At some point or another most of us have been told, “Play it safe” or “Better safe than sorry.” Perhaps it was wiser for us to not take a given risk and stay with familiar ways of doing things. The caution we felt from a loved one may have really saved us. However, what if we’re always playing it safe and hardly ever take risks? Is there such a thing as playing it too safe? Yes there is.
Marie and I have a big decision to make. We can’t decide whether to get married or not. Marie and I are great together. We met in high school and have been together for the 15 years since. Her family and my family very much support our relationship. They keep telling us to “go for it.” I absolutely love Marie’s brothers and sisters, all of whom are married with kids. But neither Marie or I felt we need to be married. We saw the devastation in our own families growing up from messy divorces. We felt if we didn’t get married, we wouldn’t get divorced. Also we were afraid that we might fall into old married roles with each other. It seemed way more exciting to go against the grain than settle into old roles. We were comfortable with that decision-at least until Marie lost her job and her health insurance. Now that we are going to have a child together everything has changed. Neither one of us wants to make the decision to be married as we don’t have any guarantees it will work out. You know, life gets really heavy and depressing sometimes.
Adults in their thirties who are still living at home with mom and dad, parents who are constantly monitoring their teenager’s school performance on the internet, smart people with social phobia who stay stuck for years in a dead-end job because they can’t interview, Americans who’ve never left their home state to visit a foreign country, moms and dads who can’t imagine their children playing without supervision with neighborhood kids, and gifted writers who keep developing writers block all have something in common. They are playing it too safe and are immensely suffering from their over-cautiousness. In fact in this post 911 would reveal over-cautiousness is the leading mental health dysfunction. Sometimes it is better to be sorry than safe!
Impact of an over-safe life
Most of us are aware that being impulsive, expecting immediate gratification and taking uninformed and unwise risks in our personal lives is not such a good idea. The news each day is filled with lurid stories of people who have committed crimes of passion, acted without considering the consequences of their behaviors and just done dumb things that have harmed themselves and others for the rest of their lives. Such soap operas would be entertaining if they weren’t so tragic. News stories are never told of people who go to the opposite extreme. Imagine headlines that read “Unemployed son qualifies for Social Security and now can finally leave home” or “Brilliant scientist loses his formula for curing cancer because he can’t speak in public at a medical conference.” Those headlines might sound silly but events like these really do happen and they continue happening each day. Many over cautious people hold back what they truly could offer the world and lead incredibly unfulfilling personal lives simply because they are scaredy cats. the results of such holding back may be less dramatic than those of dare devils but they are no less tragic.
When we don’t take risks that we really need to take we remain immature, out of sync with peers who are taking normal risks, and dreadfully under confident. Playing it safe all the time means that we don’t expand ourselves, we don’t know what we’re made of and we become even more rigid over time with what life throws at us. We become less adaptive in handling crises. We make mountains out of mole hills. Eventually we have to continually pretend to others and ourselves that life is really good for us when in fact it may really stink. People who care about us may not include us in their doings as they just know we won’t take risks. We may always be the odd man out. Friends may stereotype us as being too shy or strangely allergic to the outdoors. Eventually we may develop psychosomatic conditions like hives, back pain, real allergies or asthma giving us medical excuses for not facing dangers head on. With continued over caution, these body-mind symptoms may eventually develop into truly disabling medical problems like hypertension, major depression, cardiovascular disease and so on. If we constantly see caution as a cure for what ails us, then doing so is one case when the cure is worse than the disease.
Ultimately the worst impact of being too scared is living in isolation. Scared people are extremely lonely, have diminished life meaning and are unable to feel loved or lovable. Some of the most despairing people are people who have played it too safe.
Signals of the “too safe” life
An obvious question to ask in this regard is, “How do I know when my life is too safe?” Since no one can answer this question for us it’s best if we do so ourselves. Too many over cautious people aren’t even aware that they’re like that and frequently would rather not even know that they are. You likely have problems with over doing safety if you:
- allow fear of rejection to deter you from dating or balk at long-term commitment
- postpone career development due to fearing failure or success
- pretend so much around friends that nobody knows the real you
- pretend so much that you really don’t know the real you
- get irritated that some comforting figure doesn’t bail you out of life miseries
- see the world as a threatening place with little room for error
- aren’t really sure what you like or want out of life
- get easily overwhelmed by challenges that others seem to handle
- wished that you didn’t have to grow up and miss childhood days
- can’t allow your children to get hurt or fail
- don’t have many life passions or hobbies
- get depressed and easily bored
- feel nothing a lot of the time
- experience chronic unexplained medical symptoms or persistent sleep disturbance
- can’t easily make decisions
- crave novelty but only want to stay in your comfort zone
- can’t take ordinary life risks out of a sense of impending calamity
Why can’t I take risks?
A wise friend of mine once said, “The dangers behind us and before us are nothing compared to the dangers inside our own heads.” Overly scared people often externalize why they are afraid when in reality they are really afraid of hidden aspects in themselves. It’s distracting and more acceptable to complain about all the dangers out there than looking inside oneself. The main reason why people get nervous is that they are cut off from themselves and others who might support them. If they were to know themselves and allow others to support them, life would be much easier no matter what dangers are looming. It’s the disconnection from people and ourselves that makes us scaredy cats. Some of us may cling to old habits of disconnection and learned helplessness originating in our growing up. We mistakenly believe that ignorance is bliss and that if we remain apart from others and do nothing we won’t get hurt again. However such a survival strategy is like hiding in a ditch. The more we fear, the deeper we dig it and the more it turns into our own grave.
Living in a culture of hysteria
Most of us would be surprised to hear that our streets are much safer than they’ve ever been, that most of us will live longer lives than ever before and never be victims of terrorism, and that flying in planes and getting cancer will likely not kill us. What will kill us is our over worry, not getting enough sleep, being too sedentary and not knowing when to stop eating, Due to the high drama of media exposure most of us learn to worry about the wrong things and we get endlessly trapped in voyeuristic fantasies of other people’s tragedies. We are told by the media that they have an obligation to report what we really need to know (while denying how it helps their advertisers). But do we really need to know how some fanatical religious family is handling a major health care dilemma, that any passing thunderstorm could turn into a hurricane of the century, or that a certain new flu with few fatalities could evolve into a pandemic? Certainly being given information that empowers us and equips us to deal with real dangers is a media plus. However too many of us simply get terrified of life and stay glued to our TV sets to hear the latest scare between umpteen commercials. One of the greatest failures in our culture is not teaching us when to be scared and when not to be scared. Most of us don’t know the difference and we defer to a media driven culture with huge hidden agendas. We learn to not trust ourselves and defer to experts.
The first thing to do is realize if you are playing it too safe. The second thing to understand is that being anxious is not a crime and at least shows that you care enough to be safe. The people who lack any feelings at all really have it worse. Thirdly, please recognize that over-cautious is not a character defect but is a statement of how isolated you are from yourself and others and how you lack tools for change. We hesitate with life when we don’t feel connected to people. Consider putting another person in your life to help you know the real you. Isolation can be changed. You may consult a professional helper who specializes in anxiety problems or meet in a group with fellow worriers for guidance and compassion. For skill building read Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers (Fawcet Columbine, 1987). Most importantly realize that no matter how scared you get, you are not alone. Each and every one of us has been in your shoes at some point in our life. You are not unique.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions on any purchases you make through purchases on this page – at no cost to you.