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Mastering uncertainty

This pandemic has been a masterclass in coping with uncertainty. For most people, myself included, uncertainty can be difficult, but we can learn to cope with it better.

Read on for a breakdown of why we find uncertainty so frightening and the skills we need to master it.

Uncertainty and fear of failure.

When I explore fear of the unknown with anxious clients, what is often voiced in some way or other is a fear of failing.

What if I do it wrong? What if they judge me? What if I make the wrong decision? What if it all goes wrong?

It's normal to feel cautious and have doubts in the face of uncertainty, but when this turns into anxiety that stops us moving forward easily our fears have got the better of us.

What to do? There's no 'quick fix' (is there ever?!) but what's needed here is to build confidence in yourself and get a hold on the inner critic. Fear of failure is massively reduced if you allow yourself to do things imperfectly, learn as you go and stop beating yourself up for making mistakes.

Panicky brains

Uncertainty can make us feel unsafe; we just don't know what lies ahead so we go on high alert in case there's danger. Learning to be more mindful in your thoughts and actions can help you feel calmer and manage overthinking.

Our brains are designed with one priority in mind: survival. So it makes sense that when faced with uncertainty of any kind we naturally sway towards thinking about what could go wrong. It's just your brain's way of trying to protect you, only it's too easy to end up considering worst case scenarios and forgetting that these are just anxious thoughts not premonitions!

Being able to observe your thoughts and challenge them is essential - we all get caught up in this kind of thinking at times, but it's the ability to notice it and come back to what is actually happening that matters.

There is no uncertainty in the present moment, so in turbulent times the here-and-now can be a sanctuary for us.

We might have to bring our fear along for the ride in times of uncertainty, but it has to be a back seat passenger not the driver.

You're in control

The unknown can make us feel out of control; we don't know what's going to happen so it's hard to plan or prepare. Our nervous systems might interpret feelings of not being in control as lack of safety, making us feel on edge and anxious. We can experience a lot of nervous energy and feel 'pent up'. Finding safe ways to release that energy is a good idea - movement (especially running or dancing) can help.

Whilst it's true that we don't have full control over the future we can calm ourselves by focusing on what we can control. Even in uncertainty we still get to choose:

  • what we say

  • how we respond to situations

  • how we take care of ourselves

  • to manage our thoughts

There's usually far more in our control than we realise, it's rare that we are completely powerless. If you're looking for inspiration in this area then I recommend the work of Dr Edith Egar.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor.

Attitude shift

Try saying the phrase "what's going to happen?" in two different ways:

  1. Like you're scared

  2. Like you're excited

The truth is, as you may have already realised, almost nothing is certain. We actually don't know what's going to happen. Ever. We can therefore live in fear a lot of the time or choose to see this as an adventure. If we choose the latter we will need to cultivate openness to learning and the desire to fully experience life. For more on this I recommend Pema Chödrön's wonderful book 'Comfortable With Uncertainty'.

To sum up - mastering uncertainty is an ongoing practice of building these 5 skills/qualities:

  • Present moment awareness

  • Nervous system regulation skills

  • Self confidence

  • Self compassion

  • Spirit of adventure

Counselling, mindfulness practice and reading self-help/spiritual books have helped me and my clients enormously with these things. Maybe pick one skill/quality to focus on first and take some steps towards improving in that area. Good luck!


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