The struggle with uncertainty

Coping with uncertainty is one of my biggest struggles. “What if I get hurt again?” “What if he doesn’t like me as much as I like him?” “Why isn’t she friendlier toward me?” “Is this the right career move?”

I’ve started dating again recently, while talking to my therapist, Sara, frequently to make sure I’m not losing any of the progress I’ve been making. I’m trying to focus on letting things happen as they happen (i.e., not trying to predict and worry about every possible future outcome simultaneously) and staying in the present, but it still can be a struggle, especially if I’m really interested in someone.

A lot of this has to do with “detaching from outcome,” which I’ve written about previously; I know the outcome I want, and I’m going to worry it into existence, dammit. And some of it has to do with resistance, because much of what I personally tend to resist is my inability to see the future.

420fe6e158cabcfb664e9bd8c5e54c5e.jpgOne friend has urged me to “let it unfold.” And I realized one day that it’s exactly like a flower. You can’t force a bud open; you have to wait and let it unfurl, petal by petal. Worrying won’t change the color of the flower. Opening it too soon won’t change the color, either (and it will ruin it, as well).

Sure, you can obsess over every detail of the flower in the meantime and try to make predictions about what it might turn out to be, but chances are you won’t be accurate, and you’ll subject yourself to a lot of tension and anxiety in the interim. Instead, sit back. Breathe. Observe as it opens slowly, hour by hour, and live in the moment as you enjoy the beauty of the unfolding.

It will be whatever color it will be, and whatever it is, it will be beautiful — even if it isn’t the color we had planned or wanted. It might even take us a while to appreciate the color. But that’s the color the flower is, and the sooner we release our resistance (to either not knowing in advance or to whatever the outcome turned out to be), the sooner we achieve peace.

Life will happen as it’s going to happen. Obsessing over the future or trying to control everything and everyone around us won’t change much, except our anxiety levels.

Becoming comfortable with not knowing can be tremendously challenging, because our brains are wired to want certainty. In fact, a 2016 study showed that uncertainty can actually be more stressful than predictable negative consequences. I’ve experienced this myself; in the past, if I’ve become interested in someone who at some point became rather distant, I’ve gotten extremely anxious at first. “What’s going on? Is he just busy? Is he losing interest? What does this text mean?” And it’s actually been a relief if he says he doesn’t see things working out, or I decide I don’t care that much, or he just disappears altogether, because now there’s that answer. I’d rather have the answer than the guy!

PsychCentral has an article titled “Tips on Tolerating Uncertainty” that includes these suggestions:

  • Let go of the idea that life “should” or “must” result in a particular outcome. Be open to the idea that other possibilities will be OK, too.
  • Re-frame negative thoughts. Instead of telling yourself, “I can’t handle uncertainty,” replace that thought with “I don’t care for uncertainty, but I am able to cope with it.”
  • Be open to uncertainty; the Eckhart Tolle book “The Power of Now” is particularly recommended. Mindfulness is an amazing way to be accepting of uncertainty, particularly when you are focused on living in the present moment.
  • Channel the Serenity Prayer by making a list of things you can control and what you can do about them; make a list of things you can’t control and imagine handing it over to a higher power.
  • Take action even if it provokes anxiety (for example, don’t refuse to take a trip by plane even if flying makes you anxious).
  • Seek therapy.

Rezzan Hussey’s article “Some Mindfulness Practices for Managing Uncertainty” points out the negative consequences of seeking clarity above everything else. We can lose opportunities, miss out on new experiences and subject ourselves to anxiety, amongst other things. My favorite part about the article was that it offered some advice specific to dating relationships in the early stages:

  • Acknowledge that you can have zero certainty to begin with; not if everyone is being honest anyway.
  • Bring mindfulness to your early feelings.
  • Distract yourself. Ensure that you continue to nurture your passions and pursuits.
  • Get support. Talk through uncomfortable feelings and emotions with your friends.
  • Be wary of rationalizations, making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. These things are masquerading as your need for certainty. Just deal with the information you are receiving. Resist the urge to comfort yourself with a neat narrative!

