I remember freaking out. I remember my stomach being tied up in knots for weeks. My mind was racing with all the possible outcomes, wrapped in all the many “what if” scenarios. The rest of my life would be determined by this, and that weight was quite literally felt in my chest. This lasted months while I waited to hear back from my undergraduate applications.
Fear comes in many forms, and spans all cultures, but perhaps the type of fear that is most universal: the fear of the unknown.
Humans are curious, and sometimes our curiosity leads to trouble when we have partial information and cannot quite connect the dots. Our brains attempt to make sense of the information we have and fill in the gaps – we write fiction.
What happens when your 17 year old son is 20 minutes late to curfew and hasn’t called? Your brain starts to fill in the gap of information and invent reasons of what might have caused his tardiness, often times inventing the worst possible outcome (that is rarely ever true).
The real kicker, is that we do this automatically – it’s our default.
It’s as if we spent a little too much time hanging out in Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe Land. Where self-soothing is important, simply identifying possible scenarios does not equate to soothing, and often leads to feeling out of control and can even create anxiety. This anxiety may not even be about the actual present situation, but rather the infinite possible scenarios – the fiction. So now we are having an emotional response about things that are not even our reality.
Given that these “what if” scenarios are endless (a geek’s nightmare version of the multiverse theory), each one just as devastating as the last. It’s no wonder we get worked up. It’s the proverbial monster under the bed - the fear of the unknown - “Is Pennywise there or isn’t he?!”
So if our default thoughts are automatic, how do we stop them? The good news is that this is a simple process; the bad news is that what is simple is not always easy. The simple process is only three steps. That’s it. 1-2-3, done. Simple right? Sadly, each of these steps is a challenge and practice is key. Just with any new skill, we’re not going to be a concert virtuoso overnight - it takes practice. Lots of practice. So let's walk through the steps.
The first step is mindfulness.
Believe it or not, every thought we have is not necessarily Truth, with a capital “T”. We lie to ourselves - a lot! Ok, maybe “lie” is a bit of an exaggeration; the field of psychology tends to like the word “distortion”.
Cognitive Distortions are warped thoughts. They are the prime example of taking partial truth and bending the thought around our fears. Almost all of us have a couple go-tos that we lean on. In raising our awareness of these distortions, we are able to identify when we are visiting Mr. Rogers and writing fiction so we can begin to work at changing our pattern of thoughts.
Reframing is the second step of working through our fear of the unknown.
Once we are able to label the type of thought in the moment, we can actually manipulate the thought to be 1) more positive and 2) more true.
The reframe is grounded in fact, not belief, fear or emotion.
This is different than the “fake it till you make it” mentality, and is more neutral. For instance, a thought attached to a fear could be, “if I don’t get this job, I will be homeless.” While in some cases this could be absolutely true, most of us have other resources that would be middle steps before homelessness.
The reframe allows us to entertain that ever-elusive middle ground, and avoid this all-or-nothing type distortion. “Getting this job will allow me to avoid having to ask friends/family for money and/or a place to stay.”
See, it’s not fake. It’s not a lie to yourself to make you feel better. It IS both more positive and more true, without the added pressure of the looming doom. In marketing they call this spin. Regardless of what you call it, focusing your self-talk on what you DO want, rather than what you don’t, has a significant impact on how you see yourself and the world around you.
Acceptance is the last, and possibly most challenging, step to both conceptualize and practice.
Acceptance is NOT endorsement or saying you agree, it is simply acknowledgment that something is actually happening.
Acceptance is absent of any judgment, interpretation, or values placed upon it - it simply is. I accept that it is raining outside.
I accept that the grass is yellowing due to winter.
I accept that my partner is not as communicative as I would like.
I accept this break up.
I accept that I am powerless to change this event.
Acceptance is a difficult practice, and many people struggle with stepping outside their own view of how their world “should” be, to accept it for what it actually is.
If you are familiar with any of the 12-step programs, you know that acceptance is one of the key teachings and practices. So much so, that there is a saying printed on the back of every milestone chip awarded that reminds us of this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer is powerful in its message of acceptance, and whether you start with the word God, making it a prayer, or remove it and make it a daily mantra, the message is sound: stop fighting what we cannot control.
These three steps - awareness, reframing, and acceptance - can literally be a life-changer when confronting the unknown.
No, we don’t know what is always coming, but we DO know that we have done this before. This is certainly the first decision you have ever made. In all likelihood, you have made much larger, more impactful decisions than the one currently giving you pause. The fact that you are sitting here, sipping your coffee and reading this blog, is proof that you have overcome literally every crossroad so far in life. You have never been derailed so significantly, that you could not go on.
There are times when these three steps prove seemingly impossible, or we need reminders of how powerful we are when we remember to be centered in our
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel with every new decision. Don’t let the monster under the bed stop you from putting your feet down. Don’t let your fears prevent you from conquering your day. You got this. Go practice!