I decided to start the new year with a reflection over the past months. Considering how much in the world have transformed lately, due to the technological and scientific progress, or forcibly because of 2020’s most (un)wanted – aka, Covid-19 – we may want to sit back sometimes, to understand where are our feet standing right now, the world spinning at such speed that it seems that, of what now if certain, nothing will be in couple of hours.
And thinking of the world in this perspective, few lines of a poem are recalled in my mind, almost as a prophetic claim, echoing from a distant past:
“Chi vuol esser lieto, sia: di doman non v’è certezza”.
Who wants to be happy, be it: of tomorrow there is no certainty.Lorenzo De’ Medici
In a jolly fashion, the author celebrates youth, exhorting to catch the moment – the present moment.
But I think there is more that such words say, and perhaps if those were written nowadays, their meaning would probably a more prominent role in how we face the world, every time we are pushed out of the comfort zone.
Everyone reacts to uncertainty emotionally, even the most stoic out there. It is a natural process, and with “emotionally” not meaning “excessively” or “hysterical”. Simply put, either dumb fear, either excitement, all what is unknown triggers the most primordial psyche within us. And the less we feel to have a grasp of control on it, the stronger that feeling is.
Many times presented as “challenges” from our bosses, and viewed as “adventures” if deliberated within ourselves instead, changes are a scary, yet exciting part of our life – even the smallest, such as trying a new food. It is something we seek, even unconsciously sometimes, when we are in need for a change, you name it; and yet too often when we are ready to transform our thrills into action, something blocks us. We renounce to that adventure we’d like to embark. That is, again, what our emotional self is capable to do to us.
Any time we feel excited about something new – as simple as the first kiss, as serious as becoming a parent – behind positive feelings will hide some anxiety. Once again, it is a natural process: after all, this is how our ancestors were able to be vigilant when haunting for food, trying to scope a predator, or scouting a new territory. In normal circumstances, such anxiety resolves in a boost of our alertness to the environment and readiness to act. This can be explained by the fear of unknown. It is more than pure feeling: it is a complex neural process. And it builds up our memory, too! We can grow up brave or wary of changes, although in a different fashion of our primitive cousins who would be suspicious and afraid of their first time handling a fire.
In a way, this is also how we build up assumptions about the world, the way we grow beliefs to interpret it. This becomes what is called the explanatory style of a person: the cognitive explanation of the world based on our personal experiences, either positive or negative. Our explanatory style could depend on our belief of control of a situation, the repeating of certain events, and our specific perspective on it.
Think of when a manager or someone important in your company communicates you and your team of employees’ cuts (I admit, this is not exactly what I label as “adventure”, but it gives the idea). Other than being surprised or upset, how else do you feel? Do you assume you are secured, or you will be among the ones to go? Are you assuming that all executives are careless of their workers, or this is happening for a different reason? Some situations surely trigger more negative thoughts than other, and this is one of those when a change is being pushed to us without us having an influence on the decision making.
Let’s look instead at what can be considered an adventure – a positive change. Maybe you are planning to learn, let’s say, playing guitar. It isn’t certainly easy, but it is cool for you and maybe you already have in mind to put up a band in the future. You are savouring a bigger goal beyond the learning experience. After this moment of excitement, anxiety kicks in: what if I fail? What if I have no talent, or I am not good enough? What if our band will suck?
Doing so, we might enter a circle of ruminating thoughts that if running wild become our freeway to failure. We risk transforming our adventure in a nightmare, without even having started it yet. We begin to worry about anything that could possibly go wrong, any kind of blocker, and we already forgot the positive vibes that such idea triggered in first instance.
For many of us, there is such thing as the Intolerance of Uncertainty, that is basically the tendency to reflect past negative (usually emotional) experiences into future ones, in a way that any risk we are initially willing to take surely implies our upcoming doom. Think of this for any time you dropped an idea at its first sketch: for how splendid it looked at the beginning, you might have dropped it for not taking any risk.
There is also a positive relation between our fear of failure and the one of being judged for it by others. Namely, it can evolve pathologically in a condition known as social anxiety. Many people do not start a business, do not learn a new language, do not go for major changes in their life just because they are afraid to be seen as crazy, or losers. And either way, by not taking actions, they are still haunted by another fear – the one of being seen worthless and lazy.
But there’s a way to stop seeing at it as an half-empty glass. Surely it requires a certain discipline but can be achieved overtime. That is the ability to see things critically, for what they really are, which means as data-supported events. Listing benefits, cons can be helpful but also misleading if both are no supported by facts. Alas, this can end up escalating in fussy behaviors demanding charts, statistics and everything you think you may need.
Instead, one should start simple, with something that copes with our cognitive assumptions and challenges them at the same time. Here’s some examples.
Start thinking out loud
Some thoughts really sound different when they take a path out of our mind. We can also occur in the realization that some thoughts are an exaggeration or alteration of reality, once we hear them coming out in the air. A reflection which is not prolonged over time and focuses on the key triggers of our fear can help giving the irrational a different (perhaps better) shape.
What is the worst thing that can happen?
This is a beloved question of a peer-coach of mine, used on me every time I tend to freak out about a problem, and I get entangled into it. It usually helps me to assess my worst case scenario, and then thinking about the ways to avoid or face it, rather than ruminating on how bad it is the situation to/for me.
Look for a critical friend
If you feel that a certain journey is too much for you, you may want to share the weight of your fears with somebody who can give you another perspective. Or better, help you elaborate on yours. Unsurprisingly, you can come up with a plan to pursue your adventure rather than a pro-con list. Just make sure to look for somebody who is eager to challenge your negativity in bona fide, rather than simply acknowledge it and being a consoling shoulder. Think of it as a small challenge into the big one – if you can cope with it, you can go back savouring the best outcomes of your goal.
At times like ours, we need to accept the uncertainty of the world more than ever before. You may not be an optimist, but in your heart, you know that rationalizing a bit does not necessarily need not to listen to your gusts.
Today you may think that you need a specific skill, tomorrow you could possibly give up because nobody is speaking of it anymore or you do not find so fascinating as from the outside in the beginning.
Maybe you found new opportunity on the work marketplace and you fear trying out just because you think too much of a failure that may never come.
Don’t give up because you catch up with the first challenges.
Instead, you can value your gut feeling with a good thinking session. That can really help you to embrace the adventure in the way you deserve the most – at its fullest.
Li, Jie & Al. “Fear of Uncertainty Makes You More Anxious? Effect of Intolerance of Uncertainty on College Students’ Social Anxiety: A Moderated Mediation Model. Frontiersin.org, Front Psycholog. (2020).
Wadey, Karen. “Explanatory Style: Methods of Measurement and Research Findings”. Positivepsychology.org.uk. (2006).
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