I particularly identified with the last one. In the past, I have spent far too much time trying to extrapolate minor things into a prediction of the future or a reading of someone’s personality and intentions. Of course, it’s important that you pay attention to red flags, but you shouldn’t be treating every text message like it’s some sort of crystal ball that will reveal all, if you just look closely enough.

Remember, there is no absolute certainty or permanence in this life. Change is inevitable, and it is often far more beautiful than we could have imagined before we walked through it. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”

Link roundup, 4/10/18

It’s another edition of “Stuff That I’ve Found Useful”:

  • Baggage Reclaim, one of my favorite blogs/podcasts, has a great list of “48 Ideas for Increasing Emotional Availability and Breaking Harmful Patterns.”  Some suggestions include “make people real and take them of the pedestals that you’ve put them on in your mind” (a big one for me, as I wrote about here) and “go on a social media diet.” Many of the suggestions have links to other great articles on the site.
  • If you want to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, check out the free online course at Palouse Mindfulness.
  • Coursera also just started a free course on “De-Mystifying Mindfulness.” 
  • Wondering how mindful you might be? I really enjoyed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, which rates you on observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudging of inner experience, and non-reactivity to inner experience. You can take it online here, or download the full form of the questionnaire here in PDF format. (My biggest shortcoming, which was not a huge surprise, was acting with awareness — I can be terribly distractable! Nonreactivity can also be an issue, as I sometimes get very caught up in my emotions and have trouble stepping back to observe them.)

The disease of distraction

When we stop the busyness of the mind and come back to ourselves, the enormity and rawness of our suffering can seem very intense because we are so used to ignoring it and distracting ourselves. When we feel suffering, we have the urge to run away from it and fill ourselves up with junk food, junk entertainment, anything to keep our mind off the pain that is there inside us. It doesn’t work.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, “No Mud, No Lotus”

If I have a forte, it is finding distractions. Texting, checking Facebook, playing with my 101 gadgets, listening to an audiobook as I fold laundry or a podcast as I get ready in the morning, playing a game as I watch a show …

Long story short, I have a really hard time being alone in my head. And not only is it bad for my punctuality (I can intend to check one Facebook notification and emerge like Rip Van Winkle hours later from the Internet), it’s bad for my brain. And yours.

First, it can be dangerous (like trying to send a text while driving). Second, it gives us little satisfaction from EITHER of the activities we’re trying to do simultaneously (you can’t focus your full attention and enjoy “This Is Us” if you’re also playing Bubble Witch 3 at the same time). Third, it makes us less effective at both tasks.

life-is-availableBut I get irritable and fidgety without my phone. As I said, I have a hard time being alone in my head. Without distractions, I can tend to “ruminate,” or continually replay problems in my mind. It often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, as well as depression, addiction and eating disorders. This article by psychologist Jennifer Mulder has some excellent info about rumination as well as coping strategies.

Distraction is one of coping with ruminating, though there are healthier ways to do it than scrolling endlessly through Facebook, getting in arguments with strangers over gun-control legislation. Um, not that I would do that. Mulder suggests that distraction is better used for coping temporarily with rumination than as a regular method. (See the linked article for more tips!)

So, I’ve just traded in one unhealthy habit for another when, instead of ruminating, I turn to my phone or computer to distract myself. The ideal, of course, would be to use mindfulness to stay in the present moment and not dwell on past or future stresses. And that’s a work in progress.

I’ve noticed that the distraction -> stress -> distraction cycle generally builds on itself. The more I allow myself to focus on distractions, the more restless and stressed I get when they aren’t present, to the point where even watching a movie or TV show without my phone in my hand becomes difficult.

