How to turn our irrational aversion to loss into something positive

Goal of not losing the fitness you have might be more achievable than becoming superfit

'...She's good, being gone...' was the response of Mark Antony, in Shakespeare's play, to the death of his wife Fulvia, neglected while he played around with Cleopatra.

What could this possibly have to do with you or I checking our pockets over and over again for a set of keys we know isn’t there? Or what could it have to do with a punter putting the last of his money on a horse in the last race after losing almost everything earlier in the day?

It’s all an expression of our aversion to loss, which can reach irrational depths.

A good deal of evidence even suggests that the strength of our fear of loss is stronger than our desire for gain.

That aversion is worth being aware of if you’re facing a dilemma – keep it or leave it, stay or go – or if you’re incapable of getting rid of useless things because they might be needed unexpectedly in some fantasy future.

Mark Antony, in love with his ‘enchanting queen’ Cleopatra, saw the value of Fulvia only after he lost her. The person looking for their keys in empty pockets is desperately trying to avoid the painful acceptance that they are lost. The punter is – sometimes frantically – trying to escape having to go home with the loss of everything.

In the sphere of finance, it has been shown that the kick you get from gaining €100 is less than the pain you experience if you lose €100

It’s all irrational. Mark Antony was quick to seek solace from Cleopatra. The man at the racecourse is going to lose everything on this last race or on some future last race. And as for the keys, we have all learned long ago that a point comes, pretty quickly, at which we know the search is futile – but we go on doing it anyway.

In the sphere of finance, it has been shown that the kick you get from gaining €100 is less than the pain you experience if you lose €100.

You can suffer imaginary losses: I you believed that I, your generous uncle, was going to slip you €100 for Christmas but I gave you only €75, part of you will see this as a loss of €25 and your muttered thanks will be less than sincere – and here we we are in springtime and you may be grumbling about it still.

Bad relationships

Does all this explain some aspects of relationships?

Do people sometimes stay in bad relationships because they focus on the fear of losing what they have, even if it’s unsatisfactory, and not on what they might gain from their freedom?

How many avoid committing to a long-term relationship because they fear the loss of the freedom they have?

Do some people react aggressively to the end of a relationship because they see it as a loss even though they brought about the breach by treating the other person poorly or even violently?

Or how many avoid committing to a long-term relationship because they fear the loss of the freedom they have?

And is the other person reluctant to leave because he or she would then suffer the loss of whatever the couple has?

Sometimes these situation get resolved because of a fear of bigger losses. A woman might fear that the time in which she could have children is running out and leaves to search for a partner who’s willing to start one with her. And her hesitant boyfriend of many years, faced with the real and imminent danger of losing her, might suddenly feel an urgency about stepping up to the plate (or maybe the altar rail).

When it comes to health, might we make more effort to avoid the loss of the health we already have than to gain ‘extra’ health? Would the goal of not losing the fitness I already have be more effective at getting me into those walking shoes when it’s cold and wet outside, than the goal of being superfit?

Using fear of the loss to motivate ourselves to towards goals might not sound very positive. But the power of negativity is a basic dynamic in human nature and why not use it when it can make things better?

What do we have to lose?

– Padraig O'Morain (Instagram,Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a Guide to Self Compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).