Faced with uncertainty, many of us feel anxious and try to avoid whatever's happening by burying our heads in addictive behaviors like snacking, drinking, gaming or doom-scrolling.
Since life is fundamentally always uncertain, and since our anxiety is a very poor predictor of what happens next, we can instead develop a softer relationship with uncertainty and become curious. We can save ourselves a lot of suffering, by opening to life as it is.
Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron
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Hi everyone. My name's Dex Randall and this is the Burnout to Leadership Podcast where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work. Hello my friends. This is Dex and I'm glad you could join me today for this episode on the relationship of anxiety and uncertainty. And what brought this to my mind today is the two guys I've been speaking to. The first one is a guy I was surfing with this morning saying he thought he'd be going on a cycling trip this week, but yesterday it was cancelled because of the local flooding. And, to explain we're 18 months into a La Nina weather pattern here, which, can I say is pretty stormy and windy. Rains much more often than I've really ever experienced and in bigger proportion. So over the last six months, particularly, Australia's had a lot of flooding. And it seems like pretty much every day when I open the surf app to see how the surf's running. There's a stream of dangerous weather warnings. And as I'm saying this today, we have flood evacuation orders across three states out of the seven in Australia. So, the poor farmers have been having a terrible time of it, Many years of drought. Then we had the worst bush fire season on record in 2019. And I might have mentioned this last time because weather's been so life dominant in recent years. And anyway, then we had COVID and now we've got La Nina. So your man here couldn't go cycling and he wasn't too happy. And then the other guy I'm talking about was an old friend that I met with yesterday. He is having a relationship issues after seven years with his partner who has suddenly developed a curiosity to play the field. And, my friends visibly destabilised by this and we've been talking for a wee while about it. And what he really wants is for the known universe to remain the same, for nothing to rock the boat. He wants to know that his partner is dependable and will always be there for him, and even though he himself is not finding the relationship satisfying and rewarding. Anyway, I really should have said three guys, not two. I'm gonna add my own uncertainty into the mix. So what's happening for me is I've spent time during this last year or so digesting some life threatening health issues. Making a will, sorting out my legal documents, letting my family know who inherits my Lego collection. Only kidding. Anyway, now I've got, on top of all of that now I've got some sort of home insecurity as well because renovations are taking place in a neighbour's property such that I can't work at home, which is my favorite thing. And there are new influences, if you like, over my tenure here. So I've taken an office across town, nice place. But I see that I never actually want to go there. my mind would really rather just keep me stashed away at home. And I also, during this period, I had to let go of one of my favorite teaching gigs, which sounds like nothing, but I think it's 'cause I love my work so much and particularly that it's really been very painful separation for me. So what's happened really is I've just knocked myself out of the nest and I'm going through a personal process of renewal and I've been experiencing that as frankly unwelcome and bumpy. And my human mind is as resistant as anybody else's to a modest shift in the tectonic plates of normality. And I do have a lively history also of anxiety, which is quite often sparked by me opening my eyes in the morning. Yeah,, some of you will be able to recognize this phenomenon. Anyway. So if that happens to me when I wake up, I really just talk my brain around. I do a quick spring clean and I use the exact style of self coaching that I teach to my clients. No different. You know, self coaching is for any human, any person with a human brain. It works for me and it can work for you just like it works for everybody. And luckily, I also do have access to a large pool of coaches who can work through my murkier emotions with me. And when I say murkier for me, I mean anxiety, frustration, irritation, resentment, doubt, probably pretty much the same as you. Just that you know,, I haven't killed off any of my negative emotions or any of my positive ones just because I'm a coach. I just experienced them and managed them slightly differently. And in a way I think it serves me better than the way I did it before. So coming back to uncertainty and anxiety, those joined at the hip emotions that we all love to hate. That's all three of us in the stories I just told you, thrust into uncertainty by life events and we're all kicking and screaming all the way like good humans do. And really all I'm saying is planning ain't what it used to be. So let's look into that a little bit because we are fairly renowned for our love of certainty, aren't we humans? And of course, naturally it's an animal survival thing. We all want routine because in evolutionary terms, habit has a great track record routine behavior yields a predictably safe and survivable outcome. Well it used to anyway, But if you've made any travel plans over the last few COVID years, that experience might not have led to the same level of predictability as before. 'Cause new experiences, on the other hand represent risk. And to our poor mammalian brains, risk always means survival, risk and the consequent fear that arises from that. So in these times with COVID, with insecure work conditions, gig economy, geopolitical instability, gun violence, climate change, the continued breakdown of nuclear and extended families, remote schooling and work pandemic threats, the whole quantum change in industrial and communication technology. When we look at all those things, really it's quicker to relate what isn't changing, isn't it these days. So, you know, just think about yourself. If you look in your closet, do you find yourself clinging onto a favorite pair of pants that your wife wants to throw out just for the comfort of the familiar, you know, guilty as charged over here. We are really temperamentally unsuited to the escalating rate of change of life. Many of us aren't very resilient to it no matter how hard we try to adjust because the evolutionary brain adaptation process to cope with changing environmental conditions has been outpaced exponentially by the actual rates of change in every part of our lives. I mean, we didn't stand a chance on that