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A few years ago the newspaper I worked for changed owners. Rumors of a takeover had been floating around the office for months -- plenty of time for me to figure out that my job would be a goner as soon as the deal went through. If you're a book-page editor, and you suddenly work for a company that doesn't print book reviews, you don't need to be John Grisham to figure out how the story ends. A smarter person would have spent those months looking for another job. Not me. I simply hung on, living in a state of constant, low-grade dread, sure the other shoe was bound to drop but unable to predict when it would finally fall.
The merger went through, but, miraculously, my job wasn't on the hit list after all. I remained steeled for the inevitable, however. "I'm not planning beyond the next few weeks," I would tell colleagues. "It's just a matter of time before my whole section is killed."
The next year, same deal: months of hand-wringing and worries, followed by an 11th-hour reprieve. By the time the teetering economy finally tanked and my job was eliminated, I'd spent three years waiting to be fired. Instead of giving me plenty of time to prepare, persistent uncertainty had simply poisoned my last years in a job I loved.
Apart from getting the call on New Year's Day while I stood in line at Target (really, what sort of company issues pink slips on a national holiday?), here's the truly surprising thing about the whole ordeal: Getting fired wasn't so bad. I moped around for a bit, but I wasn't nearly as sad as I thought I would be, and I wasn't upset for long. In fact, I was astonished to discover, I was absolutely fine. My family had to tighten our belts, sure, but in most ways it was a gigantic, almost-physical relief just to have the whole question finally settled. Waiting for the other shoe to drop isn't an apt metaphor at all, it turns out. Chronic uncertainty is more like waiting for an SUV to fall on your head. But if you spend a long time waiting for an SUV to fall on your head, and what falls instead is just a shoe, think of the relief! Think of the rejoicing! Getting fired taught me that I cope with reality, even a very unhappy reality, far better than I cope with my own horrible imaginings.It's Not as Bad as You Think
People routinely underestimate their ability to cope with setbacks and disappointments, experts say. One study asked people to estimate how bad they were going to feel if the things they were worrying about actually happened, and then they asked the same people how terrible it actually felt once they'd failed the test or broken up with the sweetheart or whatever. The vast majority coped much better than they thought they would. So real life is actually pretty doable for most of us. It's uncertainty that's the real downer.
Pamela Clements, an associate publisher for a Christian publishing company in Nashville, found this out recently when her daughter, a college sophomore, was trying to get into a sorority after not making the cut in her freshman year. Clements's daughter had done everything right this time, even raising her grade-point average, but with around 2,000 young women vying for limited slots, the outcome was anybody's guess. Clements was a basket case while she waited to hear, which she knew was nuts.
"In the past 10 years a lot of truly hard things happened in my life -- my mother and father died after serious illnesses, I lost my job, and my husband's business went into a slump right after we bought our dream house -- and I handled all that pretty well," she says. "But in retrospect, in all those cases something awful happened, and I dealt with my new reality as best I could." In this case, she realized, she was powerless to act or react. It was much less significant, but it meant a lot to her daughter and the uncertainty drove Clements crazy.
"I became irrational, completely unable to manage my emotions," she says. "It was such a shallow problem, but I wasn't handling it as well as I had dealt with real tragedies. I realized I was becoming a complete loon when I asked my prayer group to pray about it."Do Something...Anything!
It's the lack of control that really gets to people, explains psychologist Susan J. Jeffers, PhD, author of Embracing Uncertainty. The answer? Take action. Research has shown that people are happier -- and even live longer -- when they believe they have at least some control over their own circumstances.
So if you're worried about being laid off, have an honest talk with your boss about your concerns. If you're waiting anxiously for medical test results, talk to someone who has come out on the other side of the same health concern. Doing something concrete to deal with your worry can give you a greater sense of power and control.
Admittedly, sometimes there's no clear map of action, and you might have to get creative. Seraine Berube of Port Orchard, Washington, whose husband, Tyler, is in the navy and currently assigned to an aircraft carrier deployed to the Middle East, had to do just that.
