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The uncertainty you are feeling is an evolutionary leftover. Early in our history as humans, uncertainty protected us. Uncertainty made us cautious, made us carefully evaluate situations and avoid situations that were too tenuous. Fundamentally, the experience of uncertainty encouraged us to avoid situations that might be dangerous or risky in order to maintain our survival.
In our modern times, however, there is less mortal risk when we are feeling uncertain. Uncertainty is less about survival of the fittest at this point on the evolutionary timeline. Instead, it can actually create the opposite experience, wherein those of us who learn to control our uncertainty come out ahead.
While there aren’t saber-toothed tigers outside our front doors, not knowing the details of a situation, what a solution is to a problem or the timeline of an event (take, for example, the pandemic quarantine), still produces that emotional experience of a threat. It is this evolutionary residual that gives us a bad perception of uncertainty.
How can uncertainty hurt you?
With uncertainty playing less of a role in our physical survival, there are still ways it can undermine our progress and success.
Functioning on autopilot. Uncertainty creates doubts in regards to how to accomplish tasks and be successful, so we fall back on past habits, behaviors and thinking. Functioning on autopilot may be safe, but it hinders our development. On autopilot, we don’t try different approaches. We don’t learn new things. We stop thinking creatively and resort to routine practices. Overall, we stagnate.
Reducing risk taking. We feel vulnerable when we experience uncertainty. The unknown increases our insecurities. To reduce these feelings, we fall back on safe ways of acting. We hesitate to the point of inaction. By doing this, we reduce our opportunities because we aren’t willing to take a chance on something different or novel.
Fixating on the negative. In moments of uncertainty, we tend to focus on the bad things that could happen. The “what ifs” our uncertainty creates tend to focus on potential negative outcomes. Once that happens, we unconsciously start to prime our brains to pay attention to information that supports the possibility of negative outcomes. This impacts how we view the world and sabotages our functioning.
What is the role of rumination in your uncertainty?
When we are determining a direction to take, we often consider all options or sides to determine the best step. As our uncertainty builds, however, we continue to weigh all information. We lose our trust in our ability to make the right decision. We might pull in additional input from multiple sources, clouding the process even more. Our “what ifs” start to dominate our thoughts, and we vacillate in how to move forward. In other words, we are caught in a cycle of rumination.
Rumination plays a significant role in uncertainty. Essentially, ruminating involves overthinking and obsessing over the same ideas, options and thoughts. A recent client experienced this as she was determining whether to accept a position with a different company. Her thoughts kept flipping between the relationships at her current company, her longevity there, the close proximity to her house and knowing her job responsibilities versus the opportunity for advancement, increase in salary, fun and challenging projects and a downtown office. She didn’t move beyond these; instead, she bounced between the factors sometimes hourly. Rumination like this doesn’t result in a productive outcome or decision and can create an experience similar to getting an annoying song stuck in your head that just keeps replaying over and over. Overall, rumination plays into the uncertainty about the situation, about the decision and about yourself.
What are some strategies you can use to manage uncertainty?
In order to ensure that uncertainty doesn’t unravel your plans for success, there are ways to control it:
1. Identify the thought creating the uncertainty. Since all emotions are generated by thoughts, knowing what the thought is allows you to zero in on the source. Once you know the thought or thoughts creating the uncertainty, you can focus on changing it.
2. Replace the thought with one that reduces the feeling of uncertainty. Replacement thoughts aren’t necessarily based on logic because how our brains interpret the “logic” can vary. Effective replacement thoughts are typically based around data, evidence or personal experience. As an example, you might feel uncomfortable because of the uncertainty of whether you’ll get offered a job you’ve interviewed for. In step one, you identify the thought creating the emotion: “I’m not sure I gave the ‘right’ answers to the interview questions.” A replacement thought might be “I gave the answers based on my professional experience, and if they weren’t the ‘right’ ones, that job isn’t likely the one for me.” Sometimes it takes several tries before finding the replacement thought that is effective.
3. Create “certainties” and “action steps” regarding the situation. In the scenario we are using, a certainty might be that you gave your all in the interview. Another might be that you haven’t heard back because the hiring committee said the decision would be made within the next several weeks. These certainties create the known boundaries around the situation, balancing or replacing the uncertainties. With that, action steps provide you with a feeling of functional control. Writing a thank you note or email to the hiring committee. Applying to other jobs. Creating a plan for how to handle the situation if you don’t hear back by the end of the month: get the name of the contact person, jot down his or her phone number and email address and decide on what date to make contact.
What are the benefits of uncertainty for you?
Once you apply and use strategies to manage your uncertainty, you can begin to optimize uncertainty towards your goals. Yes — uncertainty can be an effective tool towards success! First, uncertainty provides the space for you to look for different opportunities, new options and overlooked solutions. Second, when you don’t know how a situation is going to turn out, you don’t get locked in to one, specific, end result. Finally, we then get to explore, consider, analyze and identify these other results. This might produce a better path than the one you were originally following.
Ultimately, it isn’t determining the end result or the one solution that is the goal in regards to uncertainty. The goal when faced with uncertainty is learning to be okay with the uncertainty. It is applying the strategies so the uncertainty allows for possibilities, not limitations, and your “what ifs” capture the new opportunities that might occur. It’s also adopting the idea that while you might not know the exact result, you will have strategies or plans to address the result, whatever it may be. In this way, uncertainty becomes a superpower rather than your nemesis.