To that end, I’m focusing on limiting phone and browser distractions. Some tips that have been helping me:

  • Keep your phone in your purse or your pocket, or in a drawer in your desk, if you’re at work, so you aren’t constantly tempted to check it.
  • If you tend to pick up your phone first thing in the morning and stay up too late using it, charge it overnight in another room. Get an actual alarm clock instead.
  • Don’t bring your phone EVERYWHERE with you. Unless you’re a surgeon who’s on call, you can probably leave it at home while you go for a walk.
  • Use Airplane mode if you MUST have your phone with you but don’t want the distraction of notifications. I often use this while I’m meditating (since I use the Headspace app on my phone).
  • Minimize notifications on your phone or other devices. Do you really HAVE to know every time someone “likes” something you post on Facebook? One study showed that receiving a notification can be as distracting as responding to a text or phone call.
  • Remember that you don’t need to respond to every message instantly. Your friend will be fine if you take a little while to reply “LOL” to that meme.  I promise.
  • Don’t leave social media tabs open on your browser, so it’s more difficult to constantly check in. (I’ve even taken to deleting the Facebook app from my phone at night so I’m not tempted to fall down the rabbit hole; I don’t re-download it until I’m ready the next morning.)
  • Before you pick up your phone or log in to social media, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to gain from this?” Are you genuinely in need of checking a message? Or are you seeking connection? Distraction? Inspiration? Make sure you’re clear on your intentions and that they’re healthy.
  • Set goals and rewards; go 30 minutes without checking anything and then maybe give yourself 5 minutes for your effort.
  • Use blocking software or extensions if you’re really struggling; I’ve had good luck with StayFocusd for Google Chrome and Cold Turkey for Chrome and other browsers. (There’s also a mobile version, but I haven’t tried it.)
  • You knew I was going to say it … but practice mindfulness. When I am in a more peaceful place mentally, I am less likely to feel that restlessness and go searching for things to distract me.
  • Remember that what you practice grows stronger. Every time you make a decision to pick up your phone for the third time in five minutes, you’re strengthening your “distraction” muscle. Every time you decide you really don’t need to check it yet again and choose to be present instead, you’re strengthening your “focus” muscle.

‘Detach from outcome’

My sister is always suggesting I try to “detach from outcome.” I admit, I always kind of blew it off. But today, after sending her some frantic texts about a situation that has been causing me a lot of anxiety, and she offered the same advice, I decided to Google it.

I particularly liked the article titled ” ‘Let Go, or Get Dragged’: Find Your Peace by Letting Go.” It includes signs that you are holding on and getting dragged, including:

  • Constantly thinking about a person or situation.
  • Trying to control a person or situation and create the outcome you want.
  • Engaging in rigid, all-or-nothing thinking.
  • Experiencing body tension and stress.

3c43b95b207e52a0e502373d50e56432--trauma-ptsdAnd yes, those are allllll things I do, generally on a daily basis.

The article points out that “if we relax and let go, we may feel we are giving up, giving in or losing control.” Hoooo boy, is that one hitting close to home too. I feel like worrying about something incessantly is part of caring. If I don’t worry about an outcome incessantly, how will the universe know I REALLY REALLY REALLY want it?! How will I MAKE it happen through the magical power of my worrying?

Buddhaimonia has a great article on “The Beginner’s Guide to Letting Go and Becoming Enlightened Through Non-Attachment” by Matt Valentine. It clarifies that:

All attachment originates with the ego. The ego, a construct which was built through years of conditioning and is in no way a “real” part of you at all, is what convinces you that you’re this separate entity disconnected from all other living and non-living things. And when reality doesn’t match up to the image, friction happens and pain occurs.

This is part of resisting what is so, which has been a struggle for me in the past. I can’t know what an outcome will be. I can’t control what the outcome will be, either. So instead of resigning myself to the fact that I can neither see nor determine the future, I ruminate over it incessantly. I try to divine it from little signs. I try to seek reassurance from friends who I hope will convince me things will go the way I want them to. I try to obsess my desired outcome into reality.

Instead, I should be focusing on:

  • Recognizing that I can always choose to let go.
  • Remembering that letting go doesn’t mean that I don’t care about a person, situation or outcome.
  • Watching for the physical and emotional signs that I am “hanging on.”
  • Investigating my fears of losing control of a situation (or person).
  • Realizing and respecting the impermanence of life.
  • Remembering that the outcome I’m attached to may not in fact be the outcome that God has in mind for me. It may be something far better than what I am currently hoping for, something that in my limited view of time and space, I can’t see. (Remember that Garth Brooks song “Unanswered Prayers”?)

