Highly Sensitive Refuge
Our HSP sense of caution kept our ancestors alive. But it is also holding us back from our best lives?

Why Highly Sensitive People Hate Taking Risks (And How to Make It Easier)

Our HSP sense of caution kept our ancestors alive. But it is also holding us back from our best lives?

As a highly sensitive psychologist specializing in highly sensitive people (HSPs), I regularly hear from my clients how much they hate taking risks. The conversation focuses on how uncomfortable it is to deal with uncertainty. They want to avoid the swirling thoughts, the racing heart, and the questions about what other people will do, feel, or think in response to them. They may feel like they’re not good at taking risks, because it’s such a difficult process. Many HSPs conclude that it’s better — safer — to try to avoid entirely any situation that entails risk.

And oftentimes we’re right. But what about the times it holds us back? 

How to Tell Bad Risk from Good Risk

There is an evolutionary advantage to our HSP sense of caution. Highly sensitive people excel at identifying risks and slowing down to evaluate them, because we are highly attuned to both our environment and our own subtle feelings. I imagine it was an ancestral HSP who counseled caution about eating a newly discovered plant, wading into a churning river, or engaging a new group of people. 

Yet becoming overly focused on safety can hold HSPs back from creating the meaningful lives we desire. There is always risk involved in the changes and novelties that give our lives purpose, like trying new activities, traveling, developing personal and professional skills, and experiencing love in all its forms (people, animals, activities, and the natural world). 

There is a difference between careless risk-taking that threatens your safety and the kind of risk-taking that nudges us beyond our comfort zone with the promise of growth. Our nervous systems tend to oversimplify that distinction: risk is risk. Thus, our threat responses—fight, flight, freeze, fawn—may kick in whether we’re facing the prospect of falling from a cliff or asking for a raise at work.  

Our challenge is to learn to recognize when our minds and bodies are perceiving risk, then take one or more of these steps: 

  • Soothe yourself to reduce the feat response
  • Prepare yourself to tolerate the discomfort of taking a risk 
  • Put your focus on the potential benefits or rewards the risk offers

By regularly engaging with risk in these ways, we learn over time that we have the capacity to effectively handle risk in our lives — without throwing caution to the wind.

For highly sensitive people, however, there are seven big challenges that can stop us from taking even the smartest risks. 

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The 7 Reasons It’s Hard for HSPs to Handle Risk — And How to Overcome Them

Here are some of the most common challenges to dealing with risk and ways to make the process easier:

1. Too Much Sensory Information

Our sensory processing sensitivity enables us to notice an incredible level of detail in our environment and within our internal experiences. We may get overstimulated by all the details and begin to sense that risk is everywhere.

How to overcome it:
Learn to recognize your personal signs that you are getting overstimulated and find ways to reduce your sensory exposure. Pay particular attention to the concept of HALT—being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired—and how those experiences make us more vulnerable to overstimulation. Commit to managing day to day stimulation levels and doing even more to promote calm when you encounter a situation that feels risky.

2. Overthinking

Research shows that HSP brains are wired to deeply process information, even when we are trying to rest. If we don’t pay attention to our thinking habits, we may find ourselves overthinking to the point of magnifying potential risk and ending up in analysis paralysis.

How to overcome it:
Being mindful of our thoughts can help us notice when we have moved from productive reflection to repetitively dwelling on old information. Once we are aware of overthinking, we can practice shifting our attention to other topics and engaging in behaviors that soothe us. As we contemplate how risky a situation may be, we have an opportunity to build skills for tolerating that there is no such thing as a risk-free choice. We can deepen our capacity to cope with the inevitability of change, rather than trying to resist the threats we may believe it holds.

3. Perfectionism and Unrealistic Standards

When we expect perfection from ourselves, it becomes risky to make any choice. Our unrealistic standards are a setup to fail. It’s little wonder that we then try to avoid doing the thing that we’ve made into a risk. This fuels a cycle in which perfectionism seems like it keeps us safe, so we continue to set harsh expectations for ourselves, with all the negative consequences that brings.

