Becoming OK With Not Knowing
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Many people who suffer from anxiety have a really hard time with uncertainty. They want to know what is going to happen, when and why and find it really difficult to "go with the flow". They want to prepare for every eventuality and find it really hard to just wait and see what happens. Can you relate to any of this?
If you find it hard to tolerate uncertainty, you might find yourself always preparing for the worst. You justify it by telling yourself that by preparing for the worst you will cope better with bad news. However, all you are really doing is making yourself miserable and exacerbating worry.
The inability to tolerate uncertainty has an effect on your thoughts, feelings and your behaviour. You don't know the outcome so you start to create scenarios in your mind. These are usually related to the worst possible outcome. You imagine bad news or you see everything going wrong and you practise playing out this scenario over and over again. These thoughts make you feel anxious and quite often overwhelmed, wondering how you are going to cope. This can make you physically ill with stress and can also stop you moving forward. You may get stuck, feeling scared to make any decision or move forward for fear of making the situation worse.
Let me give you some examples.
"Jim" is a 51 year old man who has been experiencing mild chest pain. His doctor does some preliminary tests and can't find anything wrong but, just to be sure, she refers him to a cardiologist and tells him to expect an appointment within the next few weeks. Jim at first feels relieved, but the more he thinks about what the doctor has said and the fact he has to have more tests, he starts to convince himself that there must be something wrong. He thinks that maybe the doctor was just sparing his feelings, afraid to tell him the truth. He starts to imagine himself undergoing heart surgery and plans how he will tell his family. In some of his imaginary scenarios, he doesn't survive the surgery and even imagines his own funeral. He eventually convinces himself he is just moments away from a heart attack and becomes extremely sensitive to any change in his pulse and any feelings of discomfort in his chest. So, his chest pains feel even worse than before, just exacerbating the worry and stress. He stops exercising or making plans for the future. He turns down invitations to go out and instead spends his time worrying about his heart and researching heart disease on the internet. He becomes so convinced that the cardiologist will give him bad news that he puts off his visit and cancels the appointment twice.
That is an extreme example and, of course, health scares are something that worry many of us. However, can you see how Jim made the situation so much worse by worrying about it and then putting off the appointment?
While Jim put off finding out for sure, some people feel so stressed and overwhelmed by fears of the unknown that they would rather the worst outcome just so that they can get on and deal with it. This can lead to making impulsive decisions and failure to think clearly.
What about other, day-to-day situations? Do you ever find yourself paralysed by worry and find that it leads to procrastination? You may be so worried about failing at something or making the wrong decision that it is easier to put it off altogether.
"Gemma" is a 36 year old mum of three. She finds that she worries constantly about her children and frets over any decision she makes. She hates feeling uncertain about anything. When Gemma's washing machine breaks down and she needs to buy a new one, she finds this a great source of stress and worry. She spends hours researching the best makes and models. How big does it need to be? How much water should it use? Which is the most economical? Every time she makes a decision, she finds another machine and wonders if that might be better for her family and the environment.
The fear of uncertainty is very real to many of us. The makers of horror films use this fear to great effect, having us hide behind our hands before anything scary has even happened! However, we can be certain of very little in life. We are faced with uncertainty on a daily basis.
The other thing to consider is that certainty is not always that helpful. You can decide that you are certain you won't like something and decide that you will never experience it. This would reduce your life to never being surprised or delighted by anything.
Think about a life without any surprises or new experiences. Imagine if everyday you knew exactly what was going to happen and when. Would you really enjoy that kind of life? Look at the film "Groundhog Day". Is that the life you'd like to lead? We play the odds everyday in everything we do as none of us knows what the day will bring. If you could see how everything was going to go, would that make you any happier? It is something to think about.
Unhelpful Strategies for Overcoming Uncertainty
These are the ten most common unhelpful strategies for dealing with uncertainty. Do you recognise any of them?
1. Spending hours planning or looking for information
Do you plan your routes on google and look at the roads you will have to take? Are you like Gemma in the example above, spending hours researching and planning before you make a purchase or book a holiday?
You may find that this just gives you extra things to worry about. You can make a simple decision much more complicated and end up talking yourself out of taking any action. You cannot remove the uncertainty. Even if you plan your route, you may see that you will need to negotiate large roundabouts or small country lanes or whatever it was that you were worried about. This will just lead to more worrying. Also, what if a road is closed and you have to take a detour?
2. Constantly scanning for uncertainty
Someone who has a phobia of spiders will spend hours looking for spiders...and they'll find them! Fearing uncertainty is similar. If you look for it, you will find it everywhere you go. No matter how well you have planned, uncertainty is everywhere. Constantly scanning for it and tryng to eliminate it is exhausting. You will find yourself stressed all the time, with your body constantly in that "fight or flight" mode.
