Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
“I’m just sure …”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if …”
“How could it be anything but …”
Ever catch yourself using one of these phrases? If you do, I suspect it’s during one of those times when you’ve got questions but no answers. Like when you don’t know why someone who normally smiles at you every morning suddenly looks right through you. Or you’ve been promised an answer about a job interview on Monday and it’s now Thursday without a word. Or just about any letter from the IRS.
Nobody likes uncertainty. We want to know. We want answers. And when we’re faced with uncertainty, it’s only human nature to allow our imagination to go to town and fill in the gaps. With stories that we tell ourselves to satisfy our inquiring minds. Sure, stories at least give us something to think about, and react to, in the absence of real information. But, on the other hand, those stories are usually worst-case scenarios that turn lack of information into misinformation. Are we trying to do ourselves a favor by getting prepared for the worst? It sure seems that way. But wow, we cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary pain in the process.
If you’re living with a chronic condition, you’re no stranger to uncertainty. Like when you’re waiting for your latest test results. Wondering why your doctor didn’t get back to you on a question right away like she normally does. Adjusting to a new regimen and anticipating how you might be affected.
Uncertainty is part of life. So what should you do when you get the urge to fill in those big information gaps with your own version of the outcome?
How about working on your self-talk, that internal dialogue that’s going on in your mind? You can start by talking back to that internal storyteller with a few simple facts:
I don’t have any information here, or at least not enough.
As much as I don’t like it, I can’t know what I don’t know.
And chances are, I don’t even know enough to come close to the truth.
While things could turn out bad, they could also turn out good. Or somewhere in between.
I don’t like uncertainty. But making up stories is just going to make me feel worse.
And then, once you’ve got your mind’s attention, here’s what else you can do to help avoid filling up your own mind with misinformation:
Stay focused on the here and now. What’s going well in your life? What are the responsibilities in your life that need your attention? Balance out the uncertainty with what you can count on – and control – in your life. In other words, pay attention!
Limit yourself to a few minutes of storytelling each day. Can’t quite let go of that need to indulge in creating your own yarn? Okay, then. Give in. But on a schedule. Allow yourself to sit with your story for fifteen minutes, maybe twice a day. Time yourself. At the end of the fifteen minutes, get back to the present.
While you’re at it, come up with a couple of alternate endings. For any given situation, there are any number of possible outcomes. So if you are going to create stories, then how about creating more than one? But again, squeeze the alternate endings into the fifteen minutes that you’ve allotted for storytelling. No cheating! (It might help to remind yourself of uncertain times in the past when things worked out for the best.)
Get support. The best way to get out of your own mind is by enlisting somebody else’s mind. Sit down with a family member or a friend and talk about what’s going on with you. Share your concerns, your fears … your stories. This helps in a couple of ways. First, you won’t feel so alone. And second, saying something out loud helps you to recognize what might make sense, and what might not. In other words, you may decide that the story – and the underlying “facts” – don’t really hold up. Wouldn’t that be a relief?
Speak up. If you need information, ask for it. If you can’t get the information you need, ask why and when. Do your own research, and talk to your healthcare professionals about what you’ve learned. Communicate any symptoms or side effects that concern you. Do everything you can to advocate for yourself.
Life is uncertain. But the answers aren’t on our schedule. Take charge of your inner storyteller by being patient and seeking real information. When it’s time, you’ll know.