Managing uncertainty

 In Articles

COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down and is forcing us to exist in a state of uncertainty. An unexpected disruption of social and economic order, the virus has shaken everything that is familiar about 21st-century living. Not knowing how long we’ll be in lockdown, nationally and globally; not knowing how accurate the scenarios and forecasts of Corona-related deaths are; not knowing what’s to become of the economy as we sink deeper into junk status; not knowing when a vaccine might become available; not knowing if our national leaders are responding in the right way or not; though, who’s to say what way is right. We are indeed living in times of profound uncertainty. At a societal level, we should be open to new opportunities that are going to emerge yet, at the same time, be ever alert to the fundamental shifts that may take place. At a personal level, this is our new reality and it would be beneficial if we could learn how to accept uncertainty.

When a catastrophe so unexpected and all-encompassing threatens the way we live, it is only natural to feel a great sense of uncertainty. Uncertainty in a time of crisis is more than simply a personal emotion. A reconfiguring of systems also occurs (social, family, communication, ecological, political, etc.). To deal with such uncertainty, we need to make sense of our own anxieties so that our fear does not become overwhelming. We could instead use our shared vulnerability as a catalyst for common good. And so, too, are we seeing many examples of this, as ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things in responding to innumerable cries for help.

No one is immune to uncertainty. Daily life is full of uncertainty in areas such as health, relationships, employment, finances, etc. We don’t know the future; thus, many decisions are made with the knowledge that the outcome is uncertain. We have been living with uncertainty all our lives – living with uncertainty didn’t start with COVID-19. 

There are numerous tips for dealing with uncertainty during the pandemic. A select few follow:

  • Accept that it is normal to be feeling stressed: As hard as things are, it can be comforting to know that you’re not alone and that others share your feelings.
  • You are not your thoughts: When you’re feeling anxious, tell yourself it’s a normal part of being human. It is important to understand that we are not our thoughts. Thoughts may come into your head for a variety of reasons. By accepting that they are not facts, thoughts lose some of their power to upset us.
  • Talk to others: When you’re feeling a sense of uncertainty, one of the most effective things you can do to feel better is to talk with someone you trust. Tell them what’s stressing you out and why. They may not have all the answers, but just sharing what you’re going through and asking for their perspective, can help get it out of your head and make it feel less scary.
  • Practise tolerating uncertainty: Start by doing small things differently. After experimenting, check in with yourself – did things turn out OK even though I wasn’t 100% certain; if things didn’t turn out OK, what happened?; what did I do to cope with the negative outcome?; was I able to handle the negative outcome?; what does this tell me about my ability to cope with negative outcomes in the future?
  • Draw on skills you have used before: Reflect on what skills you have used in the past to cope with uncertainty.
  • Play to your strengths: Working out what your strengths are, and then playing to them, can give you more confidence in times of uncertainty.

Additionally, the above suggestions for managing uncertainty are practical and valuable tips for consideration when receiving feedback in a work environment. When undergoing a formal feedback process, most likely 360° feedback, it is natural and understandable that you may be feeling anxious and uncertain before the results of the feedback process are shared with you. It is helpful to normalise this and know that you are not alone.

By talking to others and acknowledging self-uncertainty, you are given an opportunity to articulate your thoughts and, with the assistance of an external sounding board, work out what of your self-narrative is fact and what is not. Furthermore, by engaging with trusted others, you realise that your colleagues, who may have a different perspective or context, are valuable sources of knowledge and experience who can provide you with an objective interpretation of how you come across. This realisation brings a greater confidence to cope with uncertainty.

It is also helpful to consciously start seeking out feedback more frequently in an informal setting. As you become more comfortable with doing this, reflect on the process and how you managed to cope and stay in tune with yourself in that place of uncertainty. Lastly, while developmental feedback is so valuable for personal and professional growth, celebrate your strengths and maintain focus on these to enable a receptive mindset during your formal feedback process.

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