How to Deal with Uncertainty – Without Self-Sabotage

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In this post, you’ll learn how to deal with uncertainty without self-sabotage.

Imagine this: you are wired to an electric shock device and which one would make you more anxious?

You get told there is a 50% chance of getting shocked or you get told that you’re going to get shocked no matter what.

Researchers found that participants felt far more anxious if they were told that there was a 50% chance of getting shocked than the participants who were told that there was a 100% chance of getting shocked.

Our brains hate uncertainty more than physical pain. So what’s up with that?

Uncomfortable With Uncertainty

When we aren’t certain what will happen, our nervous system perceives that uncertainty as a potential threat that we could maybe do something about.

So it’s like oh something bad might happen. So, it kicks on this activated state trying to spur us into some action to prevent bad things from happen and this feels like uncomfortable anxiety sensations.

Now, most of us feel really uncomfortable with uncertainty. So, for example how do you feel in these situations?  Will this relationship work out or should I leave before I get hurt?

This world feels out of control should I bother with a college degree? Should I invest money in the stock market?  Should I buy a house?  Or how about this should I apply for that job if I might not be qualified and I get rejected?

Now, just like those real people in the research study; because uncertainty is so anxiety-provoking, a lot of people would rather have pain than uncertainty. So, they break up with their girlfriend or they quit college or they don’t apply for the job because that feels safer than the uncertainty doe.

Now, most people don’t like uncertainty but the people who can’t tolerate uncertainty the most are more likely to experience anxiety or depressive disorders. They’re more likely to struggle in relationships and not reach their potential in work or school.

But here’s the thing. It’s not actually uncertainty that’s the problem. It’s our attempts to avoid uncertainty that usually interfere with our lives. We love certainty to such an extreme degree that we often self-sabotage instead of tolerating the uncertainty. We would rather fail than risk success because risking success comes with uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.

So, we quit a sport if we’re not sure if we’ll be good at it or you never ask her out because you’re uncertain if she’ll say yes or you break up with him before he breaks up with you.

If we’re afraid of being fired, we quit or we don’t give our best efforts. So, we don’t feel invested and then we can just tell ourselves, “Oh, well! You know, I never really liked that job anyway.” Right?

We never really commit in an attempt to protect ourselves from feeling hurt later. But by never committing, we remove the uncertainty of success and we guarantee the certainty of failure.

Our nervous system prefers a familiar hell over an unfamiliar heaven and we are all experts at doing mental gymnastics to try and prevent disappointment and uncertainty.

So, have you ever said anything like this you know I’d rather expect the worst and have something good happen then expect the best or hope for the best and be disappointed.

This is an attempt to control uncertainty. But it also shuts down our options. If we expect the worse we will miss out on a lot of opportunities, like asking that girl out or putting our whole heart into a try-out or giving our all in a relationship or in our job.

And there’s like a bunch of other mental back bends we do if the future is uncertain we might worry and overthink in an attempt to control the outcome. We ruminate and run through all the possible scenarios trying to force certainty onto an uncertain world.

We’re trying to control and suppress our emotions of sadness or regret by endlessly thinking through scenarios and we worry and worry and procrastinate so much that we fill our present with anxiety and if we never commit to an uncertain course, we eventually sabotage our future too.

So let’s talk about other forms of self-sabotaging uncertainty avoiding things that we do. So, the first one reassurance seeking, micromanaging, over checking, procrastinating like procrastinating is an attempt to wait to make a decision until you have all the facts or you have all the control that you need. It’s like saying, “Oh! I’m not going to try until I know for sure that there’s going to be a payout.”

So, these are all like a bunch of weird mental strategies we use to avoid uncertainty but the thing is uncertainty was never the problem. It’s all the stuff that we do to try to make uncertainty go away that’s what makes us sick.

So, just go ahead and comment below what are some of the things you do to avoid uncertainty and what have you missed out on in an attempt to kind of protect yourself from being hurt.

How To Deal With Anxiety

Now, the cool thing is you can develop the skill of accepting uncertainty of creating space for it in your life so that you stop self-sabotaging and this, like, when we stop doing all these mental back bends to avoid uncertainty it actually can decrease your depression and anxiety and lead to you taking risks that actually lead to more success.

So, how do we do it on a practical level? How do we get better at handling uncertainty? You can create internal certainty around uncertainty by, number one, like just being honest.

Life is uncertain and you are certain there is nothing you can do about that. Uncertainty is part of living a quality life. Uncertainty is part of loving, caring, striving, competing, trying. It’s an essential part of best sports or the most exciting games.

Uncertainty is essential to creativity to relationships to productivity. Not to mention the best hobbies like rock climbing and gardening and I say that because I’m never certain if what I plant is going to grow.

So, stop resisting reality and stop trying to force your feelings to go away and instead let’s create room to hold those feelings while we strive for the life that that we dream of. I recently read an example of this in in the New York Times.

So, this woman said, “A close friend’s daughter was getting married during the pandemic. ‘We can’t invite our friends to the wedding in order to keep it small and safe,’ my pal told me. But she did invite friends I learned from a Facebook post just not me. Feeling humiliated, I initially kept quiet but being together grew awkward and I sensed a growing distance and when I tried to discuss the widening rift, she called a pause in our relations by text and stopped reaching out for a year.  My first thought was to consider the friendship ended. Something in her tone felt so final like a breakup, case closed. But after a time, I asked myself if I really knew what had happened and what she had meant by excluding me.

