How To Move Forward When You’re Overwhelmed By Uncertainty

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by

Unknowns are a fact of life. We can do our best to plan our upcoming days, weeks, and even months down to the 15-minute block to try to create structure and certainty in our work and in our lives, but in the end it likely won’t matter—something invariably comes up that make our plans irrelevant. There is a Yiddish Proverb, “We plan. God laughs.” The certainty that we had hoped to achieve, and the sense of security that comes with it, quickly dissolves.

If we put massive amounts of time, effort, and energy into trying to control our personal and professional lives, and the environment within which we operate, we’d be fighting a losing battle. We each need to find a way to live with some gray area, navigate the ambiguity and uncertainty, and learn how to find opportunity within it.

Susannah Harmon Furr and Nathan Furr show us how to do this in their book, The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the UnknownIn this column’s previous article, I shared the four stages that the husband-and-wife team lay out for transforming the fear associated with uncertainty into excitement about yet-unrevealed possibilities.

This time, the pair share insights on navigating our fears about the unknown and what to do when we find ourselves dreading uncertainty versus thriving in it. The Furrs make it clear that while we can’t manage uncertainty, we can manage ourselves. They share the following strategies:

Decoupling uncertainty from feelings of fear and anxiety

You don’t need to be a massive risk-taker to acclimate yourself to stepping into the unknown. A mindset of being willing to try new things and being willing to go into a project without knowing how it will end is extremely helpful. So, too, is taking smaller steps at first.

“You need to be able to reframe risk from something that is dangerous, bad, and needs to be avoided into a feeling of ‘wait a second, what if there’s something here for me?’” says Susannah. If you go in scared, it’s going to color the entire experience—or keep you from giving it a real, honest shot in the first place.

“People should also take small steps toward trying things,” she continues. “If you put yourself on every frontier right away, there’s no way you’re going to be successful.” Just like you would ease into many other things in life, increasing your risk and uncertainty tolerance will go a long way toward taking bigger leaps in the future. Each small success in dealing with uncertainty can be built upon to more successfully develop this competency.

Navigating the unknown

Uncertainty is inherently uncomfortable, but according to the Furrs, dealing with uncertainty is a muscle that we can build. It can be a new thing for many people to wrap their heads around, they say, since something like “uncertainty competence” isn’t really in our lexicon. But, as Nathan points out, uncertainty is something that “philosophers and thinkers have been wrestling with forever.”

But talking about it as a skill to develop certainly is a new phenomenon. The pair recommend a number of tools on their website to help individuals acclimate themselves to uncertainty. They also point out that managers and leaders should look to utilize these types of tools when training their teams. A healthy appetite for uncertainty is important for growth, both for individuals and organizations.

Additionally, using your values to guide you—rather than basing success on goal-oriented markers—will keep you going forward. “Ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be, the legacy you want to leave,” said Nathan, as the long-term view can help you achieve the right perspective to get through the trial-and-error part of stepping into uncertainty for the first few times.

It can also be helpful to assign probabilities to the different outcomes of an unknown situation. “It’s not just either a horrible disaster or things are good,” Nathan says. “We’re often obsessing about the worst-case scenario. But if you assign probabilities to the possible outcomes, it’ll be pretty clear that the worst-case scenario is probably a very, very small probability.”

Behaving “as if”

Another way to get through the fog of uncertainty ahead of you is to act “as if” the desired outcome of the uncertainty has already happened or is assured to happen.

Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as “fake it till you make it,” but that often refers to a surface-level, temporary act. Actual changes in mindset—and the ability to embrace uncertainty—can be behavior-driven when it’s on a lasting basis. If you act, for example, “as if” you’ll get that promotion, this change in behavior can be a reassuring reminder to yourself through the time leading up to that opportunity. You’ll feel like you’re capable of doing that position, and that you’re already filling those shoes.

“If you act ‘as if’ for longer, you start to believe it can really happen to you, that it’s inherently who you are,” explains Susannah. That confidence can go a long way toward settling the anxiety and fear that comes with uncertainty.

“Modeling this behavior is important for leaders, too,” adds Nathan. If a manager is unable to deal with uncertainty ahead, that lack of confidence will be contagious and the whole department is likely to suffer. On the other hand, acting with confidence and capability even in the face of the unknown will not only help you gain the trust and respect of those you lead—but it can help you believe in yourself more, as well.

What to do when you start feeling overwhelmed

Even with all of this preparation and mindset shifting, and even after a lot of practice, we’re still likely to feel overwhelmed when faced with uncertainty from time to time. It’s important to embrace our humanness, Susannah says—to accept that not only are we not going to know everything, but it’s still going to get the better of us from time to time.

Figuring out how to shine a realistic light on these setbacks as opposed to letting yourself feel burdened with failure is a big part of emotional hygiene, which the Furrs describe as “consistent and skillful care of our emotions.” They recommend allowing yourself to ride along with the natural cycle of ups and downs; to seek out comfort, connection, and community to sustain yourself; and to actively keep hope alive when things aren’t going well.

“Emotional hygiene is so powerful,” Susannah shared. Not dwelling on, or actively pushing against, negative beliefs that are holding us back will go far. Doing so will also make sure you have a healthy reserve of energy for the times when the overwhelm does still arrive. “Even when things are going right, they’re sometimes harder, or they take longer, or come with more setbacks or costs than anticipated.”

It’s important to remember that all of us have the capacity to deal with uncertainty, but we can all still feel overwhelmed on occasion. “Nobody has infinite capacity to deal with uncertainty,” Nathan offers.

“You’ll talk to some innovators that say, “I love uncertainty, I eat it for breakfast.” But what they’ve actually done, if you dig down, is created all these islands of certainty that they can visit to help them endure uncertainty when they need to do so. For some, it might be a habit, routine, or ritual. For others, it could be a community of like-minded people that will help in those times of anxiety.”

Whatever they look like for you, discovering those islands of certainty can help you get through difficult times when you’re navigating the unknown.



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