Stuck in a state of uncertainty?
We’ve all been there! Seven techniques to the rescue
I know how it feels to be stuck both literally and figuratively. When I was 12-years old, I toppled over while wearing a backpack. My parents and I had filled it with camping gear that weighed as much as I did. Pinned to the ground the heavy Duluth pack, my arms and legs flailed in the air like a turtle stranded on it’s back. I found myself stranded on the trail alone.
My active imagination turned every noise I heard into a dangerous animal out to get me. I, like most humans, didn’t handle the situation well. But it wasn’t my fault because my brain was wired to feel rewarded by certainty and autonomy. I had neither, so my amygdala activated my flight-or-fight adrenaline response.
I yelled for help to no avail. No one heard me. I felt scared, vulnerable, stressed in this moment of harrowing uncertainty. My parents rescued me when they turned around because they’d taken the wrong trail. These same emotions arose again years later. I got stuck in an elevator for over an hour before getting rescued.
But I found being figuratively stuck, when I was at a point of transition, even more challenging. I got in a pattern of trying to outrun or outsmart the uncertainty. Instead of facing the intense emotions and my vulnerability, I tried all sorts of tricks to suppress them. Denial. Push aside my feelings. Numb myself with sugary treats, tv, or surfing online. But my favorite technique of all was to stay really busy so that I had no time to think about how uncertain I felt. Sound familiar?
I know that I am not because we all experience uncertainty at some point in our lives. Here are the techniques I now try when I’m stuck and drowning in doubt.
Watch out for feelings of reduced autonomy.
When I am not in control of a situation, this can create a sense of threat. I try to remember that I am not always in control of circumstances, but I can control how I respond. This, of course, is much easier said than done. I learned this trick in David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work. He advised readers to create a perception of autonomy whenever possible. In other words, find ways to create choice.
Notice what’s happening and zoom out for perspective
The official term is cognitive reappraisal. I first learned about this technique in the book by David Rock I mentioned above. First, I have to notice what’s going on and then try to create a mindful distance from the distracting emotion.
Here are four ways to practice reappraisal.
1) Put a positive spin on it
Try to reinterpret the challenging event or situation by substituting a positive interpretation. For example, losing a stressful job gives me an opportunity to spend more time with my family and take care of my health. Or instead of finding a project with a tight deadline stressful, I can view it as an engaging challenge.
2) Inject a sense humor
New situations and uncertainty scare the brain. This is a typical response. I try to recognize that my reaction is because I am dealing with something new. David Rock recommends thinking, “Oh, that’s just my brain doing its thing again.” Laugh it off.
3) Don’t sweat the small stuff
Reorder the information I have, or reevaluate. I try to remember that my mind often produces anxiety stoking stories. For example, the fact is that a potential client did not return my call or respond to the email. I create a story that they will never want to work with me. Then, I have to decide that this false story is not worth my mental energy. I must wait until I have all the information. It turns out the client was out of town on vacation.
4) Put myself in someone else’s shoes
Repositioning my perspective is my favorite, but the hardest of the four reappraisal techniques. I try to look at the situation from a different point of view and another person’s perspective.
Get in touch with your future self.
I also love looking at things from my future self’s perspective. Will this matter in one month, one year, ten years from now? What guidance and self-kindness can my future-self offer me?
Sometimes I use a technique I learned from Jonathan Fields’ book, Uncertainty: Turning fear & doubt into fuel for brilliance. I attempt to navigate my uncertainty by asking myself four questions:
- What if I go to zero? In other words, what is the worst possible case scenario?
- What if I fail, then recover?
- What if I do nothing?
- What if I succeed?
In conclusion, I leave you with advice from Deepak Chopra:
I embrace the wisdom of uncertainty, because if everything is certain, where is the creativity?”
All the above techniques to get unstuck from uncertainty require creativity.
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