Week 3: Uncertainty
For many of us, the biggest obstacle to welcoming change is the uncertainty. Uncertainty arises when we’re in new situations, like a move or a new job, or when we’re in unpredictable situations—like when we have a job interview, a medical test, an injury, or the possibility of layoffs at work.
Because our brains are future-predicting machines, it’s natural to want to avoid ambiguity.
But some have this tendency more than others. For example, you might be intolerant of uncertainty if you love planning, hate surprises, and get frustrated when unexpected things mess up your day. Someone who has trouble with uncertainty might find it hard to make decisions in ambiguous circumstances, because they feel like they don’t have enough information and don’t want to make the wrong choice.
In Elaine Fox’s book Switch Craft: The Hidden Power of Mental Agility, she mentions that to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty, some of us engage in what she calls “safety behaviors”—things like making lots of lists, constantly double checking, over preparing, or seeking reassurance from others. For example, you might read a restaurant menu in advance, or repeatedly check in on your kid to make sure they’re doing OK.
To get more comfortable with uncertainty, we need to practice what Fox calls mental agility, or what psychologists call psychological flexibility. Research suggests that people who are more psychologically flexible have higher well-being and tend to be less anxious and worried.
Fox’s book is full of tips to cultivate mental agility, as well as other related skills that can help you roll with the punches in life. Here are a few that felt most practical and new to me.
Surrender to transitions. When something changes in your life—you leave a job, end a relationship, or lose someone you love—recognize that you’re now in a transition. Transitions take time to move through, and they can’t be rushed. Your identity (as an employee, partner, or friend, perhaps) will have to shift and change, as well. Be kind and accepting, and don’t expect too much of yourself as you struggle through this time.
Prepare for change in advance. Sometimes change is unexpected, and other times you see it coming. When you anticipate a big change in life, spend some time exploring your feelings around it. You can list all the ways your life will change, and identify the ones that are causing you anxiety. Give yourself the opportunity to mourn what you will leave behind, but also devote some of your attention to new opportunities that you’re excited about.
Seek out small uncertainties. You can build up your tolerance for uncertainty, Fox explains, by gradually exposing yourself to it on purpose. For example, you could reach out to an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while, try bargaining for an item you want to buy, or check social media less frequently.
Change up your perspective. One way to do this is to find something small that annoys you, and try to see the silver lining to it. For example, maybe your commute got longer, but that means you have extra time to listen to podcasts.
When life is uncertain, our usual responses and coping strategies might not always work. The practice of mental agility can help us be resilient.