Lama Surya Das says, “Letting go means letting be, not throwing things away. Letting go implies letting things come and go, and opening to the wisdom of simply allowing, which is called nonattachment.”

Allow your life to be what it is. Allow events to unfold as they will. And know that however it happens, you will be okay. (I’ll be over here trying to do the same!)

Rejection and mindfulness

In dealing with the sting of rejection recently, I realized how badly I had internalized the messages I was getting — or really, thought I was getting. Because no one has ever come out and said, “You’re not fun, you’re not very smart, you’re not pretty enough, and you have too much baggage.” That was just what I was telling myself.

I googled “rejection and mindfulness” to learn a little more about what was going on. First, I found a great article on “Understanding Rejection: How to Mitigate Its Effect On the Brain.” It starts off discussing “contingent self-worth,” or basing our sense of self-worth on how much stuff we have, how successful we are or how much people like and accept us.

Of course, building up your sense of self-worth would be one step to helping rejection hurt less. (And it does hurt; research shows that social rejection actually activates the same regions of the brain that physical pain does.) Building up your independence and resilience also are important pieces in handing rejection well.

In the article, psychologist Arnie Kozak says:

It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘what’s really on the line here?’ You can then see if your sense of okay-ness is really undermined by the rejection. Often, we worry how we’ll be perceived by others and that is just another contingency. Rejections aren’t the end of the world, but sometimes we can react as if they are. Being turned away from one opportunity makes you available for another. Ultimately, I encourage people not to take things so seriously. If that reaction arises, mindfulness practice can help people to back away from it and keep things in perspective.

I liked that a lot, because so frequently, what’s on the line is … not much. So I didn’t hear back from a guy who I had hoped might be a potential romantic candidate, even though he had been the one to approach me and ask me out. What was on the line? Clearly, a guy who doesn’t have the time, interest or capability to communicate with me clearly. Whoopity-de-doo.

Another article, “Our Need for Acceptance and the Pain of Rejection,” discusses breaking free of rumination and self-criticism, which is apparently my forte:

If we’ve been rejected, we may end up ruminating on what we could have done differently; how we could have done more to make people want us. Thoughts like “What’s wrong with me?” might be echoing around in our minds. If we’re not mindful, we may start coming up with harsh answers to these questions. Before we know it, we’re caught in a downward spiral of self-blame and self-criticism.

36334268I don’t know if I have ever blamed anyone but myself for rejection. My initial instinct is to always assume I’ve done something wrong, said something wrong or even been something wrong. But when we’re mindful, we can examine the messages we’re telling ourselves, and we can examine their truthfulness. We can realize that frequently, the rejection wasn’t about us at all. Maybe there was another candidate that was better qualified. Maybe he wasn’t over his ex. There are a thousand reasons that we can’t know behind someone’s motivations.

And finally, we need to embrace the suffering to some extent. I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “No Mud, No Lotus,” and this passage struck me:

When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you. But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness.

What can I grow in this mud of rejection? What is it teaching me about myself and the work I need to do? What wisdom can it impart to me? The lotuses I am hoping to grow are Self-Worth, Resilience and Mindfulness.

What will you grow?

Resisting what is so

A few months ago, I was listening to the “Quiet Mind” podcast when I heard an an episode about “resistance to what is so” that really hit home for me.

I do a LOT of this. I shouldn’t be a single mom of three. I didn’t plan this. I didn’t want this. I was supposed to have a loving husband and a beautiful home. I was supposed to be able to be a stay-at-home mom. I was supposed to be able to be able to pick them up straight after school and sit lovingly at the table while I helped them with homework and then make homemade meals every night. Instead it’s spaghetti or a $5 pizza after I pick them up just before after-care closes, and then dragging all three of them wherever we need to go. Homework? Try to do it in the car, kids.

tolleBut ruminating on how unfair and awful this was didn’t do a damn thing to change it. It just made me bitter.