How to overcome it:
Commit to rooting out the unhelpful, severe expectations you hold for yourself. Allow yourself to experiment with loosening your perfectionism and seeing if you can still cope with risk and accomplish what you desire. Give yourself permission to slowly change your reliance on perfectionism as a false sense of safety.

4. Empathy and Boundary Confusion

Empathizing with others comes naturally to HSPs, which is among the important gifts we bring to the world. However, if our empathy comes at the expense of our own needs, we may be more vulnerable to struggling with risk. It may feel risky to care too much about other people, especially if we aren’t meeting our own needs. At these times, HSPs will often withdraw to minimize the potential costs of connection.

Alternatively, we may over-empathize with people and struggle to say “no.” If we are afraid that we will hurt others and have to support them, we may decide not to take the risk of setting a boundary. 

How to overcome it:
Pay attention to how you are taking care of yourself. It will seem far less risky to care for others if we are already on solid ground. It is also vital to learn how to set boundaries and differentiate from others. Boundaries act as a protective separation between us and the world. Even though our empathy can make it hard to set limits, we can manage risk by compassionately but firmly setting boundaries.

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5. High-Sensation Seeking

I am an HSP, but I am also high-sensation seeking (HSS), meaning that I tend to be curious and look for novelty, in addition to my HSP traits. These preferences can sometimes conflict—the HSS side may tolerate more risk-taking, while the highly sensitive side craves predictability and familiarity. If this tension leads to ignoring one set of needs and preferences, we might take unnecessary risks or avoid taking chances that are reasonable to take.

How to overcome it:
It can help if you get to know other HSS HSPs and get to know that you are not alone in holding these seemingly conflicted parts of yourself. Learn to appreciate how your sensitivity and HSS can complement each other. See if you can nurture an internal moderator that helps negotiate a healthy balance of risk (novelty) and routine.

6. Performance Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome

HSPs are the most conscientious people I’ve encountered in my career. The combination of deep empathy, awareness of subtle details, and habitual self-reflection leads HSPs to be very thoughtful about doing their best in all situations. Unfortunately, performance anxiety and imposter syndrome can also arise, making situations seem riskier to an HSP than they might to someone who is not highly sensitive.

How to overcome it:
Performance anxiety and imposter syndrome thrive in isolation. Check out your assumptions with someone you trust. Connecting with other HSPs who struggle with these issues will help reduce their power in your life. As you evaluate how risky it is to attempt a task and question the extent to which you are capable of that task, watch for perfectionism and unrealistic standards. Experiment with the concept of “feeling the fear but doing it anyway.”

7. Unhealed Wounds

Research consistently backs the concept of differential susceptibility—the way that HSPs are more strongly affected by both negative and positive experiences. You may be particularly risk-averse if you didn’t get what you needed to support you as a highly sensitive child or if you experienced childhood trauma. And while this makes sense given your experiences, it does not have to be the end of the story.

How to overcome it:
Allow yourself to experience the positive side of differential susceptibility in the way that HSPs can benefit more from positive experiences. Surround yourself with a community of people who are highly sensitive or HSP allies. Commit to making life choices—including taking risks—that support what you naturally need and desire as an HSP. Get therapy from an HSP-knowledgeable therapist who understands your unique makeup and can empower you to learn how to succeed in coping with risk.

Why Is It Worth It to Take Risks?

Even if you follow all these suggestions, you may never become someone who loves taking risks — and that’s okay. Most of my HSP clients come to feel more competent to deal with risk but are not necessarily more eager to do so. 

Why do I nevertheless encourage them to wrestle with risk? Because it is an unavoidable part of life. Taking risks is painful. But the alternative is stagnancy, which is far worse. I hope you’ll give yourself the opportunities and potential that come with taking risks.

If you would like to learn more about my Singularly Sensitive approach to empowering HSPs to find creative, holistic, mindful ways to cope with risk and build lives of meaning, purpose, and contentment, please visit my website for free resources or to set up a consultation.

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