Can I Please Have Some Certainty Here?

Ahh, certainty. The brain loves it. Being uncertain tends to make us feel threatened and kicks up our fight or flight response, releasing adrenalin and cortisol, while knowing exactly what will happen and what to expect gives us the feeling of being in control, which activates the reward centers in the brain, releasing happy chemicals like dopamine.

What does this mean in plain English? Well, it’s why we feel more nervous about the unknown and happier with the known. I recently had the opportunity to do some teaching in Japan, where I had never been, followed by Turkey, where I had been earlier this year. As I was preparing, I noticed that I had a fair degree of anxiety about going to Japan, and nothing but excited anticipation about going to Turkey. While both involved travel in foreign countries where I did not speak the language, thinking about the two aspects of my trip was completely different. In Japan, I had no real idea what to expect about anything, while in Turkey, I had previous experience to draw on and thus felt more certainty and control.

And the truth is, it’s difficult to be really certain about anything these days. (Or perhaps ever — Heraclitus said in about 500 B.C.E. “Everything flows, nothing stands still,” and “You can’t step into the same river twice.”) But there is a way we can be extremely helpful as coaches. The way I see it, our need for certainty and control can be better, and more helpfully, understood as the need for the feeling of certainty and control.

I can’t even count the times I have had clients say to me “I don’t feel like I have any control,” as if it were a rare occurrence in human existence, rather than business as usual in most organizations. And often, they are accurate. They may not have any real control or certainty about anything, either because their higher-ups are not willing to share information, or because no one knows. So as coaches, what we can do is help them focus on what they do have control over and what they do know when facing the unknown. And the good news is that this is all our brains need in order to calm down and be productive again (see The Goldilocks of the Brain for why this is so important to effectiveness). We don’t need to actually be in control of everything — a complete impossibility — we just need the experience of having some control and certainty about something.

As I was preparing for my trip and expressing anxiety about Japan, one of my coach friends asked me a great question. She said “Well, you might not know much about traveling in Japan, but what DO you know about your ability to travel in foreign countries?” This stopped me in my tracks and refocused my thinking. I have traveled all over the world, by myself, for many years. I know many things about travel. Mostly I know I love it and I always have a great time. I am absolutely certain of it.

And you know what? It turned out to be true. I had the time of my life in Japan (and Turkey), as usual. Which brings me to one more quote:

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

~Michel de Montaigne


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