If there’s one thing I could impress upon you, it would be to understand what fearlessness is not.

But before I give you my idea on what it isn’t, I thought I’d tell you a story.

The story is set in 2005. I was in college, halfway through earning my degrees, and was in the middle of a crisis. I tried to hide it though, and I did a fairly good job because not many people would have guessed I was actively struggling with bulimia. Physically, I looked just fine.

But, the truth is, I was in the middle of crazy.

I thought I was living fearlessly, though. I thought I was in control of my life, that I was making my body do what I wanted it to do within my own controls, that I was hitting all my benchmarks in school (that year was my worst academically), and that everyone loved me (they did still love me…but they probably didn’t like me very much!). I thought I was on the top of my game, but really I was at rock bottom.

I was living recklessly.

One of my most shameful memories of this time (and there are many) is listening to a voicemail from my mom on my cellphone. At that time, my grandpa (my mom’s father) was battling several types of cancer and his prognosis was not looking good. One of the many bizarre changes I made to my behavior to this time was setting up a different voicemail message (which that part isn’t weird, but the message I chose was…) to this –

Hi there. I saw it was you and I didn’t want to answer the phone so I sent you to voicemail. Don’t care you if you leave a message. Bye.

I’m completely embarrassed and ashamed all over again to even share that, but I promise there’s a reason I’m telling you this.

My mom didn’t realize I had changed my voicemail message to this. She called me and I didn’t see the call (contrary to what my message indicated!). When she heard that reckless, flippantly rude message on the other end of my line, she lost it. The voicemail message I had from her was her crying and saying she didn’t understand why I would say something like that, and that she had gotten more bad news about grandpa.

I was completely ashamed when I heard that voicemail from my mom. I called her back immediately and apologized over and over. And when I got off the phone, I changed the message back to something more normal. It was a moment of clarity for me – how my actions have a ripple effect.

I can’t say it enough: Fearlessness is not recklessness.

Let’s dive a little deeper into what a reckless life would look like:

When you live recklessly:

  • You have no consideration for yourself. It doesn’t matter to you if you get hurt, or if you damage yourself psychologically or emotionally. You truly don’t care. Sometimes this comes from a self-destructive root, but other times it’s because you believe you’re impervious to these things. The truth, though, is that we are all susceptible to hurt.
  • You have no consideration for those around you, regardless of your relationship (or lack thereof) with them. Like the first point, you may feel this way because you don’t believe someone should have a say as to how you live your life, or you may believe people are exaggerating when they tell you you’re hurting them or yourself. But we don’t live our lives in a vacuum, and our actions have a ripple effect to those around us.
  • You make poor decisions that could impact you longterm. In my example above, I hurt my mom and while the hurt hasn’t stuck longterm, my memory of it will never go away. And while that isn’t a bad thing, it’s a memory I didn’t need to have had I been acting responsibly instead of recklessly. These things create layers over time that you, and those you come into contact with and potentially hurt, have to work through. This is unnecessary pain that could have been avoided.
  • You become out of touch with reality, but may think you’re doing yourself or others a service. In my research, I found a great article by Carpenter Smith Consulting that perfectly illustrates this. In the article, they write “…when people are being reckless, they are not evaluating the risks that are in front of them but instead they are catapulting themselves head first into an oncoming disaster.” I could not have said this better myself. You may feel invincible for a time, but you’re hurtling yourself to a dark place.

How do you avoid recklessness when trying to live fearlessly?

Without a doubt, it’s a delicate balance.

From an evolutionary standpoint, fear exists for a reason – to protect us from danger (whether perceived or real). Without fear, maybe we would walk into the center of a polar bear exhibit at the zoo, quit our job with no plan for the next day let alone the next 6 months, or jump out of a moving vehicle. Fear, in some sense, can keep us safe, because it serves as a litmus test for risk.

But fear can also cripple us from ever experiencing joy, happiness, or something new. Fear can stop us from living the life we’ve imagined, because we become consumed by the worry of risk.

