The Uncertainty Trap: Falling for Our Own Scary Stories

Distance rear view shot of single person looking over hilltop under stormy skyWe 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.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cynthia

    Cynthia

    January 26th, 2017 at 6:29 AM

    These are very uncertain times, and a time though when we have to learn to trust and rely on one another. It is often hard to put things in the hands of another, but it can be such a relief to know that we shouldn’t worry, just let it go, and ultimately things will work out the way that they are supposed to.

  • Joshua Nash

    Joshua Nash

    January 26th, 2017 at 8:39 AM

    Thanks for your comment, Cynthia!
    I do want to stress that I’m not advocating a passive, “sit back and watch” approach. Rather, I encourage everyone to determine what they can’t control and let THAT go. Then, get right to controlling what is in your power: namely, how we respond to any given thing.

  • Noelle

    Noelle

    January 26th, 2017 at 1:39 PM

    I am quite confident that the stories I make up and imagine in my own head are typically a lot more stressful than my reality actually ends up being- thank goodness!

  • timothy

    timothy

    January 27th, 2017 at 7:51 AM

    Life is always going to be filled with uncertainty, that’s the way that it is.
    I don’t happen to think that right now is any more or less uncertain than at any other time, just that things could be a little different than what we may have once had to worry about.
    But the reality is is that there will always be those ups and downs, things that we feel like are beyond our grasp, and the thing is, it is always that way at certain stages in time or our lives.

  • karen t

    karen t

    January 28th, 2017 at 7:22 AM

    Better than believing the scary stories that others are feeding to society these days

  • Jackson

    Jackson

    January 29th, 2017 at 9:44 AM

    In some ways it feels like today’s leaders ate doing what they can to make us feel unsure and uncertain because that gives them some power over us.
    I happen to think that this is sick and twisted but these are some pretty dark times in my opinion right now.
    I am not sure how we will get through this without someone standing up and saying enough, that we are sure of who we are, and it is not this dark and dismal people.

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    January 30th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    Indeed, if we can’t see that we are undermining our own selves with our own actions then ultimately there is no hope for breaking that cycle until we can see these things clearly that we are doing.

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