Many of us are familiar with the term anxiety. It is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome (thanks Google!). A feeling of worry about an uncertain outcome. Hmm, I find this so interesting! We are a generation that loves to know what to expect. If you don’t believe me just ask the executives at Google. They have made their fortune by making information and knowledge searchable and accessible to people because we love to know. “Google how do I get to…”, “Google what is the weather for tomorrow?”, “Google I just found out I’m pregnant, now what” (I know I’m not the only one who searched the later, I found all kinds of information!). As a culture, we are becoming less and less comfortable with the unknown.
Well I guess it makes sense, if the answers are at your fingertips why continue on in ignorance! Right? But we cannot possibly know all things for certain. Relationships are one of those situations where the outcome is unclear—we can never know for sure what the future will hold. We have many hopes, ideas, expectations of what this attachment with another person may bring, but we can’t know or predict any of these outcomes with absolutely confidence. Therefore, we have to learn how to tolerate and cope with the foreign irritant known as uncertainty.
Some people are better at handling uncertainty then others; I like to call these people relationship supermates or more formally: securely attached. They can roll with the punches and cope their way through anxiety-provoking situations. Securely attached don’t feel an overwhelming need to control or have certainty in unfamiliar situations, and they also don’t run away or shut down in the face of intimacy. However, if you are anything like me, the relationships that you were exposed to growing up did not foster such a secure outlook on uncertainty. For me, the more predictable the better: the more predictable, the less risk and the more certainty. It’s just as simple as that… except it’s not… it’s never that simple. Relationships cause us to ask the questions “am I enough?”, “will you still love me if…?”, “what if I open up to you and you decide to leave?”, “what if I get hurt or rejected?” all of which have no definite guarantee or answer. Relationships are anything but predictable, they are messy, require risk and vulnerability.
If you are not one of the relationship supermates that can tolerate uncertainty (join the club), there are generally one of two ways you will react when faced with this nemesis. You may either respond with an urge to control and therefore enforce certainty, or you may avoid uncertainty at all costs. If you respond with the urge to find the answer, to move towards and to regain a sense of control, chances are you fit the criteria for an anxious attachment style. This attachment style deals with uncertainty by looking for answers. They may ask a lot of questions and require more reassurance and affirmation than other attachment styles. They often engage in activating strategies in an attempt to eliminate their anxiety.
On the other hand, the avoidant attachment style will react in the opposite way. If they feel that something is uncertain, they won’t allow themselves to attach or become vulnerable whenever there is a risk of them getting hurt. They often resort to deactivating strategies in an attempt to tolerate or deal with anxiety. This is challenging because building a secure intimate connection with someone requires vulnerability.
The reality is that both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles are affected by uncertainty, they just deal with and respond to it in different ways. Both styles can learn to cope with uncertainty by:
1. Focusing on what you can control:
When faced with uncertainty we automatically use our mental magnifying glass to search for all of the possible outcomes that are out of our control. We end up focusing on questions like “What if they don’t like me?”, “What if they leave?”… etc, generally focusing on worst-case outcomes that end in disastrous heartbreak. This type of thinking is bound to make us feel anxious. When you shift your focus to what you can control, you regain your power in the situation. You are no longer a helpless passenger on a rollercoaster ride; you become the driver and have the ability to accelerate, slow down or go a different route. Things you can control in a relationship include:
- How much you share about yourself and when (sharing too much too soon can progress things too quickly)
- How quickly you become sexually involved
- How much time you spend thinking about the person (constantly dwelling on hopes and expectations can rob your objectivity and your power)
- Maintaining your own sense of self (keeping up with your own life, activities, etc.)
2. Learning how to take calculated risks:
When you go all in and expose your hand, you often feel anxious and worried about the outcome. Revealing all of your cards leaves you feeling exposed and powerless. Learning the skill of being able to assess your opponent, gage their hand and see if they will match your bet is important when assessing how the game will unfold. Not all risks require throwing yourself off a cliff and hoping that you learn how to fly. Risks, especially those related to the heart, can be taken in small steps. When getting to know someone it is helpful to assess the risk of opening your heart. For me, a risk assessment contains some of these questions:
- Are they looking for commitment?
- Do they have the same values as me?
- Are they dependable/reliable?
- Are they emotionally available/ present?
- Are previous attachments still present in their life?
- Do they respect the speed I am willing to go in the relationship?
- Are we compatible?
If there are many negative responses to this risk assessment, I may decide that it is too risky for me to continue in the relationship. If most responses are positive but I am unsure about one or two areas then I may proceed with caution. You may assess risk differently, nevertheless it is important not to gamble with your heart. Make sure to size up your opponent to determine what your next move should be.
3. Focusing on realistic outcomes:
I find people either have overly optimistic or overly pessimistic ideas about how a relationship will play out. We either place all of our hopes and expectations on the new relationship, or sabotage ourselves by expecting the worst-case outcome. Both can be equally detrimental and have a huge effects on our approach and ability to cope when things don’t go as expected. The solution is to try to take a realistic approach to relationships. Realistically:
- You won’t be compatible with everyone
- Just because you aren’t compatible with someone doesn’t mean you aren’t loveable or won’t find love
- Not all relationships end in disaster
- Not all relationships result in marriage
- Your past relationships don’t have to determine the outcome of your future relationships, etc.
For more ideas on how to rein your unhelpful thinking around relationships check, out: 5 common relationship thought traps faced by the anxious attachment style and the avoidant attachment style.
At the end of the day we cannot know all of the answers and we cannot predict every outcome: relationships are risky business. That doesn’t however mean that our anxiety about not knowing should overwhelm or control us. We can learn to cope, and tolerate uncertainty, if we are being wise and protecting our heart in the process.
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Wishing you love,