The answer, though, is not throwing caution to the wind and living moment by moment. Truly living a fearless life means developing an innate ability to consider the risks associated with a situation you may be facing, and deciding whether or not they make sense for you at this time in your life.

Risk analysis is the key, here.

How do you learn to assess risks, and not be owned by fear in the process?

Sometimes I freelance as a web designer. One of my clients was a construction company, and I had to read up on OSHA safety rules to be able to write copy for the site on this topic. OSHA is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that hands down regulations to companies in construction and related industries, and one of their guiding principles is around risk assessment on the job when it comes to doing a potentially hazardous task.

I think their risk assessment, though, could easily be applied to daily life.

  1. Identify the hazards. A hazard is something that could cause harm – physical, emotional, psychological, economical, etc. – in some way. For example, if you’re considering quitting your job because you’re fed up, the hazard in this case would your job disappearing.
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how. Sometimes it may just be you, sometimes it may be others around you, or sometimes it may be both. Continuing with our example, if you have a family to support, they would be harmed by the hazard of you quitting your job.
  3. Evaluate the risks. What are the risks if your hazard hurts the people you have identified in this situation? Temporary risks for quitting a job would be no longer having consistent income until you’re able to find employment again. A potential longterm risk is that the job market isn’t as open as you thought, so it may take you longer to find new employment. Another risk is you potentially burn any bridges at your previous place of employment, making getting a reference difficult.
  4. Decide on control measures. With the risks identified, how can you avoid these potential fallouts? The most obvious control measure would be to proactively job hunt so you aren’t walking into the marketplace blindly. Another control measure would be to discuss with your family your unhappiness with your job.
  5. Record your findings and implement them. At this point, you can either act on your assessments of how you can avoid these risks, or you can live recklessly and throw caution to the wind and do whatever you want. I recommend the former.
  6. Review your assessment and update if necessary. Give yourself time to work on your risk plan, and a date when you’ll revisit. In this example, maybe you give yourself one month (after talking with your family) while also deciding to speak with your manager about making some changes in your role.

Unless you’re hermit, I’d venture to bet any choice you make is going to have an impact beyond just yourself. This doesn’t mean you’re locked into a life that’s boring and stifling, though. It means you live fearlessly by taking calculated leaps.

No, that doesn’t sound super adventurous, or spontaneous. But it does sound doable and attainable, and I would take reality over a reckless pipe-dream any day.

One final note about recklessness

There is one really tricky way recklessness can sometimes appear – under the guise of being helpful. Sometimes reckless behavior doesn’t look like driving a motorcycle off a cliff. Sometimes it looks like making a decision to “protect,” or “help” someone. But the truth is you’re only helping yourself, and lying to yourself about your true motivations.

This is a really dangerous type of recklessness because it’s difficult to realize initially. An example of this could be if you choose to hide something you said or did that may hurt a friend, telling yourself by not admitting it you’re “protecting” them – when in reality you’re not dealing with the situation, and you are hiding behind reckless behavior as a way out. The risk is greater if they find out from someone other than you what happened and the longterm damage is potentially much greater because of this. Had you headed this off by not acting recklessly, you could drastically reduce the impact.

What are next steps?

This is pretty straight forward! Start paying attention to your choices, and what motivates them, and really dig down to see if you’re truly being fearless or if you’re just being reckless. Maybe you don’t feel like you have anything obvious at this time to evaluate – that’s great! Keep these ideas in your back pocket for if a situation like this ever arises in the future.

Or maybe you’re in the middle of something that you feel is tearing yourself and/or your family apart. If that’s you, please take some time and seriously sit down to work through a risk assessment and how you can turn this situation around. Recklessness tells you the lie that you’re too far gone. That just isn’t true. There’s always time to make a change.

Good luck

You might also like…

The year I turned 30
The year I turned 30
Why I chose to be a mom
Why I chose to be a mom

Originally published at myfearlessheart.com