Four ways to cope with uncertainty

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In the UK, the decisions around the government’s comprehensive spending review have been announced. While the scale of those cuts is perhaps not as deep as anticipated in some areas, the downstream impact on those of us who work in the public sector is as yet unknown.  We know change will be afoot, it will likely affect us or those we work with directly, and all this is set against a backdrop of increasingly vexing international news of global conflict and crises.

While we know the old adage that the only thing certain in life is uncertainty itself, changes of this nature – which feel so completely out of our control – trigger anxiety and fear in even the most resilient among us.

Pondering this, I’ve gone back to remind myself of the few positive truths about our negative feelings regarding uncertainty.

1. Leaning into discomfort is not the same as being defined by  it

Connected to this idea of living in a world where not everything can be explained, determined, or satisfactorily resolved, the Romantic poet John Keats talked about our negativity capability – the ability to coexist, not necessarily with “negative thinking” in an overly simplistic sense, but our innate ability of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In short, it is our power to go on in the face of something which cannot be controlled by a logical system of thought and reason.   Central to Brené Brown’s arguments about ‘wholehearted’ living is the need to acknowledge and ‘lean in’ to our discomfort, not to suppress it, brush it off, and jump swiftly to a neat solution for fixing the problem.

However, there is an important difference between accepting our negative and pessimistic emotions and remaining mindlessly trapped in them.  We need to mindfully notice the stories we are telling ourselves, or those patterns we are repeating because of unprocessed emotions.  When our minds are busy crafting stories of the worse possible outcomes as if they are inevitable, and we linger there, then we are stuck.

2. Remember how adaptive you are 

What’s the worse thing that could happen?  Chances are that something we see as having long-lasting and life-changing (or destroying) consequences is actually something we could relatively quickly adapt to.  In fact, research by the likes of Kahneman and Dolan indicates that regardless of whether a life-change is positive or negative, we often adapt to it so swiftly that not long after it’s occurred we see the change as far less significant.  Kahneman and Thaler’s research on how we anticipate our experience of certain outcomes, and how we actually experience them, shows how we routinely ‘mispredict’ a change’s longer term impact: “Nothing in life matters quite as much as you think it does while you are thinking about it.

Confronting and then thinking through the practical steps you would take if the worst were to happen can also help.  This is the central tenet of Susan Jeffers’ highly useful Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Don’t ignore fear. Use it. Work through the actions you would take, the options you would create for yourself, and remind yourself that you’ve done this before many times:   “Every time you encounter something that forces you to “handle it,” your self-esteem is raised considerably. You learn to trust that you will survive, no matter what happens. And in this way your fears are diminished immeasurably.”

Furthermore, as we work through the worst that could happen, we also need to work through the best that could happen – creating alternative narratives to those of impending doom.

3. Take concrete action – even if you’re not sure where it’s ultimately headed

There is nothing like taking action to shift our mindset into a more positive one.  There are certain things we can’t control, but what can you control or influence?  What steps do you need to take, and what do they look like?

This is about a focus on action and behaviours, not outcomes.

As I wrote here, when we get hung up on outcomes  – especially ones that are very important to us – we can find ourselves once again stuck.  So focus not on: ‘getting a better job’ but instead on the incremental steps you need to take to open up career opportunities and create more choice for yourself. For example: ‘spend half an hour exploring different job ads’ | ‘write notes on how I need to update my CV’ | ‘update skills section of CV’ |  etc…

So take action, but in addition try to let go of the notion that taking action guarantees redemption or success. (It might. It might not).  Remember that it’s action that fosters growth and learning and gives us a sense of purpose which can boost morale and confidence.  Action begets more action, and can result in bigger changes. It can also mean we are taking responsibility and owning our own power and taking control – not waiting for an external entity to exert power or control over us.


4. Think of uncertainty as life itself

In this short video, Oliver Burkeman talks about ‘how a little bit of uncertainty can help your career.’ But he eventually comes to a more philosophical and even spiritual point:

Uncertainty and life are very closely connected somehow, and there is something about knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out that is a kind of death…

It’s this last point – that uncertainty is living – that I find most affirming.


One thought on “Four ways to cope with uncertainty

    […] while back I wrote about how we can cope with uncertainty, and much of what I wrote there can be applied here too: acknowledge your emotions, tap into your […]

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