S2E33 Risk Taking

Most of us think of risk taking behaviors as limited to putting ourselves in physical danger for a thrill (e.g., surfing a 50ft wave) or acting impulsively or without thinking (e.g., making a bet using your life savings). In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete discuss how simply being alive is risky, and how making decisions, doing things that align with your values, or practicing vulnerability are all healthy risk taking behaviors.  Tune in to learn more. 




Nikki: Pete we’re going be to talk about risk taking today. And the reason I'm excited about talking about risk taking is that the term risk or the word risk has a lot of naked connotations, when risk taking isn't actually all bad. 


Pete: I've already started sweating.


Nikki: You’ve already started sweating?


Pete: Because you're making me nervous. You're going to make me do things that I don't want to do today.


Nikki: Oh, well we're already on a helpful conversational track here then, because that actually speaks to how it gets negatively judged, right?…


Pete: It sure does…


Nikki: As something bad. So anyway, hello, welcome.


Pete: Thrilled to be here talking about risk taking. I used to be a risk taker-ish. You and I were probably never a huge risk taker . No.


Nikki: I think what you're highlighting is maybe we could start by saying this way you're referring to how the phrase risk taking is generally utilized. I would say talking about more impulsive behaviors. Right? Is that sort of what you're getting at? 


Pete: No, I'm just thinking. No…..


Nikki: Oh no, my apologies. I did not read your mind well. 


Pete: I mean, you almost always do, but for some reason you didn't do it right there. Because sometimes the risk taking, at least what I'm thinking about, also requires planning or can actually be organized. 


Nikki: Sure. Okay. That's fair.


Pete: Right. So like people take organized trips to crazy places to go hiking or like……


Nikki: You're thinking like more thrill oriented kind of. 


Pete: Yeah. Well that's risk…..


Nikki: No, totally..


Pete: That's why I'm sweating.


Nikki: Yeah. Okay fair…


Pete: I feel like you're going to make me do something today, like commit to something…


Nikki: Oh, I would never make you do something you're not willing to do. Okay. So thank you for explaining that. I think that maybe the other side of the common definitions most people have about risk taking. is that they would say either number one, as I was just saying impulsive behaviors, so sort of react. So an example might be like gambling very literally. 


Pete: Yeah..


Nikki: Gambling is risk taking. Very literally and it's associated with impulsivity. What Pete's talking about is also really important, which would be risk taking that’s associated with an adrenaline rush, a thrill seeking behavior. Like maybe going on summiting a really difficult mountain or, big wave surfing or…..


Pete: Oh, that's you.


Nikki: Well, no, see I do not like surfing big waves, but I have friends that do. I do not like that. 


Pete: But you surf.


Nikki:  Yeah.


Pete: But just surfing could be risk taking.


Nikki: I mean sure.


Pete: Come on.


Nikki: Well, I think it's going to be a nice segue into everything is technique can be risk-taking right? 


Pete: That's a good one.


Nikki: Yeah. So I want to start by just identifying that, that's what we tend to view it as. It’s kind of more impulsive behaviors or these more sort of thrill seeking behaviors. Which the thrill seeking behaviors may or may not be effective. Like if there is a very famous stream of big wave surfers Laird Hamilton is very famous, married to Gabrielle Reese, the Bible player. And he is, I think consider like the inventor of tow and surfing where like these like 50 foot waves, they tow them in on jet skis.


Pete: Oh my God.


Nikki:  So that's obviously a risk, but that's what he…


Pete: And that’s what I think about when I think about risk taking.


Nikki: Yeah. And I think a lot of people do. And so that's going to depend on an individual about how much risk they're willing to tolerate, how much discomfort they're willing to tolerate. Though risk taking in general isn’t necessarily always about something impulsive. like gambling or like getting towed into a 50 foot wave that we take risks every moment we make a choice. Can I ask, why do you think maybe I'm saying that? Can you read my mind in that moment a little?