"As a military spouse, you live with constant uncertainty," says Berube. For national security reasons, Tyler can't tell her exactly where he is. And Berube doesn't know when he'll be back. She doesn't get to speak to him and she never knows when he'll get in touch. "You may get an e-mail, you may not," she says.
To cope, she talks to her family and to other wives with husbands on the same ship. But she and Tyler also came up with an action plan: They both keep a daily journal and plan to exchange them at the end of his deployment. "So much can happen in a year -- a lot changes -- and it's a way to catch up," Berube says. She finds that the act of writing in the journal eases her anxiety.
"I can't control when they're going to take Tyler away," she says. "But I can control my attitude about it and that's where the journal really helps."
Knowledge may be power, but when it comes to your health, endlessly googling the same symptoms while you're waiting for those test results might just reinforce anxiety. You're not necessarily getting new information; you're just being pummeled by the same uncertainties. Instead of looping through worst-case scenarios, your best course of action may be to look for a way to distract yourself and practice active denial. Read a novel. Go to the movies. Play Words with Friends. Take a walk beside a river. Focus on the present. Make a point of seeing the beauty in small things.
Leigh Fortson, a three-time cancer survivor and author of Embrace, Release, Heal, says she once found herself admiring a stop sign. "It sounds ridiculous, I know," she says, "but I was truly wowed by the brilliant red background in juxtaposition to the white letters. The shape is also cool." When you surround yourself with loved ones and keep your mind trained on the good stuff, uncertainty isn't as scary, Fortson says. "It's livable. I feel more comfortable, even though I don't know all the answers."
If you find the idea of using these kinds of mindfulness techniques a little too New Agey, prayer works well, too. Not religious? You still have options -- the goal here is only to seek out an activity so absorbing that you are transported out of an awareness of time. "There's a technique for everyone, whether it's walking in nature, sitting in a lotus position, listening to music, or taking up embroidery," says Susan Smalley, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Fully Present.
And you may not want to hear this for the ten billionth time, but exercise is your friend. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of Emotional Freedom, says that working up a sweat is one of the best ways to help you keep your equilibrium.Fear Is Your Real Enemy
As I discovered, uncertainty can actually feel worse than the bad outcome you're afraid of. Two studies by Sarah A. Burgard, PhD, associate professor of sociology and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, found that people whose jobs are chronically insecure report significantly higher rates of depression, and poorer health, than those who had actually lost their jobs.
Apparently uncertainty itself is so hard to bear that it makes people assume the worst. According to psychologist Robert L. Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure, many people tend to equate uncertainty with a negative outcome, even when the likelihood of a bad result isn't very high. And don't forget that by definition, uncertainty means you don't know how something will turn out, which means that a happy outcome is just as possible as an unhappy one. In one university study, respondents were actually wrong 85 percent of the time when they predicted that some unresolved issue in their life would turn out badly.
Think of it: All that worry, for absolutely nothing. Sometimes the thing we dread turns out to be just the kick in the pants we need to move in a new and even more fulfilling direction. As for me, with all those newspaper deadlines out of the way, I had time to think deliberately about what I really wanted to do with the next stage of my professional life. Within three months, in fact, I had found a job, and it was one I never would have heard about -- or been considered for -- if I'd still been at the newspaper.
Today I work full-time for a nonprofit arts agency in a job that's perfect for me. It's challenging, fascinating work that uses my education and experience. There's only one hitch: It's a grant-funded position so there's no way to know from one year to the next whether the grant will be renewed. In other words, my professional future has been uncertain since the day I took the job.
And I'm okay with that. I've come to realize that I've made a lot of "permanent" plans in my life that didn't last as long as this temporary assignment. Plus I've learned my lesson. I can't control whether I'll still have this job in a year, but my résumé is up to date and I have some ideas about what my next step might be if worse comes to worst. Meanwhile, I'm doing something I love, and that's enough for now.
Instead of viewing the unknown as a potential trap ("What bad thing might happen to me?"), I now try to think of uncertainty as part of what keeps life exciting. As Jeffers puts it, "Do you really want to ruin the challenge of it all, the surprise around the corner and the true adventure of not knowing?"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2013.