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An Opportunity You Can't Refuse -- Or Can't Approach?





by Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.


In one of my first college teaching experiences, a colleague invited me to talk to his undergraduate class about being a clinical psychologist. Afterwards, a line of students stopped me before I could dart out. They didn’t have questions about the lecture. Rather, they wanted to work with me.


I didn’t have any opportunities for them, but I didn’t want to shut down the possibility of helping them either. I asked them to give me their information in case something came up. The students’ enthusiasm as they scribbled their email addresses triggered both nostalgia and angst about navigating opportunity seeking.


Pursuing opportunity is a healthy behavior that society celebrates. We encourage people to earn a college degree. We cheer on people who seek raises, and we praise those who pour time and energy into finding a romantic partner to share their lives with.


However, my personal and professional experiences have revealed that emotional hurdles in opportunity seeking and taking can lead to feeling stuck in the process. You might have unrealistic ideas of what others will expect of you or of how the opportunity will work out. You might tie your self-worth to the outcome. Because you can’t control how an opportunity will pan out, making your self-worth contingent on it creates a breeding ground for anxiety and dread.


The crux of the problem is how people respond to these feelings, particularly when they believe they must get rid of them right away. Two of the ways people try to cope are well-intentioned but also self-defeating: Avoiding opportunities and seeking them excessively.

Opportunity avoiders are too hesitant to follow through with pursuing opportunities, such as professional advancement or starting new relationships. If they believe they need to look competent, and if they fear failure and embarrassment, they avoid trying to succeed. They hesitate to ask for help, sometimes out of shame. They might also turn down opportunities that come their way because they don’t feel confident enough to pursue them.


Being successful requires working through feeling unconfident as opposed to waiting for the confidence to kick in first. In line with the practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dr. Russ Harris’ work, The Confidence Gap, I ask my opportunity-avoidant clients, “In a world where you had unlimited confidence, what would you be doing differently?” I tell them that lacking self-confidence feels bad, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough for the opportunity. Unfortunately, when they do not take chances, and consequently remain stagnant, they inadvertently confirm their own beliefs of low self-worth.

Other people show what I have coined “compulsive opportunity seeking.” This is when people cope with uncomfortable feelings by pursuing opportunities excessively and indiscriminately. These individuals tend to be overachievers and perfectionists.


Compulsive opportunity seekers get excited by the idea of an opportunity itself rather than discerning what the opportunity will mean for their quality of life, particularly once the allure of it dims to just a longer to-do list. They find it painful to pass up opportunities even when they don’t have time for them. They might say “yes” to thankless tasks or spend more time looking for a better job than improving their existing position.


Similar to opportunity avoiders, compulsive opportunity seekers struggle with unstable self-worth. Making self-worth and confidence contingent upon hunting and snatching opportunities leads to framing them as irresistible and painful to lose. When people respond to this uncertainty by taking on more opportunities “just in case” some fall through, it leaves them at risk for burning out, and ironically, missing out on better future opportunities they have become too busy to consider. As can be imagined, overloading one’s schedule does not do much to improve self-worth.


The healthiest way to go about opportunity-seeking and taking is by building a balanced approach, which I have coined “opportunity selectivity.” This is in line with what Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) practitioners refer to as walking the middle path and what Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT) practitioners refer to as flexible mind.

Opportunity selectivity can be cultivated through 3 steps: Building self-awareness, enhancing flexibility, and strengthening interpersonal relationships.

  1. Building self-awareness means figuring out whether your behavior is clouded by emotion. Additionally, it means having a sense of what you want, which will help you choose opportunities more discretely.

  2. Enhancing flexibility means being willing to revise unrealistic expectations. This means recognizing when you are resisting an opportunity because you are waiting for the perfect time that will never come. It could also mean being patient for a better time to start a new endeavor and trusting that another opportunity will come if you pass on this one. Determining which way to go requires considering the context of the situation, acknowledging how you have responded to similar situations, and being honest with yourself about whether your typical style will get you closer to what you want.

In addition, it means being willing to change your expectations about what the opportunity will bring. For example, helping your boss might not automatically earn you a promotion, but you might get their attention long enough to share an idea with them.

  1. Strengthening interpersonal relationships. Behind every open door are the people who are choosing to let you in. Successful opportunity seeking requires embracing the feedback, guidance, and support of others. In an episode of psychologist Adam Grant’s podcast, WorkLife Dr. Grant and Kat Cole, president and COO of Focus Brands and former CEO of Cinnabon, discuss the ingredients to successful networking, such as being willing to volunteer time and resources to colleagues in a genuine way, and seeking advice from experts.

Given the impact emotions can have in pursuing personal goals, the greatest opportunity might be learning to resist broadening or narrowing your horizons because of emotional insecurity, and seeking new adventures with a mindset that prioritizes discretion and wisdom.



References

Grant, A. (March 19, 2019). Networking for people who hate networking. Season 2, Episode

3 [Audio podcast episode] In Work Life TED Audio Collective.


Harris, R. (2011). Why Bother? In The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and

Self-Doubt. (p. 27). Retrieved from Libby.


Linehan, M.L. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Guilford.


Lynch, T. (2018a). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice

for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. New Harbinger Publications.


Sherry, D.L, Sherry, S.B., Hewitt, P.L, Mushquash, A. & Flett, G.L. (2015). The existential model

of perfectionism and depressive symptoms: Tests of incremental validity, gender

differences, and moderated mediation. Personality and Individual Differences, 76,

104-110.


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