Many Diagnoses Come With Uncertainty

Just like this pandemic year, many diagnoses come with uncertainty. Truthfully, they all do. Getting comfortable with not knowing can help lead to the healthiest path for dealing with the coming months or a disconcerting diagnosis.

The contrasts of this year seem especially sharp as Christmas 2020 approaches. The middle road we often cruise has given way to distinct divisions between comfort and danger. And it feels disconcerting because many of the holiday traditions in which we usually find comfort are not currently safe. The pandemic has brought uncertainty we cannot avoid. Too much has changed too fast.

Under normal conditions, many of us shove uncertainty aside. We believe we know what each day will hold. We focus on that and tune out things we don’t expect or don’t want to deal with. We know that there will be minor mishaps – spills that stain a favorite blouse, flat tires, computer malfunctions, etc. We limit our expectations to those and move forward. That works great until an unavoidable life-altering event presents itself.

Big events often mean big decisions. It’s so much easier to make a decision if the outcome is immediate and known. But that’s not really how it works in most life-altering situations. Every choice is a gamble.

So how can we stay grounded and trust ourselves to make good enough choices?

It’s important to note that good enough choices aren’t always perfect choices. We can move toward health by making informed, if imperfect, choices. When we feel confident in our choices, we lessen the fear and anxiety created by uncertainty.

Fear triggers the urge to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn or hey, if things are really bad, all four! Just recognizing this can lessen the impact of the feelings when they arise. And there are ways to help calm your lower brain so that you can move in and out of fear deliberately and effectively.

Here are a few techniques to try:

Grounding – plant your feet firmly on the floor and press as if you’re getting ready for the starting gun of a race. If you still need to calm down, look around the room (leave your feet planted) and count all of the red you see, then green, then black, etc. You can continue by looking for shapes.

Tapping – Memorize a simple sequence of tapping. When you feel distress coming on, tap the sequence until you feel better.

Feeling your body – gently squeeze your arms noting how the skin feels and how the muscles feel beneath your arms. Continue with your legs or feet. Sometimes resting one hand on your chest just below your throat can feel calming. Feeling your body will help bring you into the present moment instead of getting lost in a panic of “what if”.

Breathing – stand in mountain pose and breathe. What I love about this pose is that you can do it anywhere without inviting the stares that downward dog would bring. If you’re at home, try alternate nostril breathing.

Once you develop successful methods to calm yourself, you will be ready to explore leaning into the feeling of fear. What works best for me is to allow myself to feel scared and to stay in that feeling as long as I can stand it. Having done this many times, I know that there will be a point at which things will shift and I will no longer feel afraid. If I can’t stick with it that long, I let it go for the moment knowing I can move in and out of fear as needed.

I don’t try to figure anything out or make any decisions when I’m leaning into fear. I just feel it and observe how my body responds. I trust that things will seem more clear once I’ve worked through some of the fear. When dealt with directly and immediately (or deliberately over a relatively short period of time), fear doesn’t have a chance to turn into long-term anxiety. It simply dissipates and goes away.

You can’t expect yourself to work through the fear brought by a diagnosis while you’re in the doctor’s office. At that moment, or any time you need to make immediate decisions under duress, I compartmentalize. I understand that many mental health professionals may not support that idea, but it works for me. The key is to create time and space soon after to feel my way through what has happened.

In other words, I compartmentalize temporarily. That gives me the clarity to proceed to another step of feeling confident in my decisions: gathering information. I set my feelings aside to ask the doctor as many questions as I can think of. I also ask the process for submitting questions that may come up once I’ve processed a bit longer.

Once I leave the doctor’s office, I research my options until I reach the point that I feel comfortable working with my doctor to devise a care plan. This sometimes includes getting a second opinion. Having the knowledge of more than one expert makes me feel more confident moving forward. While there is no way to know for sure whether we’ll achieve the outcome I desire, making informed plans builds my confidence and comfort level make uncertainty feel more tolerable.

Uncertainty can still weigh heavy. That’s when I like to get outside. Or on days like today, a trip outdoors offers an opportunity to bank good feelings to pull from when I need them. It’s such a gorgeous day! The work view I’ve chosen is from the porch overlooking my back yard.

Multiple birds chirp as they shuffle in and out of the wisteria on the arbor. Crows caw in the distance. Sugar snap peas extend their small white blossoms above the fence into a net trellis. The sun is full on my face and I’m comfortable in a light sweater. At sunset, we’ll be able to see Jupiter and Saturn align into a bright Christmas star. How could anything be bad?