As Eckhardt Tolle says in a quote that has made a huge difference in my life:  “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”

I was “resisting what is so”: The fact that I AM a single mom to three kids. I DO have to work full-time. I DON’T get to make dinner for them every night. I DON’T live in a big, beautiful colonial that was custom-designed to suit my every whim and preference. And of course there was the smaller, everyday resistance, too: “He isn’t supposed to ignore me when I ask him to pick up his toys. Six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be this whiny. It isn’t supposed to take this long for a kid this age to do his homework. Grocery shopping shouldn’t be this hard.” (I can actually hear myself whining in my head when I type those sentences.)

Robert Jackson, the producer of the “Quiet Mind” podcast, suggests: Stop. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself, “Are you at odds with what is going on? Are you feeling out of control?” Notice what it is you are resisting. And accept what the situation is, and that you cannot control it.

At the heart of it, I think it’s really alllll about control. We want everything to go the way we’ve envisioned, or to be easy and pleasant for us, and and when we don’t get our way, we brood and let that resentment fester inside of us. We would rather hang on to that illusion of a world where things DO go our way, and our unhappiness that they didn’t, rather than admit this isn’t what we would have picked, but here we are anyway, because we don’t get to determine the outcome.

In “Sailing Home,” Norman Fischer addresses renouncing our resistance to what is so:

“Renunciation isn’t a moral imperative or a form of self-denial. It’s simply cooperation with the way things are: for moments do pass away, one after the other. Resisting this natural unfolding doesn’t change it; resistance only makes it painful. So we renounce our resistance, our noncooperation, our stubborn refusal to enter life as it is. We renounce our fantasy of a beautiful past and an exciting future we can cherish and hold on to. Life just isn’t like this. Life, time, is letting go, moment after moment. Life and time redeem themselves constantly, heal themselves constantly, only we don’t know this, and much as we long to be healed and redeemed, we refuse to recognize this truth. This is why the sirens’ songs are so attractive and so deadly. They propose a world of indulgence and wishful thinking, an unreal world that is seductive and destructive.”

Of course, acceptance doesn’t mean being passive about things we CAN change — maybe your job, your location, etc. But you can’t change if your spouse wants to stay married or not. You can’t change the climate of your state or country. You can’t change the fact that kids frequently don’t do exactly as they’re told. So it is useless to brood endlessly over the fact that you’re divorced, Michigan is cold as hell in winter, and kids don’t listen 100 percent  of the time. You can be seduced by the “siren song” and be miserable that reality doesn’t live up to it, or you can realize that you don’t control the weather/your spouse/your kids and be OK with that.

I think the concept of releasing that resentment and accepting reality goes hand-in-hand with two more ideas: non-judgment and acceptance of uncertainty. I’m hoping to write about both of those soon.

Self-care on a budget

Am I the only one who gets tired of self-care lists that include pricey crap? “Take yourself out for a mani-pedi!” Well, sorry, I don’t always have an extra $80 burning a hole in my pocket.

Here’s my list of affordable ways to care for yourself:

  • Take a long, hot bath.
  • Do your hair and/or makeup.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea in a “happy place” — on your front porch (which is where I escape from my kids), the back deck or a favorite cafe.
  • Journal.
  • Write a gratitude list.
  • Color. (You can find many beautiful coloring pages for free online.)
  • Go to bed 30 minutes earlier than normal.
  • Paint your own nails — or, if you’re as bad at it as I am, have a friend do it, then return the favor.
  • Meditate. (If you don’t know how, try the Headspace app — the first 10 sessions are free — or choose a guided meditation from Youtube.)
  • Make yourself a favorite meal or dessert.
  • Do some yoga. (Check out FitnessBlender’s “Stress-Busting Yoga Pilates Workout.”)
  • Call up someone you haven’t talked to in a long time.
  • Unfollow someone on social media whose posts always annoy or upset you.
  • Take a nap.
  • Buy a new book, or hit the library.
  • Prep some healthy snacks and keep in the fridge so you’re not tempted to grab junk. (I like to buy some favorite fruits and veggies and prep them as soon as I get home, then put into Tupperware.)
  • Do a “tech detox” for a few hours (or even a whole day, if possible).
  • Spend time in nature.