Benjamin Franklin famously commented that “in this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Uncertainty is part of all of our lives. Viewed in one light, uncertainty is exciting, since all new experiences and opportunities come from the wellspring of the unknown. More commonly, uncertainty is viewed with fear and loathing. Humans have evolved to protect what they have and to seek routine and the comfort of the known.
Uncertainty comes in many forms. During the recent conference season, I met up with several friends who are suddenly looking for a job. One was recently let go after 17 years at a company where she built the compliance program. Since new leadership was installed, the company doesn’t think it needs compliance anymore. Others have found themselves in the midst of restructuring, or in companies concerned about unstable political forces and recessionary whispers from economic indicators.
Although uncertainty can be uncomfortable, it can also be managed effectively to help you through any challenges it poses. Try one of the following five ways to help yourself through the morass.
1. Focus on that which you Can Control
When faced with uncertainty, focus on what you are able to control. Perhaps you can’t control whether your company keeps investing in compliance, but you can control reaching out to your network to get reacquainted with people who might help you find a job if yours is eliminated. You may not be able to control being assigned to a different office, boss, or shift, but you can focus on achieving your year-end goals so you’re in a good position to receive your bonus. The feeling of control counterbalances the force of uncertainty. Look for what you can control and commit to actions that move you in the right direction.
2. Determine the Very Worst that Could Happen, and Talk Yourself Out of It with Logic
“Supercoach” Michael Neill instructs his clients to utterly catastrophize the outcome of their problems. For instance, if a client is worried about their financial situation, Neill will have them catastrophize it out until they get to “I’ll be homeless on the streets and no one will take care of me.” From that point, Neill asks his clients to go through all of the steps that would have to happen to get there. For instance, the client would have to burn through all of their savings, raid their retirement accounts, get behind on the bills, have the house foreclosed upon, lose the support of all friends and family members that might let the client live with them, not be able to claim unemployment benefits etc. etc. etc. Neill points out to his clients that all of these things happening are extraordinarily unlikely, and therefore, easily dismissed.
You can perform this exercise to help calm you down when you’re feeling anxious. Take your situation and extrapolate it to the worst-case scenario. Then work backwards to see all of the places where you could get assistance or choose other actions (like getting a part-time job or relying on friends). By defusing the worst-case scenario you’ll be more able to deal with what is real right now.
3. Focus on What You Want
When faced with uncertainty, many people focus on what they don’t want. If asked what they want, people will say, “I don’t want to be fired,” “I don’t want to be denied a promotion,” or “I don’t want my program to fail the audit.” Instead of focusing on what you don’t want, flip the statement around to say what you do want. Say, “I expect to keep and enjoy my job,” “I intend to be promoted,” or “I believe my program will pass the audit.”
Many philosophers and authors believe that what you focus on expands. Identify clearly what it is you want, then focus on bringing that outcome into your life. Your uncertainty may not abate immediately but having a powerful vision of the outcome you want will help your mind to keep its focus on the goal.
4. Stack the Deck in Your Favor Where You Can
Think back to the catastrophizing exercise. What can you do now that would help avoid the worst case from playing out? If your job has become at risk, perhaps you can begin saving more money in your emergency fund or update your resume and meet with a local recruiter to get a better sense of the market. If you’re uncertain about how a program evaluation will go, talk to the auditor to get a better sense of scope so you can prepare your team. If you’re uncertain about presenting to the Board effectively, practice at least twice (out loud) to be prepared. Actively engaging in activities that make beneficial outcomes more likely will help you feel more in control. Greater feelings of control relieve anxiety about the future.
5. Remind Yourself to Be Here Now
Many times we ruminate on the unknowable. When you find yourself stuck in a “what if?” thought loop, ask yourself if there is anything you can do right now to change the situation. If there is something you can do to contribute to the outcome you desire, do it now. If not, remind yourself to be in the present. Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” Don’t suffer negative events before they occur. Be where you are in the present. Choose to breathe deeply, feel your feet on the ground, and remind yourself that whatever you need in this moment is likely already here.
Uncertainty is a part of life. It will always be present in greater and lesser amounts. If all else fails, remember to be good to yourself in the midst of uncertainty. Remind yourself of times when you overcame adversity, or when an uncertain situation resolved in a way even better than you could have imagined. Focus on what you can control. Stack the deck in your favor. Trust that you can handle whatever outcome occurs. Ultimately, believing that you can handle whatever comes your way is the antidote to uncertainty. Finding your way to that belief is what the behaviors above will help you achieve.