You’re trying to delete something on your computer and a window suddenly pops up: Are you sure? You pause. Well, you thought you were, but maybe you’re not. The question starts to take on a life of its own: How can we really be sure of anything?
Difficulty dealing with uncertainty is a hallmark of anxiety disorders. And in mainstream populations, it’s related to worrying—which is usually unpleasant—and not very productive. Being able to tolerate the unknown can help us weather the inevitable changes and surprises of life. We can’t eliminate uncertainty, but there are effective ways to cope with it. Here are four strategies to deal with the uncertainty and self-doubt that comes up in everyday life.
1. Tame Your Inner Critic
When we’re excited about sharing an interesting idea or trying something new, a critical voice inside may pipe up, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Your inner critic may represent a person or group whose values and judgments you have internalized from earlier life experiences. These voices first developed as a defense to keep us safe. But as time goes by, they can become stifling, especially when we try to change or do something new. The inner critic can lead us to question our ideas, plans, and desires — casting a pall of doubt over our brightest aspirations. Identifying the origins of these voices can be liberating in itself. Having compassion for ourselves and our need to be liked by others and to feel safe and secure is important too.
2. Avoid “Black-and-White” Thinking
When we feel anxious about the unknown, our attention narrows, and our cognitive reasoning ability becomes less flexible. This can perpetuate the need for certainty and become a setup for dichotomous thinking—right/wrong, good/bad, or win/lose—which can lead us to very limited, and not necessarily accurate, conclusions. Try turning the question around: Asking “Are you sure?” again and again can build tolerance for the grey areas—maybe the decision was not perfect, or the conditions were not ideal. That’s OK. If the inner critic says, “Oh, that was a stupid thing to do!” then countering with “Are you sure?” can free us from this black-and-white thinking, and help us remember to treat ourselves with kindness and stay open to new possibilities.
3. Accept The Tradeoffs
It’s common to experience the voice of self-doubt after we’ve made an important decision. It comes like a boomerang, leading us to question what we were once so sure of. Maybe you shouldn’t have agreed to those terms? Maybe you should’ve waited for a better opportunity? The grass is always greener. This is a form of cognitive dissonance that social psychologists call post-decisional regret—and it can be very powerful. After we choose, the unchosen seems more desirable than it did before we made the choice. Remember that any decision we make, no matter how large or small, has trade-offs. Choosing to sit in a certain seat means you can’t sit in an infinite number of other seats. Choosing to attend a social engagement means you can’t be at other places at the same time. The same goes for big decisions about careers and life partners. Acknowledging these trade-offs and making sure you can live with them is a good first step. Observe the voice of post-decisional regret and remember it’s a natural reaction to change and uncertainty. Don’t equate making a good decision with one that feels certain immediately afterwards.
4. Befriend the Unknown
Uncertainty is part of life. We shouldn’t take it personally. It’s not a reflection of our competence or worth as people. Buddhist philosophy teaches that all certainty is an illusion, and the need for it creates suffering. Impermanence is part of the human condition. Everything is constantly changing. We can never really be sure. When we find ourselves needing certainty, it’s time to step back and compassionately ask why: Why do I need so much certainty—and can I be compassionate toward that need for certainty? Staying open to the unknown and being able to remember that, no matter how smart we are, we simply cannot know or control everything can be a source of comfort, rather than anxiety.
Try sitting in the unknown for 10 minutes. Prepare to sit for meditation with an issue for which you would like certainty, but know it’s not possible. Practice sitting in not knowing and observing how your mind reflexively searches for reasons, plans, and schemes of action. As these thoughts arise, intentionally (and gently) let go of them, and simply allow yourself to sit in the void of not knowing the answer. After 10 minutes of not knowing, you might feel refreshed and may be able to see the situation differently.
Copyright Tara Well, 2017, all rights reserved.
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Allione, Tsultrim (2008). Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. New York: Little, Brown, & Co.
Carleton, N., Norton, P.J., & Asmundson, G.J.G. (2006). Fearing the Unknown: A Short-Version of The Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, 105-117.
Chodron, P. (2008). Comfortable with Uncertainty. Shambhala.
Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. Sage, London.
Stein, M. B., & Sareen, J. (2015). Generalized Anxiety Disorder. New England Journal of Medicine, 373, 2059-2069.
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