How to deal with uncertainty — from people who have been there
How to deal with uncertainty — from people who have been there
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This story comes from Life Kit, NPR's podcast with tools to help you get it together. To listen to this episode, play the audio at the top of the page or find it here.
It's important to plan ahead, to try to be on top of things and have a vision for our lives. But we also have to live with the fact that we just can't plan for everything. Life takes unexpected twists and turns and throws surprises our way.
You know that old proverb — we plan, God laughs?
Sometimes our plans are disrupted in pleasant ways — my happiest surprise is almost old enough for a driver's license. And sometimes we find ourselves utterly overwhelmed, vulnerable and uncertain about the future.
That's how I felt as the world began to shut down in the spring of 2020. The world was shifting in a way that felt unexpected, scary and deeply unclear about what would happen next — and I felt lost about how to navigate those uncertainties. So many of us were trying to manage our anxiety, take care of ourselves and our loved ones and make sense of it all.
I started thinking about the fact that as new and frightening as the world seemed, this was far from the first time that humans have had to navigate uncertainty. To one degree or another, it's a part of every life, and of every day.
So I turned to some people who've been through big, scary changes, and asked them for advice on how to get through.
Check in with yourself. Allow yourself to get in touch with how you're feeling. Reflect both on what's hard and on what's still good. Maybe that's in a journal or through a prayer or a conversation with a friend.
As a teenager, Robyn Walery faced an uncertain future as wildfires ravaged her neighborhood in San Diego County. She eventually learned the devastating news that her family's home was destroyed. It would be a few years before they rebuilt and life began to return to something resembling normal.
Walery says it doesn't matter how you reflect, just that you find time to pause and take stock in the midst of a crisis.
"I remember I went through a lot of therapy ... and they really wanted me to journal," she said. "For me, journaling didn't work. I felt like, in my head, it's like I have to write a whole diary entry."
Instead, Walery found that it could be useful to write down just one or two lines about how she was feeling each day.
2. Don't "should" on yourself.
There's no right way to get through a difficult time. Some people get super productive. Others, not so much. Walery says to let go of the pressure of other people's expectations.
"There's just so many messages out there of, like, what you should be doing, what you could be doing. And I think something that I learned many years ago that I always fall back on is 'should' is a bad word," Walery said. "So, like, I tell my friends, 'Don't should on yourself."
Those are words to remember.
3. Know when to shut it down.
After you stop obsessing about what you should do, find some things you want to do — things that take your mind off your worries during uncertain times.
Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke Divinity School, has been living with a late-stage cancer diagnosis since 2015, when she was just 35 and a young mother. She has found that some days are just about surviving — watching trashy TV, listening to gentle music, going to bed early.
"I used to just, like, pick a time and shut it down," Bowler said.
That might mean zoning out with a movie, ordering takeout, letting the kids eat cereal for dinner — whatever you need to do. Accept that some days, especially when you're under a lot of stress, you have only so much bandwidth.
4. Find your "best gift" for the day.
Once you've set aside external expectations and taken time to recharge, that might free up energy to do good, meaningful, even productive things. For Bowler, it was writing books in the waiting room during her chemotherapy treatments.
"So I just always tried to figure out like, 'OK, well, how do I give my best gift inside the economy of this day?' " Bowler said.
Writing history books in the middle of a crisis might feel like a bit much for most of us, but we all have our thing — our "best gift," as Bowler calls it. Maybe for you it's baking a pie or organizing a closet or conquering a video game. Whatever it is, find the "best gift" you can give yourself and the world that day.
Think about what feels meaningful or gives you a sense of accomplishment and do that.
5. Move past shame.
Uncertain times mean navigating changes in your life that you can't control. They may mean doing things differently, even reaching out for help — that's part of being resilient, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.
That's what Elizabeth White learned when she found herself in the midst of a financial crisis in her 50s, triggered by the Great Recession of 2008. White is the author of the book 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal.
With degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities and a successful import business, White found her work suddenly drying up. When companies that used to hire her began to retrench, she said, as a contractor, she was the first to go. She had to overcome feelings of shame to take the necessary steps to get through that period of her life.
For White, that meant getting a roommate at one point, reaching out to her mother for help and taking gigs that didn't feel like a great fit but helped pay the bills.
"And as a friend of mine said to me at one point, 'Get off your throne.' You have to get off your throne," she said.
6. Find your "resilience circle."
White said it was also important to connect with people who could lift her up and point her in the right direction. She called these friends her "resilience circle." Some of them were other people in her age group facing similar financial struggles during the Great Recession.
White said it's important to remember we are not alone.
If you don't talk to others, "you'll think you're in a ditch by yourself. You're not understanding that there are millions of Americans who have landed here," White said. "And this is the thing that I think is so significant about this moment in time with the pandemic. It has pulled back the cover. We see all the fault lines that were already there."
So, call, video-chat or text with a friend; join an online community; or even go old-school and write a letter.
7. Don't try to make sense of things too soon.
Both Bowler and White said it can be tempting to rush through an uncertain situation and try to make it seem certain — to fill in blanks, leap ahead to what might be next. But they both say: Just don't.
"We are just, like, meaning-making creatures," Bowler said. "We can't help drawing lessons and meaning from every single thing we're in."
Or at least trying to find reasons for things. Sometimes there isn't a reason. Things are just hard.
So the last tip is more about what we should not do than what we should do.
"Don't fast-forward," says White, "and run the tape of doom and get sucked into that hole. Don't try to make sense of things too soon."
That leaves room for new possibilities, White said. She has become a successful author and speaker. While she said she has never returned to her previous income level, she has a good life.
"I have a richly textured life that is made up of people and family that I am very invested in," White said.
The audio portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen and Clare Marie Schneider.
This episode originally ran in May 2020. To hear the original audio, click here.
If you have a life hack you'd love to share, give us a call at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
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