Pete: Well, not really, except that….


Nikki: Really? No?


Pete: Well…


Nikki: I thought you can…


Pete: I mean, I know that just walking on the street can be a risk and just driving to the supermarket is a risk. I mean, inherently living is a risk.


Nikki: Yes. You've read my mind. 


Pete: Well….


Nikki:  I know. Yeah, that's totally right..


Pete: We are the same person, but I guess I'm being a little catastrophic in the way that I'm approaching this. But one of the definitions of risk taking from APA is ‘a pattern of unnecessarily engaging in activities or behaviors that are dangerous or highly subject to chance.’ So that's what I keep thinking about.


Nikki: Well, I think that definition already it's built in, there's a negative judgment about what risk taking is. And I think then the problem becomes that the human brain assumes that there's a way to be safe all the time. 


Pete: Right. Oh that’s a good one.


Nikki: And so Pete, what you're saying is really important. It's not that it's so catastrophic. It's that I say, especially my folks I work with that struggle with anxiety. I say being alive is risky. We're not immortal, being alive is inherently risky. And to be really behavioral and also mindfulness based about it, we never know the outcome of what we're going to do.


Pete: Ever. 


Nikki: So it doesn't necessarily mean that risk implies physical danger. But if you tell somebody that you have romantic feelings for them, you don’t know what’s going to happen.


Pete: That's right. And that could be a risk..


Nikki: That's a risk, but the brain is going to say, “nope don't risk things” because why? It's uncomfortable. So I think, to me, that's really important because I want to take it away just from the, “risk means, doing something that's impulsive risk means, surfing a 50 foot wave”. Those are certainly risk taking behaviors that may need to be talked about and addressed. But I think most people struggle with the quote unquote like day to day risk taking.


Pete: Yeah. It’s something that comes up and shows itself over and over again. One of the Buddhist things that we think about, and to all the listeners there sitting meditating is risky. So there's been things written about that because again, the risk suggests that there's going to be like a meteor that’s going to  fall out of the sky and hit you when you're on your cushion. No, I mean just sitting in silence and still with your thoughts can be really uncomfortable.


Nikki: That's it, it's the risk. Maybe we can define it this way, there's a willingness to take the risk to be uncomfortable. That's what it's.


Pete:  That's what it is. Yep.


Nikki: Yeah. Because if we link this to values, as we talk a lot about on, When East Meets West, is that living a values based life requires risk taking. Like trying things, doing things that are uncomfortable. So if we're saying I don't want to be uncomfortable, I'm not willing to ever be uncomfortable. Number one, your world's going to be really small, but then it comes back to what I then say to patients, which is okay though, even in doing that, even if you're sitting alone in your room, not talking to anybody, being alive is still inherently risky. Like you're not eliminating risk from your life. What you are eliminating is the opportunity to feel meaning….


Pete: That's right. 


Nikki: Connection.


Pete: Beautiful. Yeah, and if you're sitting in that room avoiding connection or without the risk of connecting and eating French fries, that plate of French fries may have more risk than actually communicating.


Nikki: I mean sure. That's totally fair. Well I'm wondering, as we're talking about this, do you use the term risk taking with people that you're working with? Like do you kind of define acting in alignment with one's values as risk taking?


Pete: I don't know. I really went deep if you saw my face on the YouTube channel, I guess if I had a certain athlete I work with or high performers, they tend to be a bit more riskier because they're just sort of…


Nikki: They're willing to do hard things. 


Pete: They're willing to do things. Yeah, but I don't know if we call it risk. I think it's just what they do. So that's why, I don’t know if I've actually used the word risk in session. 


Nikki: Yeah. I like to use it because I like to highlight and validate that it's hard. That it is uncomfortable, because I also can see patients a lot of times validating themselves or minimizing when they're taking these risks, by the way, I think it's just coming to my mind too. Is that a practicing vulnerability, that’s a risk and people will say things to me like, “oh yeah, I'm not climbing Mount Everest. It's not risky to just tell someone how I feel”. And it's like, I'll say, “okay, those are different types of risks though”. 


