that is what they are. They organize their lives in very routine, rigid ways, with very little room for spontaneity or new activities. They fear anything new or different, and, most of all, any activity at which they are not guaranteed to succeed.
These people are unemployed or underemployed, and never seem to really be doing very much to outside observers, although they feel and say they are very busy. They often feel, either vaguely or pressingly, that their lives are not fulfilling or satisfying, but they reject any possible change. They tend to use the following excuses:
- “I can’t work, when would I go to my doctors’ appointments?”
- “I get lightheaded if I don’t eat as much as I want.”
- “I can’t exercise because of my back.”
- “I can’t function if I don’t get my eight hours of sleep.”
- “I don’t get along with most people.”
- “Internet dating is scary.”
- “It’s too cold (or hot) for that.”
- “I’m just not a (runner, biker, swimmer, dancer, bar person, party person, reader, student).”
People who grow up in anxious households often act this way. They are secretly, though often unconsciously, paralyzed by fear when confronted with new ideas. They are either unable or unwilling to identify this as anxiety. Therefore, they don’t view this worldview as something that could be changed.
I know, because I grew up this way and was the same way. But, with few exceptions, every time I have pushed myself to try something new, I have been happy that I did. (Even a horrible vacation led to me being featured in the Huffington Post! Still not worth it, though.)
If you often wonder why other people seem to get so much more done than you do, or why loved ones are frustrated with your inability to try new things, or to take suggestions, then this post is for you. You have only one life to live, and many people end up regretting not trying new things, sticking only to what’s safe. Here are some new mantras you can try to use to replace the old ones.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
Very few actions in life are irreparable or unchangeable. And very few things truly instantly kill you.
“What could I gain from this?” rather than “what could I lose from this?”
This change in perspective is called having an approach orientation to life versus an avoidance orientation.
“How could trying this make my life more interesting?”
Maybe you can’t see something concrete that could be gained. Maybe you doubt you’ll really learn to speak Spanish well if you take a Spanish class. Wouldn’t going to the class, meeting the people, listening to the teacher talk, even reading the assigned book, make your life a bit more interesting? The brain thrives on novelty and being challenged. Don’t murder your brain with dull routine.
“Would trying this make any of my loved ones happy?”
You may not like running. But would your daughter be thrilled if you trained for a 5K so you could join her in her hobby? Would your wife be grateful if you planned some ballroom dancing lessons for your next date night rather than just the same dinner and a movie? Would your sister be happy if you decided you’d watch her kids for her once a week rather than using that time to decompress?
Remember, when you’re on your deathbed, nobody remembers all their downtime. They remember the things they tried, the relationships they pursued, the risks they took, and the life they truly lived.