Why can’t I quit my job, sell all my stuff, and travel the world?

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There’s a psychological theory by Kahneman and Tversky which examines peoples’ decision making (for reference, it’s called prospect theory). One tenant of this theory is loss aversion. Basically, the researchers have shown that people are likely to base their decisions more heavily on the fear of what they will lose rather than on what they hope to gain. Therefore, they end up making less risky decisions.

It’s pretty obvious how this serves as a protective factor for us. We learned that the prospect of getting eaten by that lion was not worth the potential of stealing its food and filling our bellies. Or, more relevantly perhaps, that pulling out in front of a semi to get ahead of it is not worth the risk of getting hit by it.

In the above cases, I believe this is where our evolutionary instinct runs counter to a meaningful life. I can imagine you thinking, “but, we are more complex thinkers than our ancestors who had to deal with that lion. We have more complex executive functions, higher analytical skills, more refined emotional worlds.” All true, so I continue- It’s not just about physical safety, it’s about other kinds of safety too- to preserve our emotional worlds. It might be part of what keeps us from things like infidelity- that other person might be attractive, but losing your spouse and children isn’t worth it. Those are simple and straight forward- the risks are clearly not worth the gains, but what about cases where the gains may outweigh the losses- like leaving an unhappy relationship for the potential of a more fulfilling life? Or leaving a mundane job to pursue your dreams?

I believe that as humans we are adaptive. Not just as a whole species, but individually as well. We learn, often unconsciously, how to survive in our worlds- and part of surviving as an infant and child means getting love. We learned what we had to do to get by, how to avoid pain, how to get love and attention, how to make people like us. Despite how things may look objectively, our emotions are powerful and may keep us somewhere we know isn’t good for us, but it feels too risky to leave.  So adding to our instinct to avoid pain is what we learned about risk.

When both of those things are telling us to stay safe, it can be tough to leave the above mentioned relationship or job. There are plenty of examples of people out there who quit their job and built a really successful business by taking a huge risk. Or of people who left their long term relationship because it wasn’t right for them only to find great love later. Or of people who made a risky investment that paid off big. I’ve read so much about these people and how to use them as models. How we need to take risks to get big gains. I agree- there are often huge risks involved in huge gains. But these examples make it look so easy, as if it just depends on our will power to overcome fear. But these people may have learned something different about taking risks, may have an emotional world better suited for it.

So what about the rest of us, the people who have learned different things about risk- those of us who learned that it was better not to trust (even if all our logic is telling us it’s ok) or better to hold on to your security because it’s too unsafe out there? I think it’s time that there was something out there that wasn’t so shaming and telling you that you need to get up off your ass because it is your fault and your responsibility. Of course, you are in control of your own life, but there is so much more to it than that.

In therapy, I often hear people say things like “I want to do it, I don’t know why I can’t.” My job is to help them realize that their “can’t” is actually a “won’t” BUT that the “won’t” is coming from somewhere valid and possibly very deep. My job is to help them acknowledge it, understand it, and how to move past it- not just to shove it down and pretend like it’s not there. So the next time someone tells you to “just do it,” acknowledge your difficulties with it. Remember that ultimately, it is up to you but that your fear isn’t about some flaw within you. It could very well be coming from decades of experience and it’s really tough to undo years of learning in one moment and venture into the unknown.

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