Facing The Unknown: Why Freaking Out Isn't The Way To Deal With Uncertainty

by Carolyn Highland

Every day of our lives, we tell ourselves stories. We seek to explain things, to know the reasons why and to somehow find a way to make sense of insane, swirling uncertainty that we exist in. It feels better that way; it feels safer and clearer if we know.

If we can’t know, we pass through the uncertainty guessing. We make stabs at what things mean and create narratives of the way we think things are in our heads and then project them onto our lives. Often, without us even realizing it, these stories start getting tangled up in what actually happened, until we can no longer tell the difference.

We've all done it -- speculated why someone is acting the way they're acting, or wondered why we didn't get that job, or why someone isn't texting us back. We can't sit with the uncertainty of simply not knowing, so we try to fill the void.

I have sat numerous times, trying to interpret text messages with friends weighing in with what they think the phrasing and punctuation really means. It's not necessarily problematic in and of itself to do this, but when we take it that next step further and start to have emotional reactions to those interpretations, we get ourselves in trouble.

Tracking the thought process is the most fascinating part. In fact, it doesn't matter whether or not the theory is soundly logical or wildly speculative; what matters is that we recognize that no matter what, it is only a theory. The only true data we have to go off of is what actually happened; everything else is something we made up or something our friends made up, and we have to remember that.

This process often begins with something that physically and literally happened. Someone hasn’t texted in a few days? Instantly, we start jumping into this strange, imagined space.

That person must be angry. He or she is no longer interested. That person lost his or her phone. Something terrible has befallen him or her. We then choose whichever of these explanations seems most probable, and suddenly, we start to react to it as if it were real.

We decide that this person is no longer interested and a dread starts to creep in. Then comes the anxiety, sadness and the frantic search for what could have gone wrong. It spirals further and further from reality and into our own insecurities and imaginations. We have real, full-on emotional reactions to something we made up in our heads.

Sometimes we are right and our worst fears are confirmed. Other times, though, we have entirely convinced ourselves of a fallacy, as a result of jumping to conclusions. We decide that person who didn’t text back is uninterested and it's over, and five minutes later, he or she is ringing the phone.

We have to step back and be able to discern between what has actually happened in reality and what we have led our minds to believe: What are the facts? What are the real events? What do we actually know? There are enough real factors around us to have feelings about without having feelings about hundreds of hypothetical truths or possible outcomes that may never actually exist.

Slow down. Breathe. Remember what’s real. Uncertainty is a part of life and always will be. There are at least two options that are better than telling ourselves untruths and then forgetting we wrote them.

Learn to accept the uncertainty and live with it, or ask. Find out. Get actual answers, instead of making ones up.

The truth, the realistic outcome, may not always be what you hoped for, but at least you know it's real.

Photo courtesy PEM