Perhaps there was more to the story. Despite my hurt I tried to keep the problem and my own mind open. I discovered what Rebecca Solnit calls the spaciousness of uncertainty, a realm of possibility. When at last my friend broke her silence by text, I was ready to reconnect and move forward even if I couldn’t get an answer to all of my questions. Meeting her rejection with unsureness gave me perspective and courage not to shun her in turn.”

In our craving for certainty, we often cut off the things we actually care about. It would have been easier for this woman mentally to just break up with her friend than to hold that space for uncertainty but she would have lost that friendship forever.

In order to live a happy life we have to stop trying to create a sense of safety that demands on controlling outside circumstances or controlling them mentally, right?  Cutting ourself off from them and instead we need to do step two which is strengthen our internal sense of safety.

So if uncertainty is perceived danger, the antidote is internal safety. Remind yourself that you can handle having feelings you get really good at having feelings. So, instead of putting all your energy into resisting uncertainty put your energy into building internal resilience.

So let’s say for example if you’re uncertain about an upcoming trip, if you’re anxious about it, if you’re worried that it’s going to be a stressful disaster. After a reasonable amount of planning, stop trying to predict everything, stop trying to control everything to make sure that it goes perfectly. Instead you could foster internal beliefs, like, oh even if things don’t go perfectly I can get through it. It’s only a couple days it might be uncomfortable but it won’t be the end of the world.

And these internal beliefs build up your sense of safety and that’s going to keep you from just endlessly trying to control and predict everything. To build up your sense of safety, adopt a mindset that like oh trying new things and doing stuff that’s hard and taking risk is good for you.

So, what you’re doing is you’re creating emotional space to feel uncertain and another word for this is willingness. Like, I’m willing to feel uncertain about this relationship in order to see where it will go. I’m willing to feel unsure about whether YouTube will like my video but I’ll make it anyway.

This is a skill you can develop with practice your ability to tolerate uncertainty without self-sabotaging is a muscle that you can develop. You strengthen it through practice.

So, do things that make you feel uncertain. Order something new at a restaurant or go to a completely unknown restaurant. You can practice tolerating uncertainty by trying a new class or traveling somewhere you’ve never been before or delegating a task to others without micromanaging them.

You could try an activity that you’ve been avoiding like karaoke or dancing or improv.  You could talk to someone you don’t know or go hang out with a group of people you don’t know. Wear a type of clothing that you don’t normally wear. And as you do these things, don’t focus on the emotion because you’re probably going to feel some discomfort.  

Focus instead on the experience. Did you learn something new? What did this experiment do for your confidence? Like, what did you learn from this? Did you strengthen your sense of self?

With all forms of exposure therapy, gradual repetition is the key to real success. So, just keep putting yourself in uncertain situations over and over and practice creating more emotional space to handle that anxiety instead of trying to control and manage and predict and cut yourself off from failure. And the more you do this, the better you’ll get at it like that emotional muscle will get stronger.

You are worth investing time and energy in building up your capacity to handle tough stuff. And if you’d like to work with a therapist to build up those skills at facing uncertainty, may I recommend BetterHelp. BetterHelp is an online therapy provider.  They’ll connect you with a licensed professional therapist from the comfort of your own home. You can meet with them on your phone or on your computer and they’ll help you find healthier ways to manage all of the big uncertainties that come with life.

So, for 10% off your first month, click here

Okay. Step three, stop ruminating and take some dang action. Our brains are so big they are our best defense mechanism but they get in the way when we constantly analyze and overthink and ruminate over every problem or every possible situation.

So if you’re not sure about your future in the job market, channel that anxious energy into taking some classes or getting certified in something new. Channel the emotionally activated energy of anxiety toward movement.  

So, you take some action. You create some new opportunities and I’m not saying like, frantically run a muck. I’m saying like intentionally. Say, “Oh! I feel nervous about my prospects at this job. Okay. I’m going to make some new network connections. I’m going to build up some new skills. Get some new certificates.”

If you want to be happy, you have to be willing to invest in life. You have to be willing to commit even when you’re not certain. Life is uncertain. You can choose to struggle against that and self sabotage in order to create a sense of certainty or you can go out and plant the tree even if you won’t be there to watch it grow up.

You’re still making the world a better place. So, on a practical level what do we do? It can be really helpful to write these things down. You can start with the locus of control exercise, which I talk about all the time.  

You take a piece of paper. You draw a line down the middle. You divide it into two sides, what can’t I control?  What can I control?  And then you ask yourself, “What do I really care about? What good can I do? How can I educate myself and you just spend less time on the things you can’t control and more energy on the things you can control.

I would also say like watch less media about things that are far from you. When you get caught up in the things that you can’t control, just write them down and then redirect your attention to what you can control and then take some dang action.  

Now this is a skill you can get good at. Like, you got this! As you build your capacity to handle uncertainty, you’re going to make better choices that lead to better outcomes. You’ll stop blowing up relationships. You’ll stop self-sabotaging and you’ll be more willing to take risks with rewards.

In the long run you’ll be healthier and happier.

If you’d like to learn more skills for working through big uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way, check out my online course, How to Process Emotions.   Please click below.

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