We live in uncertain times. What I find so funny about that statement is it’s never been untrue. We are, quite literally, surrounded by uncertainty. From the current political climate to what your boss meant when she said, “We need to have a meeting,” uncertainty pervades our daily lives.
Uncertainty in and of itself isn’t a big deal. However, in my little world of counseling and teaching emotional intelligence, I encounter relatively few people whose relationship with uncertainty is healthy. When we fear uncertainty, we fall into the uncertainty trap.
First, a little on perception. Gestalt psychology (not to be confused with gestalt therapy) is a branch of psychology that attempts to understand and explain human perception and mental organization in the face of apparent chaos. When we take in the world with our senses, we form what are called gestalts. Gestalts originate from often disparate bits of sensation—things we’ve seen, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled which are then combined with purely conceptual ideas (memories) not actually experienced in the moment through our senses. You may be familiar with the phase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” attributed to both Aristotle and gestalt psychology. Interestingly enough, this is a mistranslation which, when referring to gestalt theory, should actually read “the whole is other than the sum of the parts.”
Take as a simple example a Lego kit for a castle. In the box, you’ll find hundreds of different parts: different-sized pieces in various colors, little people, maybe some animals, shrubbery, and a construction booklet to help you build the sucker. The completed castle isn’t greater than any of those individual parts. Rather, notice that the castle is its own thing. The whole castle differs from any individual part. Our relationship to any one part will therefore be different than our relationship to the completed castle.
Let’s continue building upon this knowledge by incorporating psychological elements. Humans are meaning-making machines. It’s just what we do. Labeling, defining, and ascribing functionality to our world helps us navigate our lives. This process gives us purpose and direction. One unique aspect of being human involves our ability to be aware of and manipulate time. We can, at will, think about the past or the future. Although this is an amazing gift, it comes with a caveat: thinking about the future lends itself to worrying.
The uncertainty trap gets fully sprung when we don’t realize we’re making up stories to prepare for danger that doesn’t exist. The gestalts formed inside these worry thoughts are powerful because we feel real emotions as a result.
Although uncertainty can and does exist in the past and the future, most of the time uncertainty is discussed in relation to future events. As we think about the future, we weave various plots and schemes designed to increase our chances of success: doing well in the job interview, having a fun first date, or navigating a new experience. Worrying is of a particular type of thinking that forms its own unique gestalts. These gestalts usually come in the form of little, if any, present-moment sensational data and huge chunks of conceptually made-up bits. The gestalt, then, is a story we’ve told ourselves, based not on facts but on our imaginations.
The uncertainty trap gets fully sprung when we don’t realize we’re making up stories to prepare for danger that doesn’t exist. The gestalts formed inside these worry thoughts are powerful because we feel real emotions as a result. We equate the emotions we have to the truth of the thoughts. The irony about this process is the fact we create a process of worry and overwhelm to ostensibly prepare ourselves for success. It’s an all-around unpleasant affair.
So what to do here? The first step, and perhaps the hardest, is to begin to see the process of this storytelling we do so frequently. In time, we can increase our understanding about the inherently innocuous relationship we can have with uncertainty. Rather than tell ourselves scary stories meant to avoid self-created dangers, we can fully embrace our control in any given moment. When we access our self-control, we automatically plan for the future in healthier ways. We go toward uncertainty with calm rather than fear. In turn, we become more successful.
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