Dealing with Uncertainty
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Guess what? Even therapists turn to a guide or source of support when times get tough. Currently, I'm participating in a 21-day "Summer Sanity Challenge" offered by Dan Harris and his 10% Happier App to facilitate daily meditation practice.
Is that surprising to you? Well, here's some current context... Amidst a pandemic, widespread protests for racial equality, and huge political tension everywhere you turn, a tropical storm that wasn't predicted to amount to much this far north (e.g., on Long Island) wreaks havoc, stripping power and WiFi from your home and damaging your neighborhood... believe it or not, therapists are affected just as much as the next person by these difficult events. Common question: do therapists just coast through these stressors? Do they float above the chaos because they're trained to do so? I wish.
Little known fact: While many therapists are trained in empirically/scientifically validated methods of managing stressors and tending to wellness, they still fall prey to the hardships and pitfalls that make life challenging. I don't think I'm betraying my tribe, my community of therapists, to let you in on this reality... therapists are human, too. In fact, most of us, from time to time, treat other therapists, and realize that our own therapist likely sees a therapist, or has in the past. Why? Because most of us acknowledge our own "humanness," and accept that vulnerability is inevitable when you are human. Emotional struggles are human. Therapists can guide other people through their struggles, but when affectedness by their own life's struggles, they, too, need a guide to help navigate their way.
So, that was a bit of a derailment from my initial topic: UNCERTAINTY. Dan Harris offered this as today's focus and the timing couldn't be better. So many among my clientele and personal network are dealing with loss of power and WiFi, wondering: when will my household resume its usual routine? The uncertainty is pretty concrete in this case. As today's meditation clarified, uncertainty triggers fear and worry. Worry is the cognitive activity of generating predictions of what could/will go wrong next. Our human wiring naturally sets this in motion as a survival tactic. Be prepared and you may be among the few still standing after a hardship hits, or may at least suffer less than those unprepared. How can you prepare? By imagining what might be a threatening event ahead and setting things up in advance to deal with that, or envisioning how you will manage it.
Thus, to our wiring, uncertainty is an enemy, a dark place, a threat to our survival. Too many things can go wrong when the road ahead is unpredictable. The human brain wants to predict what's ahead to feel confident that proper preparation is in place (i.e., that we have what we need to traverse the bumps, twists and turns).
My two cents about letting fear triggered by uncertainty take you on a wild worry ride... keep in mind the economic theory of the point of diminishing return (PODR). Briefly, this refers to an important juncture in the relationship between resources put in and results that come out. Many think: if I just keep putting resources in, I will continue to reap rewards. The PODR teaches us otherwise. There comes a point, in many cases, where I keep putting in effort or resources, but I start getting less and less positive results for that. At times, it may even be detrimental to me to continue to put resources in.
Let me give a concrete example for this. Consider the process someone might go through to prepare for a camping trip. When packing, s/he might envision:
- hmmm, it might rain, maybe I should bring rain gear.
- there's no electricity in the woods, I should bring matches for light and to start a fire. Gotta bring food that is easy to cook over a campfire.
- I might need some first aid or bug spray in the woods -- better bring that with me.
- maybe I'll need a Swiss Army knife that has multiple tools in it, just in case.
- if there's an emergency in the woods, maybe I should bring a flare to signal for help? And some back up chargers for my cell phone.
So, where is the PODR? It's the point where the worries keep flowing but the solutions dry up. Or when you move on to worry about things out of your control. What if there are dangerous animals out there? What if I get lost? What if it pours the whole time and everything I bring gets drenched and ruined? What if..., what if..., what if...
Getting the picture yet? This is the point where uncertainty has swept you into a whirlwind of what ifs, and you need to pull the plug on that process. What's my "bite-psyzed" antidote to this dilemma? Develop trust in your capacity to manage and problem solve when obstacles arise. You don't need to think through EVERY possible obstacle in advance. It's wise to give some limited time to consider an upcoming event & prepare for some likely road bumps. But beyond that, it's also wise to be time-efficient, and put a cap on letting the imagination go catatrophe-crazy. That process tends to stir up anxiety which does not serve us well usually, and as mentioned, the return diminishes the longer you keep at it. You eventually are only fueling fear over a multitude of things that are unlikely to even occur. It can dissuade you from pursuing a venture or make you approach it with unnecessary distress. It can make you highly cynical or even exhaust you, depending on how long you keep at it.
INSTEAD: After you prep and pack your bag with some useful supplies for whatever life adventure you're embarking on, cinch that bag up with a healthy dose of: "I'm good to go -- I've got this." Tell yourself: "Whatever else I encounter, I'll figure out along the way."
Life is replete with uncertainty. In fact, uncertainty and change are two things that are inevitable and a constant in life. The better you can get with expecting encounters with uncertainty, and trusting in your own ability to deal with it when it arises, the better you will manage the road ahead (and get some good sleep each night!)
Remember this cool saying: "A bird doesn't trust in the branch on which it lands, it trusts in its wings." I hope that you, too, will trust in your wings.