On managing uncertainty, and circular thoughts
Uncertainty is painful to deal with for humans. Uncertain situations are quite good at creating circular thoughts and worries.
Perhaps not the most riveting example, but when I was waiting for the result of what became my first job out of school, I worried about my interview for weeks, to the point of being unable to focus well on other things.
When the director called me to extend the job offer, I was sitting in a bubble tea shop, and the sound of the smoothie machine almost drowned her voice out. I don’t know what happened then, but it was as if many floating threads of “what if” finally solidified in that moment, and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.
Of course, more often than not, uncertainty doesn’t solidify into one path. If that call had been a recruiter rejecting me, my mind likely would have returned to that floaty, anxious uncertainty.
It’s one of the sensations I dislike the most and would avoid if it were possible. But life’s not that easy.
There are ways I’ve learned to deal with uncertainty and the overload of it, which has helped me navigate situations where there is no closed loop with better peace of mind. I hope that some of them can be helpful to you, too.
- Separate future facing and past-obsessing worries
- Fear setting
Separate future facing and past-obsessing worries
Using the example of worrying about the decision of a job interview, or being accepted into a top choice graduate program, there often appear running thoughts that threaten to lock up my mind with their repetitiveness.
Before I had been accepted to my master’s program a few years ago, I might be trying to sleep, and my brain would drop a line like “hey, do you think adding your volunteer experience on your CV was a good idea?”
More and more similar thoughts would keep running, like an obnoxious scrolling LED sign. I had severe insomnia during the last few years of my university studies, so these thoughts were not helpful in the least.
These worries happened a lot during what I nicknamed the “limbo of uncertainty” - where a decision I’m waiting for from an external source hasn’t been confirmed yet. I’d even feel better if they said “no, you weren’t accepted to the program”, than be in the “limbo of uncertainty”.
I’ve learned to try to separate these racing thoughts - what can I change? What can I not change?
What I can’t change - past-obsessing
- My performance in an interview
- The CV I submitted for a graduate program
What I can change - Future facing
- Call or email to follow up on an interview decision
- Further research “how to write a good CV” but with the mind to improve for future applications
When each racing thought comes into my mind, I try to filter them through this lens, and focus on the ones that fall into the latter category of what I can change going forward.
I actually find it pretty helpful to let racing thoughts pass through. If we just try to suppress them 100%, it ends up being more like ironic process theory: if you try not to think of a pink elephant… guess what you’re thinking of.
But it’s easier to filter and allow in purple elephants instead of pink elephants, or turn pink elephants to purple elephants.
Still one of the most relevant things I do when there's a lot of uncertainty - reminding myself that even if the worst happens, I can rise out of it.— Susan Shu Chang (@susan_shuc) June 23, 2021
An exercise I find helpful when dealing with running worries about an uncertain situation is “fear setting”. For more, see Tim Ferriss’ excellent blog post.
Simply put, it’s to repeatedly think of the worst situations.
Using the grad school example, the worst case might just be “I don’t get into any program at all… I’ll need to find a job. But it’s so competitive out there. I’ll never get a job!!!”
Even though it’s been so many years, the worries from my time in the “limbo of uncertainty” for grad school applications are still seared in my mind. I had no trouble recalling these thoughts… lol
For this exercise, get the “worst” thoughts out, perhaps even thinking of even worse ones for good measure, such as “I’ll never get a job, and in addition, I accidentally run over someone’s fence on my bike and I suddenly owe a huge amount in court fees.” (It’s supposed to be ridiculous.)
Then, our brain will start to come up with thoughts that are more along the lines of “What I can change” in the previous section - more future facing than past-obsessing.
For example, “If the worst happens, I can still try to do odd jobs, like tutoring… I’ll move to somewhere with a low cost of living and close to a university, to cut costs.”
These worst case scenarios usually don’t end up being reality (if they do, you might have a bigger problem than uncertainty).
But usually, this exercise shows us that the worst case, given that we still are alive and have most of our motor functions, doesn’t end up being that impossible to manage.
Doing this “fear setting” exercise helps me ease the uncomfortableness of being in the “limbo of uncertainty”. The running thoughts of the obnoxious mental billboard end up not being as severe as the worst case, which I’ve already determined as not that impossible to manage, and are less able to overwhelm me.
As I look for topics to write each week, I seem to go further and further into the past. I realize that there are ways that I’ve learned to manage difficult situations well, that I didn’t always know.
For example, experiencing impostor syndrome in grad school gave me a ridiculously good framework to deal with it going forward, and I’ve been much quicker to respond and work with it healthily and productively after grad school.
So I hope that by sharing the experiences of how these management frameworks came to be, these posts can help those dealing with similar situations.