level, although atrophy, you'll notice happens extremely readily. Look at kids and literacy rates, for example. What happens to your glutes when you stop playing footy? Anyway, if something new is interpreted by our brains as leading to an uncertain state or result, it's very quickly upgraded to a risk evaluation process and internal warnings go off. And then the number one outcome is aversion to change, which, you know, we might then try to avoid. The number two outcome is, if it's forced on us, this change. It triggers the emergency alarm in our amygdala and we drop into fight or flight. Saying anxiety is essentially our response to a perceived uncertainty. Anxiety is just worry about the unknown future and anxiety is a flavor of fear. But for something that hasn't happened yet and possibly won't. I mean, if we look at the track record of anxiety, and I really do wish someone would do research on this, it's the most hopeless predictor of what will actually happen and how bad things will get when it does. So, you know, what do our anxiety and fear trigger? Well, usually, first of all, we're gonna either react to or retract from the threat or try to avoid it all together. We might go into freeze or denial, numbing out behavior like drinking, overeating, gaming, whatever. Or we might also be defensive or aggressive like the proverbial cornered rat or possibly we're gonna shut down or withdraw, stop talking to the people who might support us past whatever the issue is, and then we just isolate. So a lot of the responses that we might have to the kind of uncertainty that we encounter in our world today aren't actually necessarily productive. And, you know, uncertainty is a fact of life. One thing you can rely on, isn't it, change, but just how much of it we can digest depends on our resilience, our mental and emotional flexibility. Tony Schwartz said, let go of certainty. The opposite isn't uncertainty, it's openness, curiosity, and the willingness to embrace paradox rather than choosing sides. If we had zero expectations of life, there would be no uncertainty because we'd be goldfish. Right? And have you ever seen a neurotic goldfish, I rest my case. Expectations of life come mostly from what we are taught, which is, a lot of that happens when we're kids. That's when we learn the most about life. Expectations also come from other data we've collected from our personal experiences, our personal memories, and also received reporting from others, which may or may not be true, right? Any of this may or may not be true because there is no absolute truth. We just told ourselves stories about stuff and we believed that our stories were facts. The way you load the dishwasher, it's the best way fact, right? Because believing the facts gives us kind of this seductive sense of certainty, a sense of solidity as a human. It's kind of an anchor into ourselves. There's a reassurance available in that. Certainty around our habits ultimately feels like a death prevention strategy if you don't know, habit worked last time. So it will always work. It kind of fools our minds into settling down. So I think for me, my process in the face of uncertainty is to as much as possible accept, is to yield. Okay? It's uncertainty. And yes, you know, while I'm talking to you about this process is hard for me, but it maybe also be hard for you. But I do try to let go a little bit to be alive to the present moment with as few expectations if possible. Just noting the uncertainty is in me, noticing the feelings that come up, the sensations that come up, that urge to rescue myself that comes up. But if I could be, if I can be in the present moment, in the right now, in the not knowing it's a bit lighter, there's a little bit of room for fresh air, and there's a possibility of not listening to my stories about what's happening, you know, not dredging anything up from the archives about the way the world should be, where if I do do that, to remember that those words aren't the truth. So I'm just trying to lighten up and loosen up a little bit and not take the uncertainty so seriously. And then I can just become curious about what's possible, to wonder if I don't know what's happening, what could be happening that seems more optimistic? How is this gonna work out for the best for me? In fact, since I'm in the human habit of making stories up anyway, I can just declare what's possible for me now or in the future. I can pick any words I'd like to string into a sentence and just choose to believe them, just because I operate better when I'm in that belief. For example, instead of believing I don't want to go to my office, I could just decide that my office is, you know, the fountain of spontaneous miracles. It's where all the best people hang out and my favorite kind of people. And every moment I spend there is gonna be entertaining and fruitful and warm and creative. And my next adventure or collaboration will start there because why not? How would I behave in the office if I believed all that? What would I create then? And what's the downside of believing that? So next time you're faced with uncertainty, pause, acknowledge your negative thoughts, acknowledge your negative feelings and your urge probably to escape from them. Really just breathe deeply into your body and exhale those thoughts and feelings out with the out breath. And just let them go. Return fresh to the present moment. Letting go of all that you know, all that you think will happen next. And all your judgements and fears about that. Just let the river of life carry you for a moment. Change always comes, uncertainty will not harm you when you are willing to experience it. Let it go. Because suffering is created not by the uncertainty itself, but by our resistance to the unchanging fundamental uncertainty of our situation. That's to paraphrase Pema Chodron, ruminating on uncertainty and letting it become the dominant force in your mind, it's not gonna make you feel good and it won't leave any space for curious presence, creativity, joy, spontaneous good that might arrive whilst you have your eyes tightly shut, awaiting the end of the universe as you knew it. And that's just a brief one for today on uncertainty and anxiety. I hope that was helpful. But I'm also going to include in the show notes, Pema Chodron's book called Comfortable with Uncertainty. Thank you so much for listening today. Love it that you're here. If you are in Burnout, listen for the link at the end. You must come and talk to me about how to recover quickly and sustainably and get back to your best performance leadership, most of all, enjoyment inside working out. I'll see you next time. If you are in Burnout and ready to recover, come and join my Burnout to Leadership program. You can book in to talk with me at burnout.dexrandall.com. Just tell me what's bugging you and let's make a plan to fix it.