Here are a few questions to consider about this topic:
- In what areas of your life are you most sensitive to uncertainty?
- Does the feeling of uncertainty make it difficult for you to identify how you can take responsibility? That is, does uncertainty make you feel like you don’t have the ability to respond when you do?
- Does the feeling of uncertainty trick you into taking responsibility under conditions when you don’t have the ability to respond?
- What would help you differentiate these two reactions to uncertainty more effectively?
The three concepts for today are:
- Uncertainty is an opportunity to take responsibility
- Negative reinforcement maintains anxiety
- Intentional and incidental practice should be frequent willing and flexible.
First when we think about embracing uncertainty with responsibility, let’s differentiate between inflated responsibility and real responsibility. We’ve talked frequently about inflated responsibility and what we mean by that is when you take responsibility for something you don’t have responsibility for.
So, you don’t have responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that show up. Other uncertainties that you don’t have control over include
- Other people’s thoughts and feelings.
- Some of the things that happen to you.
- And, for instance, in the case of like harm OCD, you might have uncertainty like how do I know with certainty that I haven’t thought, said, or did something that is harming someone right now or harmed someone in the past?
All of these are categories of inflated responsibility. You can think about real responsibility by thinking about the word itself. So, do you have the ability to respond to whatever it is that you have anxiety about? So, in the case of real responsibility, you have the capacity to respond. So, you might not have control over what happens to show up in your experience, but you do have the capacity to respond to it. Similarly, you don’t have certainty over what other people think and feel, but you do have control over how you respond to what other people convey to you.
Other psychologists talk about embracing uncertainty as a neurological opportunity. The way I like to think about that is like the process of learning how to walk.
So, as a baby is learning how to walk they’re going to take a few steps. Then, their brain is going to start making neurological connections that they didn’t previously have before they took those steps. Along with those neurological connections, the baby’s going to keep walking and their mind are is going to start to believe that they can do it.
There’s going to be a loop between the neurological connections, the behavior, and their mind perceiving that they can do it, and they’re going to practice in a number of different settings. They’re going to fall sometimes. They’re going to get back up and their mind and their brain is going to understand. They’ll make some more neurological connections. Their mind will interpret that this is something that they can have confidence in until suddenly it’s something that they can easily do.
So applying this to anxiety: We want to embrace uncertainty by taking responsibility when we have the ability to respond and then not try to take responsibility when we don’t have the capacity to respond.
And so as that’s happening, we want to remember what the neurological opportunities are: Behaviors are strengthened by avoiding a negative outcome. This is called negative reinforcement.
For instance turning off your alarm in the morning is a helpful use of negative reinforcement. You get up really fast because you want to turn off that loud sound. So negative reinforcement isn’t inherently problematic. It’s just one way in which a behavior is strengthened. But in the case of anxiety, if you avoid to reduce the uncomfortable stimulus that is your anxiety, then the chance of avoidance is going to become more likely in the future. The neurological opportunity is that you’ve got to do the opposite to change that pattern. Not only should you do the opposite in the exact way that the avoidance is showing up, but this is why we want to think about exposure as something that is frequent, flexible, and willing. So, just like you learn to walk and then run by practicing, getting good at it, through your your brain doing behavior, then your mind interpreting it, then having the neurological connections. This all happening very quickly, but in a lot of different contexts until you had lots of confidence.
We also want to do this with your anxiety in your incidental and your intentional practice. Both the types of practices that show up over the course of your life without your choosing and the things that you intentionally go towards, we want to make your practice frequent, flexible, and willing. In a number of different contexts, you will learn that uncertainty is actually your opportunity and not something that you want to brace against.
In community time and groups this week, we’ll talk more about this process of negative reinforcement and how your incidental and intentional exposures are an opportunity for you.