Twenty years in risk management and a lifetime of managing anxiety and catastrophizing thoughts have taught me a few things about risks, and they are coming in pretty handy right about now.
Worry-wart. Scaredy-cat. Nervous Nelly. These are “terms of endearment” for the risk-aware. There is some truth is this, though. “Risk” is a simplified way to refer to the fear of pain or fear of suffering. Pain and suffering can be physical pain (a broken arm), emotional pain (a broken heart), the pain associated with change (a broken marriage), or pain from destabilizing deeply held beliefs (a broken faith). We fear pain that results in discomfort or change. The source of that fear – that risk – generally falls into two categories: voluntary and involuntary.
Voluntary risks are created by the actions we initiate. These actions are conscious choices we make that have known upsides and downsides. We can assess these risks, weigh them, and plan for them before acting. It might be a choice to change jobs, move, commit to a partner, have kids, start a new business, or anything else to actively step out of our comfort zone or current status.
Conversely, involuntary risks exist as a fundamental aspect of life because we live in a world we cannot control. These are not risks borne out of action, but rather out of our existence. These are the “chances” in life, such as illness, famine, natural disasters, societal issues, war, and even pandemics. We cannot calculate the impact of these risks and then conclude, “no thanks, I’d rather not.” We simply must accept these risks as the baseline for living.
Voluntary risks can often be mitigated by external resources and actions we can take as countermeasures. We tend to think these things through in advance as a potential response if a risk were to occur. They are not guaranteed to work, but we accept them as viable considerations if fear becomes a reality. If I lose my job, I can get a job doing “x”. If my house depreciates, I can delay moving. If my partner leaves me, I can get support from my friends. If my child has a learning disability, I can get them additional help. With voluntary risks, we deliberate, then act, and if a risk happens, we react accordingly, and so on.
Involuntary risks, on the other hand, are different because they are usually unanticipated. We might be preppers or we might be blissfully oblivious, but when these involuntary risks happen, a critical thing happens: we look for answers. Involuntary risks generate a lot of questions immediately – why, how, and what now. We try to make sense of what is going on around us because we are not the triggering agent; we didn’t cause it to happen. Involuntary risks often need to mitigated by internal resources, such as resilience, fortitude, calm, clarity, and flexibility. It’s not as linear and obvious as voluntary risks. For involuntary risks, internal resources enable us to accept, process, consider, and respond appropriately to mitigate the risk.
Risks, and the pain and suffering we fear, get viewed differently when we have control, or at least believe we have a say in them. Curiously though, this is a paradox. We feel more prepared for voluntary risks, despite the fact that the countermeasure or response actions are external, meaning we don’t have actual control or certainty that we can mitigate the risk. We delude ourselves and believe we are in control.
Our overconfidence in initiating action is offset by the powerlessness of chance associated with involuntary risks. The absence of control in determining when and how involuntary risks occur paralyzes us and triggers unproductive non-acceptance, yet the most powerful responsive action is internal and entirely in our control. Our illusion of control makes voluntary risks more appealing and therefore we are more willing to take on that discomfort. Our illusion intoxicates us with a sense of power that we can influence the outside world. The truth is that an involuntary risk only asks that we exert control over our own emotions and thoughts, and we often see that as impossible.
In order to cultivate comfort and acceptance of involuntary risks we must move beyond the questioning phase that searches for answers about “why.” It’s challenging and we prefer to revert to denial and an ostrich response. This happens because we cling to the false belief that if the involuntary risk didn’t happen, then things would remain as they were previously. That is a fiction. The key to accepting involuntary risks and becoming more confident in our ability to effectively mitigate them is to let go of that fallacy. Nothing is constant other than change. Everything changes all the time as all aspects of life are in flux. Growth causes discomfort, and we are either growing or dying. There is no consistent way things “should be.” Life, in all respects, is impermanent.
When we increase our confidence and comfort with involuntary risks, we decrease the amount of risks – and fear – we experience in the world.