Of course I’m aware of the perils of delivering gifts to my friends. Any other year, we’d be sharing food, wine, and laughter along with our gift bags. This year, we’re navigating quarantine just to get them to each other’s porches.

But while I sit under a brilliant blue sky, I don’t have to think about that. I can simply soak in the sun, the sounds, and the smell of BBQ when the breeze shifts just so. The smell of smoke from that nearby BBQ pit is a peril in itself. Live here long, and you’ll crave barbecue for breakfast.

As we move through stunted holiday celebrations into more months of pandemic uncertainty, some of us will receive unwanted diagnoses with the potential to increase anxiety. Having tools to reduce discomfort can mean better decision making and more peace of mind.

That’s my wish for all of us through the holidays…peace of mind and spirit!

There is no Permanent Record

Life is a process and there is no permanent record. This year has shined a bright light on the US culture. One of the things I’ve noticed is that we seem to view what happens right this minute as determinative of everything that follows. This is hobbling our thinking at a time when pivoting needs to be swift and nimble.

It is absolutely responsible and important to carefully consider decisions. But if we don’t empty our mind of expectations, assumptions, conventional wisdom, and trending topics first, we both limit ourselves and create undue pressure at a time when we need less.

Rather than recognizing that uncertainty is always with us, some have responded to this year of swift change by further entrenching themselves in ideas or behaviors that do not serve well. Many times, it comes down to the idea that if we do something unconventional, or different than our family or friends, and it doesn’t turn out well, it will go on our permanent record.

There is no permanent record. If someone holds a long-time grudge, that’s on them, not you. If someone continues to judge you for a mistake you have acknowledged in spite of it being a one-time error, that’s on them. If your parents disagree with your decision, but you’re okay with the consequences, it’s their problem, not yours. If everyone in your Facebook group disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean you’re misguided.

I understand it doesn’t always feel good to stand alone. I left high school a year early. My dad thought that was a mistake. I had the credits to graduate and went to straight to college with a scholarship in hand. In spite of this, and the fact that I received my high school diploma the following year along with my class, he still believed it was a mistake.

Ten years later, although I had no regrets about the decision, he scored it as an error on his version of my permanent record. I could have accepted his view and let it create doubt or I could feel confident that I had researched my options and was willing to continue to move toward my goals.

Were there failures along the way? Of course. But failing in an endeavor does not make me a failure because I know I don’t have to become mired in that glitch. I can view it as a chance for improvement. To remain inspired, I keep these words from a 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt in my head at all times:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

If there were a permanent record, I would want it to reflect me as a contender in the arena rather than someone who always towed a line drawn by others. I’d want it to show that my decisions were well thought and carefully made. I’d want to be seen as a problem solver who moved past obstacles. And I would hope to be judged on more than appearance or net worth.

If you are a student whose grades are suffering during the pandemic, it is not a life ruining experience. Learn the life lessons in front of you. Those are more valuable than any letter grade.

If you are a parent struggling to be productive while also minding the kids, cut yourself some slack when you don’t perform at your 2019 level. Not all productivity can be measured in immediate output. Ask any strategic planner.

If you are a child who cannot visit an elderly parent in long-term care, just do what you can to stay connected. The separation does not mean your relationship has ended. It just means it has had to shift.

If you are feeling frustrated, sad, and angry because you cannot safely attend a wedding, funeral, graduation, performance, or family reunion, those feelings are normal. You may need to designate some time for self-care to grieve the loss.

If you are having to ask for help, it doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. We all need assistance under certain circumstances.

If you are a frontline or essential worker, thank you! Collectively, we have placed an undue burden on you. It will take a toll. That is not because you are weak. It is because you are a human tasked with superhuman expectations.

There’s lots of catastrophizing going on right now. The news and social media are filled with hyperbole. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that our lives are falling apart. Some are suffering devastating pain and loss. Others are suffering a change in routine. Many of us fall somewhere in between.

But before we decide that we can’t bounce back from the setbacks of 2020 and 2021, let’s remember that we can adapt when needed. We can see ourselves as the man in the arena and use challenges as motivation to be better. We can shift priorities and make better choices. And we can evaluate, reevaluate, and leave our mistakes in the past because there is no permanent record.

Can’t You Do Better?