3. Avoiding Commitment
Worriers can often find it hard to commit to anything. Do you ever find yourself putting off a decision because you are frightened you might make the wrong choice? An example might be an invitation you've had to a party. You would like to go but you worry about all the unknown factors. Who will be there? How wil I get there and back? If I drive, where will I park? Will I find anyone to talk to? So, you worry about all these things and decide it will be better to say no. However, that brings other worries. If I say no, will they think I'm being rude? Will I ever be invited again? Will they still be friends with me? So, you go back and forth, weighing up all the pros and cons and the indecision just creates more to stress about.
4. Avoiding People or Situations
People who struggle with uncertainty like to stick to routine and tight schedules. You may only feel comfortable with certain close friends or family members so you avoid situations where any uncertainty is present or you may have to socialise with people you don't know well. So, you turn down invitations and become more and more isolated which brings problems of its own. You soon realise that you can't avoid uncertainty altogether and you are now feeling lonley and left out, which just adds to the feelings of stress and can cause depression.
This is very much linked to anxiety and perfectionism. If a situation or task is stressful or you can't be sure that you will succeed or do it all perfectly, it is easier to put it off. However, again, that brings it's own problems. Putting off a task that needs doing can just make you feel more stressed. It will just hang over you and nag away at you, keeping you awake at night or making you feel guilty for having fun.
6. Avoiding Responsibility
Do you ever find yourself asking other people to make a decision for you? It can be as simple as choosing a restaurant or deciding which film to see at the cinema. The uncertainty of not knowing whether the other people involved will enjoy your choice of film or restaurant may be too much. What if they don't like the food? What if the film I choose is rubbish? So, you avoid doing what you want to do and get someone else to make the decision for you. If you do have to make a decision, you may find yourself always seeking reassurance and asking for other people's opinions. You know what you want to do but doubt your choices and so put off making a decision until you have asked others. This means that you could live your life never doing what you want. This could be as small as missing a film you wanted to see or as large as getting stuck in a career that you hate or living in a town you don't like just because you went with someone else's opinion rather than your own. It can lead to a very miserable life and the more you put off making decisions for yourself, the harder you find it to do.
7. Overprotecting Others
I see this a lot in anxious mothers. You can't bear to let your children go out and make mistakes as you want to protect them from hurt. You also find it hard to let them go out alone as you worry about what they are doing and that old fear of uncertainty creeps in again. So, you do everything for them and stop them living their own life or making their own mistakes. It might not just be children, you might find yourself doing this for friends and other family members, too. You eventually find that you are run ragged, trying to do everything for everyone and also deal with your own life and the anxiety you face daily. This can also have a negative effect on the other people you are trying to protect. They may become totally reliant on you and lose confidence in themselves. They will pick up on your anxiety and fear of the unknown and repeat this pattern in their life. On the other hand, they might feel frustrated and smothered by you and start to rebel against the control you're trying to have over them.
8. Failing to Delegate
You may also find that you fail to delegate tasks to others as you can never be certain they will do it the way you want it done. It seems easier to just get on and do it yourself. This will lead to you burning out and will also have a negative effect on your relationships. The other person will either take you for granted and expect you to do more and more or they will resent the fact that you don't trust them.
9. Checking and Rechecking
Do you find yourself going back to check things for fear that you may have made a mistake? This could be that you check and recheck emails to make sure there are no spelling mistakes before you finally send it. You may check a plug several times before leaving the house, just to make sure that you have switched it off. Do you double-check locks? It is exhausting!
10. Going Over Past Decisions
This final one is very common. Even if you have made a decision, you start to doubt yourself. Could I have made a better choice? Should I have taken more advice? So, you are never satisfied, even after the decision is made.
So, How Can You Become OK With Not Knowing?
Well, the first thing you need to do is to start breaking those habits above and try out some new ones. Try out some behaviour experiments and just see what happens when you practise a different way of living your life. You might like to make a hierarchy of situations and opportunities you can think of to practise. Start with small things and work your way up the list.
An example for someone who avoids responsibility might be:
Choosing the family's holiday destination this year
Buying a gift for a friend or partner without asking for ideas
Deciding on a restaurant for my birthday
Choosing what the family will eat for dinner tonight without asking them
Some other ideas:
Delegate small jobs at home
Move things around at home
Book a visit to your doctor or dentist (or someone else you've been avoiding)
Go to a new restaurant without asking for advice or reading reviews
Send an email without checking over it first
Make a small impulse buy
Try a new hobby or join a new club
Allow children to carry out age-appropriate tasks independently
Try out some new ways of doing things and just see what happens. Make a note of what you are going to do, what you fear might happen and what actually happens. As you get used to dropping all your rules and protective behaviours, you'll find it easier and easier to face uncertainty and even welcome the surprises that life can bring when you just go with it.
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