Paralyzed by the Fear of Uncertainty: Beginning to Overcome Debilitating Self-Doubt

Anxiety is a bitch. And the beliefs behind it are even worse. When people struggle with Generalized Anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, they get trapped in “the what-ifs.” What if I have cancer? What if I’ll never get married? What if my parents never return? What if I’ll never feel good about myself? In the context of an often cruel universe, “the what-ifs” don’t seem so absurd. In its more benign form, life will leave us trapped in our ruminations. But, in its more malevolent one, they’ll actually come to pass. Existentially speaking, we can never know for sure that we’ll be safe.

I teach my clients critical thinking in the form of the cognitive thought record to help them better manage the fear of uncertainty and, worse, their pessimistic thinking. I try to tell them that they don’t need to trust themselves as long as they can trust the evidence. Being open-minded is usually a good thing, but can become debilitating if one is constantly in a state of pure uncertainty, where anything is possible. For those of us with a strong negative bias, we expect the worst even before fully exploring the data. The core belief of “Bad things always happen to me” percolates through them and informs our interpretations. Unfortunately for me, my mind has the awful tendency of jumping to the worst possible conclusions. So, I have to try really hard to re-focus it on the evidence at hand.

Self-doubt is the best and worst thing that can occur to an analytical thinker. Too little of it and she’s arrogant; too much of it and she’s overwhelmingly anxious. Consistently questioning one’s arguments and seriously exploring alternatives is the hallmark of the critical mind, but devolves into a mess when she begins to long for concrete answers. Reality doesn’t provide us with a cutoff point between investigation and theory; we’ll never know when to stop. And for those who struggle with black and white thinking, the not knowing fosters an openness of possibility and an equality of probability. If you don’t know what you know, then anything can happen.

Anxiety disorders, like depression, are disorders wherein the treatment consists of helping their captives step outside of their own minds. Therapists would ask, “What would your friend say?” Or, “How would a philosopher or scientist view this evidence?” In the realm of romance, we may even say, “If your friend were in this circumstance, would you tell her what you’re telling yourself?” We’re much better at assessing the evidence as it relates to others and find it difficult to trust ourselves with respect to our own lives. Thankfully, imagination helps! By now, you’ve found yourself in most of your anxiety-ridden situations, but on the other side. Remember how ridiculous you thought your friend was being when you knew how much her boyfriend loved her? Or when you told her that her headaches weren’t indicative of a tumor?

The awful parts of life are not as common as we think, and some deeper parts of us already know that.

Early experiences, especially if they were chronically terrifying, can cause us to expect and believe the worst, but re-training your brain is far from impossible. Rather than thinking of myself as a survivor, I try to conceive of myself as a philosopher, on the constant hunt for truth. The survivor in me always wants to run away, but the philosopher yearns for exploration. Sometimes, the survivor wins, but with self-talk and even outside help, the philosopher returns. All of this takes patience, effort, and the willingness to ask for help when needed.

Philosophy has always been my way of mitigating fear. Sadly, sometimes, my fears do come to pass. But, the critical thinker in me is there to remind me that, most of the time, they don’t. I’ll never know for sure that I’m healthy or that someone truly likes me, but I’ll always be able to calculate the odds.

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