Pete: Right. 


Nikki: And to your brain and your body, it is a risk because you don't know what's going to  happen. And you're risking being uncomfortable. You're willing to be uncomfortable.


Pete: I like that you also already brought in about safety. Because as behaviors we look at, what are their safety behaviors? So say more about that. Like what would you say are common safety behaviors? And then how do you treat that? Or what do you do with that?


Nikki: Well, I mean really safety behaviors are just behaviors that we engage in when we are attempting to eliminate risk. And the risk is really it's often comes up with fear. Right? 


Pete: Yeah. 


Nikki: And anxiety. Though there are behaviors where we just are trying to avoid being uncomfortable sometimes at all costs. And so that's where I tend to come back to this statement with people where I say yes, and we have to radically accept that being alive is inherently risky. I'll actually say this quite a bit with my folks that I work with that have OCD because OCD is really focused on this. I'll say there's no such thing as 100% safety…


Pete: Nothing. 


Nikki: There's no such thing we can be relatively safe and again, being alive is inherently risky. So there's nothing we can do to prevent something a 100% from happening. Right? 


Pete: No, and that's where I think it's important to consider the context, the content and the experience.  Like thinking about in which context are people experiencing these ideas of risk? What's the content of it? Is there like an underlying theme and then the experience of it. So like describing what it is nonjudgmental. And then also just behaviorally thinking about what someone's willing to do and not to.


Nikki: Yeah, no, I'm glad that you're breaking it down to those three components. Because I think that's important, Pete and I want to make clear here, we're not advocating for impulsivity. Right?


Pete: Right. 


Nikki: We're not advocating for reactivity. So We're really advocating here for I would say maybe we call people say calculated risks, but maybe a better way to say it would be mindful risk taking.


Pete: Yeah. I like that. Because you said gambling, which is good and then I just think of the stock market, like anyone in finance it's like…. 


Nikki: Sure. 


Pete: It's not a financial risk that people that we talk about…


Nikki: That we take, sure. Well, and again, you could be mindfully doing those things. You could also be doing them impulsively or reactively without thinking, and that's not going to be helpful….


Pete: Not helpful…


Nikki: So doing things impulsively or over thrill seeking for example, that could put you in more danger. So it's sort of this difference between mitigating or minimizing danger and then the attempt to eliminate danger Which is not possible. Right?


Pete: Yeah. And so Sharon Salzburg, which many of our listeners have probably heard of if you've ever done any kind of mindfulness stuff, she has written it and indicated that in order to practice, we have to surrender, we have to take risk. And I think that's a lot of what we're asking our clients to do in session is surrendering. And that's ultimately when you're meditating or sitting on the cushion, that's what you do. You're just surrendering to that cushion.


Nikki: I think it would be really helpful if you could clarify what surrender means. Because I bet there are a lot of people listening that hear the word surrender and they imagine waving the white flag, like giving up Which is obviously not what it is. It's not giving up. Can you say a little bit more about what surrender means from that? That more mindful lens.


Pete: Yeah. I guess. You said the white flag, so you don't like that. And I'll say like the white flag could be a part of it, where you're just simply saying I'm good. Like whatever the content is, whatever the context is, whatever my experience is, I'm just surrendering to it. Like I'm going to just watch what it is. I'm going to see how I feel. And I'm going to just sit. So, I think to your point that surrendering could actually be like the leaning in which a lot of people might not like, but the surrendering might actually be leaning in.


Nikki: Yes. I like that. 


Pete: I know you would, but you know, there's going to be people that just don't love that leaning in thing now because I feel like it's been a little over washed.


Nikki: Yeah. Over washed. So, maybe I can then weave in here that surrender is related to acceptance. We might even say it's like a deeper acceptance or like sort of a sibling of it or something, right? 


