“The moment you realize that 2022 is pronounced ‘2020 too’.
It’s just the last meme I’ve come across that puts the sense of anticipation into words and pictures – or is it fear? – which some of us are feeling as we approach this special New Year.
One of the most compelling was a cartoon depicting a group of people holding a very long pole, cautiously opening a door labeled “2022”. This one really hit home.
Many of us are still languishing as 2021 draws to a close. (I hope I’m not just talking for myself.)
But the uncertainty that lies on the other side of that door is a lot to live with. Will 2022 be 2020, part 2? What if it is?
Uncertainty is one of the most difficult experiences in life. We tend to do better when we know what to expect. We know from experience that structure binds anxiety – when we can create a way to organize our experience, it makes more sense to us and we can feel less anxiety.
So how do you create some certainty in the midst of continuing uncertainty?
Control what you can control.
The central adage of the Serenity Prayer is knowing what is in our control and what is outside of it, and making choices about what to try to change based on that knowledge. We’ve learned a lot about what helps – and what doesn’t – since March 2020. If you can make choices that align with your values and give you some control over your situation, you may have feel like you can let go of having control over everything else. A creative way to identify what is in your control is to illustrate circles of concern, influence, and control.
Manage your anxiety about things beyond your control.
Mindfulness is available to us at all times, in different ways depending on our comfort with the concept. One option for finding calm and focus is to repeat a phrase of kindness.
I did this recently when I was called to serve on the jury and was awaiting jury selection. The whole process of walking into a courtroom, waiting indefinitely inside with many strangers, and having a complete lack of control over the outcome (would I be selected for a trial? Would all my plans change, even if only for a few days?) was much more anxiety-provoking than I had imagined.
As I waited for the jury selection to finish, I found myself mentally repeating the love phrases: “How well you are. May you be peaceful and at ease. The moment I was able to shift my focus from my anxiety to caring benevolence, I was also able to reach a level of acceptance of the possibility of being selected to serve on the jury and the changes I am making. would need to adapt to this selection. And when I was finally not selected, I had a feeling of love for those who were, whose lives would change, even if only in a modest way, as a result of this selection.
Self-compassion expert Christopher Germer offers this activity to find your love phrases.
Name what you are feeling.
Brené Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, offers a lexicon of 87 emotions, going beyond the basic buckets of happy, sad or crazy.
In a recent interview on NPR 1A, Brown said, “We usually stop or act when we are in pain that we cannot describe, it goes beyond communication. The same is true for emotional experiences. When we don’t have words to describe what we are feeling and experiencing, it can cause us to simply give up – to despair and despair – or it can lead to rage.
She gave as an example Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of overwhelm. Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines overwhelm as “life unfolds at a pace that I find unmanageable in my psyche and in my nervous system.” Overwhelm is a prime example, when defined that way, as an emotion felt everywhere – in the head, heart, body, and nervous system.
On the other hand, suggests Brown, the feeling of stress is manageable. She says to call stress “stress,” not overwhelm, reserving the overwhelm for those times when we really need a real reset, a time of doing nothing to let the nervous system get back to a functional state.
In these times, distinguishing between stress and overwhelm, anticipatory anxiety and acute fear, sadness and disappointment, seems extremely important. The way we talk to each other about our feelings shapes our feelings, and being able to accurately name what we are going through can allow us to move through the feelings we are experiencing more effectively.
Try a grounding technique.
A final strategy for dealing with uncertainty is to try to be present in the here and now, not so much with thoughts or feelings, but with the physical sensations of the present moment. Grounding can literally involve getting closer to the earth (feeling your feet on the ground, for example), or it can involve paying attention to other senses by taking actions like putting your hands in the water or focus on an object in a room, or tune in to ambient sounds (such as traffic).
True certainty is not something we can grasp, but working towards tolerating uncertainty is something we can do. By practicing ways of sitting with uncertainty, we make it less uncomfortable. By reflecting on what’s on the other side of the door labeled 2022, we help prepare for whatever happens by giving ourselves ways to deal with it, no matter what.
Copyright 2021 Elana Premack Sandler, All rights reserved