“That scarf doesn’t match your sweater. Can’t you do better?” That was how our conversation began. My mother’s first cousin Colene never held back an opinion. And yet she never made you feel bad. How did she manage that?
better
This is the question I’m pondering a month after her death as we approach the new year. The day before she died, a nurse said, “I loved Colene. She was so much fun – even when she was saying she was going to kick us in the teeth!”

I can hear her saying it now. She was fun. She was feisty. She was independent. She was confident enough to take driver’s ed at the local high school when she was 70 years old. And she was successful. She got her driver’s license and drove until she was in her 90s.

My cousin Johnny has a similar gift. He served in a state legislature in the Northwest for 30 years, retiring in 2017. He is disconcertingly direct and unafraid to let you know where he stands. Unlike most politicians, with Johnny there is no spin, no hedging, and no equivocating. Rather than being reviled for this, he is admired, trusted, and respected.

Colene and Johnny were not related, but they knew and liked each other. Dinner with the two of them was an annual event not to be missed. Conversation was lively, sometimes uncomfortable, but always uplifting…always uplifting.

When I ask myself, “Can’t you do better?”, that’s what I’m asking. Is the result of my interactions uplifting? It sounds like an impossible bar, but I have two shining examples that it is not.

Both of those examples felt free to state their truth, share opinions, and be direct. And that’s what they wanted in return. They didn’t have a need for anyone else to conform to their way of thinking. In fact, they welcomed differing viewpoints. That’s what made the conversations interesting.

And perhaps it’s as simple as that. Having the courage to listen, state my truth, share my opinion, and be direct without the need to control the response may be all it takes to leave people feeling better. It certainly builds trust. It has other benefits as well.

Building Trust
I trust you more if I know you’ll level with me. When you don’t, I sense it and become wary. I don’t like feeling that way. If it happens often, I will no longer rely on you. I will feel I must guard myself.

In order to be at our best, do our best work, and thrive, it is important to have people in our lives who will level with us. I remember the poet Miller Williams saying he trusted his wife to tell him when to stop writing because a poem was finished. He relied on her for this. He believed it made his poems better. I can’t argue with that. They feel right to me.

Creating Safety
There’s another benefit to voicing how you really feel without expectation of anyone else. Doing this creates an environment of safety for others to do the same. I always felt free to tell Colene the truth, even when it was not what she wanted to hear.

Once she could not walk, she sometimes asked me if she could go home. I didn’t tell her she might someday or leave her hanging with a we’ll see. I kindly and gently told her no. If she asked why, I would remind her that she could not walk and her house was not set up for lifts and wheelchairs.

She knew all of this was true. She felt it even when she could no longer absorb the words. There was never an argument, hysterics, or whining. She asked a simple question. I gave her a simple answer and the conversation shifted to something else.

Showing Respect
Stating your truth without equivocation shows respect for yourself and also for the listener. Feeling respected builds our sense of worthiness.

Maintaining Bonds
Colene made some pretty strong stands. Many years ago, she objected to one of her relatives’ choice in spouses. On the day of his wedding, she got in the car with her father, mother, and sister to go to the ceremony. A couple of minutes later, she said, “I’m not going to this wedding. I think it’s wrong.” Her father stopped the car, let her out, and she walked home.

In many families, this boycott would have created lingering hard feelings. That was not the case. Colene and the groom remained close until he died at age 91.

Her opinions were well-thought and her sentiments so sincere, you knew she wasn’t condemning you when she disagreed. She was just following her heart and her conscience. This is another characteristic she shared with Johnny and there’s something disarming about it that maintains bonds rather than threatening them.

Living Fully
If I am always holding back, I cannot live fully. It may be tempting to believe that I can garner favor or earn love by syncing my responses with those whose love or admiration I desire. If you have tried that approach, you know as well as I do that it never works that way. Ultimately, those who appreciate me will appreciate me and those who don’t, won’t.

Holding back my truth may sometimes help me avoid embarrassment, shame, humiliation, and feeling alone in a particular moment, but over time it diminishes my spirit and damages my soul. That’s a huge price to pay for momentary comfort. And it may mean that I will miss out on supportive friendships I wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to cultivate.

As I process my grief over losing Colene, I often repeat the question — can’t I do better? Of course I can. And I intend to. That still doesn’t mean she’d approve of my scarf choice.

https://www.marcandangel.com/2010/04/12/3-communication-tips-for-building-stronger-relationships/

https://my.fearlessliving.org/its-all-about-r-i-s-k-2/

http://www.cooking2thrive.com/blog/leave-the-past-behind/