Pete: Yes. 


Nikki: Because that's what I say about the white flag, because people often misinterpret acceptances giving up too, and it's not. Like there's more like maybe we could say it this way, like releasing into. 


Pete: Yes.


Nikki: Right? I guess surrender maybe would incorporate some kind of trust as well.


Pete: Yeah. I could see that.  


Nikki: I'm kind of thinking of those laughing because it's like, in that kind of dorky team building exercise, when you do a trust fall, but that is surrender. That's like maybe like a very…


Pete: Not so dorky…


Nikki: No, or very dorky, but it's that moment of letting go into that. 


Pete: Because all of us will have fear. And so I think in the east we look at, what's the role of fear and is fear driving my behavior?


Nikki: Yes. That's right. 


Pete: And I'm not going to so gracefully fall back because the fear will prevent that.


Nikki: That's right. And so we're really talking about today saying that, if you're going to  take mindful risks, are you mindfully willing to do the thing that elicits that fear? Again, we're not saying that you all have to surf 50 foot waves. That’s not what we're saying, you all have to….


Pete: Because I won't…[crosstalk 15:50]


Nikki: I will not either. That's not what we're talking about. It's about, are you willing to be uncomfortable and do things that are aligned with what your values are, what you want to be about while knowing you don't know how it's going to turn out. You don't know what’s on the other side of that behavior. Like when you make a decision, it's a risk we don't know the outcome, you don’t know what's going to happen.


Pete: Can we go personal for a second? 


Nikki: I mean maybe, yeah.


Pete: Well, I'm sitting here thinking like what's the riskiest thing I've done? Because I will share that. So if I go to this catastrophic definition, which I know you've been trying to help us realize that life is just risk, but I do feel far more risk averse as I've aged. And I think that that's a thing. I think that there's sort of normal developmental risk aversion, for example, if I talk to my sister-in-law. or she's like, well ever since I've had these girl, like I'm less comfortable doing things I used to do. Because now that she's got two daughters, she sort of feels her mortality. But like, what you've started by saying is like, you were mortal before you had them.


Nikki: Actually it's very funny. What I'm thinking about as you're saying this, I think that is true that with age we become sometimes more risk averse to things that are about our physical safety. So I think it's paradoxically or just like on the flip side, I think many of us with age though, become more skilled at taking risks that are about emotional safety that we're more willing to be vulnerable. 


Pete: Oh, that’s true. 


Nikki: You know what I'm saying? 


Pete: Oh, that's so strength based, that’s so good. Yes.


Nikki: Well, that's why I was thinking for myself, as you were saying that I was thinking, yes, as I've gotten older, I can become more scared of certain things than when I was younger, I think surfing is actually a good example of that. But emotionally I'm so much stronger at taking emotional risks and I just continue to get stronger in that.


Pete: Yes. I love that. I love that distinction. And so there's that context, so for us to think about, and for listeners to think about context in which this risk will manifest and so there is this developmental risk aversion, maybe behaviorally or to our physical self. And that's what I was thinking about, I used to travel all over the world I would go by myself, and now it's like, people…..


Nikki: It just sounds a lot scarier. And it feels scarier. So again, in knowing you, I would say you continue to also be stronger in taking more emotional risks in your life. 


Pete: Yes.


Nikki: Because you know that…


Pete: Although I still won't talk politics with my brother, but whatever [inaudible 18:47]


Nikki: Yeah. Well contextually, maybe that's the more effective choice. It was a more effective choice. Well, I hope I hope today listeners begin to think about risk taking a little bit more thoroughly here. Hopefully able to leave this episode thinking about what they do, everything that they do as a risk. And I'd encourage everyone to see if you can take some mindful risks and trust that if those risks are aligned with your values, that regardless of what happens, you'll get stronger and be okay. This is been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin 


Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou, be present, be brave. This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on the opinion and educational training of Dr. Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.