Uncertainty. It’s becoming intolerable

By Jamie McDaniel, Canadian Management Centre

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Sometimes new experiences leave us at a loss for words and we need to broaden our vocabulary to make sense out of what we’re going through. Psychotherapist and author Lori Gottlieb has the goods—keep reading for a handy glossary of ideas and terminology to describe your mental and emotional condition and, maybe, get to a point where you feel better about it. 

Catastrophizing: We hate uncertainty. We hate it so much we actually prefer to anticipate the worst—and imagine it in detail—rather than accept the discomfort of not knowing what will happen. Our tendency is to catastrophize—to tell ourselves terrible stories about the future, the fate of the economy, our jobs, our organization, the world. 

Our negativity bias blinds us to the possibility of a positive outcome; while this bias may have served an evolutionary purpose, by helping us anticipate and prepare for dangers in a time before we reached the apex of the food chain, it is an unproductive thought pattern today.  

The distinction between productive and unproductive mental activity is an important one. Whichever you engage in takes up a portion of your emotional real estate, sucking up both space in your head and time you could be using to do something else. 

Note that negative thoughts and emotions such as stress, grief or anxiety are not necessarily “unproductive”. Anxiety can be helpful—we worry, we make preparations, we are prepared when the bad thing happens. Anxiety that leads to nothing but more anxiety and sleepless nights, however, is not productive; this is what Gottlieb labels obsessive rumination

Notice when you are doing this and label it yourself. Naming your thoughts or emotions is the first step to defusing them.  

Negative self-talk: That little voice in your head that criticizes, berates, and passes judgment? Also unproductive. Most of us talk to ourselves loudly, constantly, and unkindly. On some level, according to Gottlieb, we are hoping to spur ourselves to be better. But, consider: would we ever speak this way to friends, family, co-workers? Not if we were actually trying to help. When we talk others through a distressful event or a set-back, we generally show a great deal more kindness and consideration than we show to ourselves. 

Self-compassion is the idea that we should offer ourselves the same encouragement and understanding that we routinely extend to others we care about. Give yourself a break! 
Sometimes we deny ourselves compassion because we don’t think we have it bad enough. We have a home, a job, decent health, enough to eat. We feel we don’t deserve to acknowledge we are suffering when others are sick, grieving loved ones, or struggling to pay the bills. 

Let go of the idea of this hierarchy of pain. It’s not a competition. If your bone is broken, it hurts, even if the person in the hospital bed next to you is in a full body cast.  Allow yourself to grieve for your losses too, even the loss of casual socializing or trips to the gym. (Note: offering self-compassion is not the same as complaining to someone who truly is sick or in financial difficulty about your problems!). 

One new issue you may have: skin hunger. This is what happens when we are deprived of the casual physical contact—handshakes, shoulder pats, quick hugs—that is a normal human experience and need.

But maybe you don’t have skin hunger and you’re actually enjoying more time with your family and loved ones than ever before—and you love it, even if their constant presence is maddening sometimes and disruptive to your conference calls. Great! Allow yourself to be happy, too—you can, as Gottlieb puts it “hold the pain and the joy at the same time”. 

Without diminishing the gravity of the situation and the pain of so many, we can appreciate and embrace the silver linings, from the chance to see a more human side of our co-workers, to the deeper connections with friends and family to, perhaps, the occasional appearance of optimism and hope for our collective future. 

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