Use Uncertainty to Your Advantage


You can't avoid the unknown, but doubt doesn't have to distract you from progress.

Last updated: 22 July 2022
6 min read
  • We don't have the power to know how the future will play out (duh), but we can turn that uncertainty into fuel for growth.
  • This isn't your first time dealing with doubt. Remind yourself of all the ways you've pushed through in the past.
  • Looking at the big, undetermined picture is overwhelming. Breaking down baby steps to your goal and tackling them one at a time isn't.

Read on to learn more …

Why and How to Embrace Uncertainty, According to Psych Experts

No one can predict the future, not even that psychic who somehow knew you'd adopt a dog. And as most of us know, life can be very unpredictable. Whether we like it or not, that uncertainty often leads to doubt: will I get into my dream school? Am I really ready to rock this marathon? Am I going to land that job? Every moment ahead of the one you're in is undecided. Uncertainty is inevitable.

Which is why getting even more comfortable with it can help tame your anxiety—and may even be the push you need to get closer to the goals that feel out of reach. "The only thing given in this world is change. The more we can accept that, the more change can feel exciting, like an infusion of new energy", says Mollie Eliasof, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in New York City.

Why Uncertainty Throws Us Off

It's human nature to let doubt creep in when we don't know what's coming. To our early ancestors, "uncertainty equalled danger and needed to be avoided at all costs", says Robin Buckley, PhD, an executive coach in New Hampshire. Cave too dark to see whether a hungry sabre-toothed tiger might be lurking inside? Better to just steer clear.

Our instinct to avoid the unknown runs so deep that we may prefer to suffer through something familiar than try the proverbial unmarked door. Case in point: in one British study, people were less stressed when they knew for sure they'd be getting a painful electric shock than they were when the chance of getting shocked was 50–50.

Why and How to Embrace Uncertainty, According to Psych Experts

Why It's Time to Embrace the Big "?"

There are obviously occasions when sticking with what you know is smart. No one's going to say you should pick a dark, abandoned side street over your usual well-lit route when you're heading home late at night. "But when we have the ability to explore, but get locked into habits or patterns, even good ones, it doesn't allow for expansion, creativity or new growth", explains Buckley.

Learning to be cool with murky circumstances, however, "can lead us to people and things we might never have found if we stayed on autopilot", says Buckley. And uncertainty can make you more motivated to achieve a successful outcome, University of Chicago research shows. One theory? Taking a risk can be exciting and excitement is motivating. And with all that motivation, there's no stopping your progress.

The even greater plus side: accepting the unknown starts to feel a little easier every time you do it. "Facing uncertain or challenging situations helps us recalibrate our natural alarm system and approach more opportunities in the future", says Michael Ambrose, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. In short, we can develop gutsiness and self-trust along the way.

Although the unknown might seem unsettling AF, you really can handle it. A Yale University study on monkeys found that unpredictable scenarios trigger a boost in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for managing emotional reactions. It's thought that this same mechanism can help our human brains laser focus on the most important info in uncertain times to make the best decision.

Acing Acceptance

If trusting that good may come from uncertainty (or that even if it doesn't, you'll be OK) seems easier said than done, that's because it is. But warming up to the what-ifs is totally possible. What's key:

Why and How to Embrace Uncertainty, According to Psych Experts

1. Go beyond A or B.

The anxiety of not knowing can be fuelled by getting locked into an either/or mindset, explains Eliasof. Say your job isn't really doing it for you any more, but you like that you can WFH if you want to. When considering your options, you feel trapped between either A) doing work you don't love or B) stressing about finding a new job that doesn't require you to go to an office.

The thing is, those actually aren't the only two choices. "You can chop A and B into multiple categories", says Eliasof. "That allows you to open up the possibilities and gain a sense of control". Staying at your current job could mean choosing to focus on tasks that give you more fulfilment or cultivating stronger relationships with your team that can help you make progress in your career. Deciding to look for a new one could mean taking classes to make your skills more marketable before applying for other positions. More exciting than scary that way, isn't it?

2. Review your personal history.

Instead of doubting your ability to handle a new situation, think back to how you've coped with challenging experiences in the past, like managing life mid-pandemic. "Maybe you're resourceful and optimistic, so tap into those strengths", says Buckley. "You know they've worked for you before and therefore they can work for you again".

FYI, totting up the traits that've helped you succeed is more powerful than just saying, "I got this". That's because it gives your brain hard evidence that you already have the skills to cope, says Buckley. You realise that even though you're heading into unknown territory, there's one thing you do know: that you've been there, dealt with that—and you can do it again.

3. Break it down.

Uncertainty can strike when you have a huge task to tackle and no clear sense of how you'll get it done. When that happens, make a road map of mini tasks and focus on getting to the next one by a certain date, recommends Eliasof. "You'll notice a sense of accomplishment as you complete each task and that can give you a sense of more control and certainty", she says. Plus, having that visual aid can help keep you grounded if you start to spiral.

4. Be nice to yourself.

If a kid told you they were worried about something, how would you handle it? Probably not by filling their head with the worst-case scenarios or by dwelling on how daunting things are. So give yourself the same TLC, says Eliasof. Talk through your concerns with someone you trust. Think about the positive outcomes that could happen. Or give yourself permission to do something that'll take your mind off the situation for a little while, whether it's shooting hoops or watching ridiculous TikTok videos. "The point isn't to dismiss your feelings by saying everything's going to be OK. It's to soothe and support your fear", she says. Not only can this have a calming effect, it can also help you get clarity, making problem-solving easier to access.

5. Be in the here and now.

Freaking out about the future means your brain is hurtling ahead instead of focusing on the present, where none of that bad stuff has happened yet. To practise staying in the moment, Buckley likes to write down a nightly list of three things that brought her joy that day. "It primes you to subconsciously look for those things all day long and they can be as simple as a ladybird crawling on the window or your dog licking your face first thing in the morning", she says. "That strengthens your ability to stay in the moment and control your thoughts, which can ultimately help control your feelings". Because while you can't know for sure if you'll get that job or whether you're about to have the best race of your life, you can 100 percent decide whether you let doubt halt your progress or propel you towards it.

Words: Marygrace Taylor
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi


Need more proof of just how powerful doubt and uncertainty can be? Learn how Nike athlete Amy Bream pushes through both daily to make progress, then check out her adaptive workouts in the Nike Training Club App.

Originally published: 1 August 2022

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