Big Feelings (2022) is a guide to coping with some of the toughest emotions we ever face, from anger to despair. By acknowledging and facing up to these emotions, it’s possible to work through them.
Psychology, Personal Development, Mental Health, Emotional Mental Health, Emotional Self Help, Popular Social Psychology and Interactions, Self Help, Psychology, Leadership
Introduction: Learn how not to be overwhelmed by the weight of how you feel.
Let’s imagine you’re walking through a crowd of people. What do you see? Ponytails, bushy eyebrows, freckles, nose piercings, baseball caps, long earlobes, someone chewing gum, thick-rimmed glasses . . .
What you don’t see is the enormous weight of feelings that each of those people is carrying with them. Uncertainty. Envy. Anger. Burnout. Even, in some cases, despair.
We all feel these things – and for some people, since the pandemic, we feel them more than ever. And it’s the biggest feelings of all that can be the toughest to talk about.
In this summary, we’ll go over the book Big Feelings by Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien. You’ll learn how to acknowledge those feelings to yourself and the world around you – so you can move forward. This isn’t going to solve all your problems. But it might be the best way to start tackling them.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- why you feel more stressed, the less you know;
- how envy can become a positive; and
- what to do with your righteous anger.
One day, Liz, the coauthor, got a headache. A really bad one. It was so bad that she could barely walk, and before she knew it she found herself in the hospital.
It wasn’t a tumor – great. It wasn’t an aneurysm either. But . . . what was it?
While they searched for a solution, a variety of doctors gave Liz a slew of treatments. Botox to the head. Steroids for her eye muscles. And antiepileptic drugs, which first gave her a crippling panic attack on the Chicago L train, and then, when she quit cold turkey, landed her back in the hospital.
But the worst thing of all? The uncertainty of not knowing what was wrong with her. It’s always the uncertainty. Uncertainty sucks.
Scientific studies back that up. How would you feel if you were told you had a 50 percent chance of receiving a mild electric shock? You’d be anxious, right?
But how would you feel if you were told the probability was 90 percent?
A group of scientists actually did that, and guess what: people felt more stressed – three times as stressed – if they had a 50 percent chance of receiving the shock.
Because when it was 90 percent likely that they’d be shocked, at least they knew it was coming. That’s how much people hate uncertainty.
So what do you do when you’re faced with it?
Rule 1: don’t avoid the problem – sit with it. It’s all too common to push uncertainty away by busying yourself with other tasks. Don’t do it. Let it in. Face it head-on. Try counting to 90. Chances are the panicky feeling will have subsided.
Then, get specific. Ask yourself: What are you really anxious about? Literally, what do you think might happen? And how would each possible scenario play out?
Now, of course, when you do that, don’t start catastrophizing. Remember that the worst-case scenario isn’t certain to happen – far from it. Be sure to plot out the best-case scenario, too.
But acknowledging exactly what you’re really worried about will put you well on the path to dealing with uncertainty in the healthiest way you can.
When you’re plotting out your scenarios, you’ll realize there are some things you can control and some things you can’t. As the famous saying goes, what you need is the wisdom to know the difference between them. Do your best in what you can control, and accept what you can’t.
Oh, and what happened to Liz, by the way? She learned to live with her migraines and took all the steps she could to tackle the pain without causing herself further harm. It’s far from perfect – but she’s learned to deal with it. And her uncertainty has turned into acceptance.
Mollie, the other author, used to talk to Vanessa regularly. They’d been close since high school and their friendship had survived its share of ups and downs as their lives had progressed along similar, successful paths. They both wrote a book. They both got married.
But only Vanessa got pregnant. And suddenly Mollie couldn’t bear to talk to her.
Comparing yourself to others is something we all do, all the time. In the age of Instagram, we do it more than ever. And logging out isn’t a perfect solution. Needless to say, neither is cutting one of your best friends out of your life.
Maybe you’re envious of a friend’s high-paying job. Maybe your stomach lurches when you realize that, while you have a high-paying job, an old colleague from law school has switched to become a writer – the thing you’ve secretly always wanted to do. Whatever it is that sparks these comparisons, it’s always hard to know how to channel those feelings.
But the place to start is just like it was with uncertainty: you have to acknowledge how you feel. Say to yourself: What am I envious of? What do they have that I don’t? And how would I actually feel if that was my life?
You might realize that in reality, you don’t want it after all. Author Liz felt a strong pang of envy when she discovered an acquaintance was taking up a seriously senior business role leading hundreds of people. But would she really have liked a life like that? She doesn’t actually like meetings, or managing people. Sure, she wanted the prestige and validation of that sort of career – but, she soon realized, she’d actually have hated it.
Or you might realize that your envy is teaching you something useful about yourself. That’s what happened to Gretchen Ruben – the successful lawyer mentioned above, who found out her classmate was now a writer. That discovery prompted her to face up to what she really wanted to do with her life. So she switched careers, and that led to her becoming a best-selling author.
Comparisons can be devastating – but they can be productive, too. If you acknowledge them and really think about them, they can teach you a lot about yourself.
Although . . . not always. It’s a cliché that bears repeating: nobody’s life is as glamorous as it looks on Instagram. Don’t compare the best version of someone else to the worst version of you. And there’s a second point to bear in mind as well: it’s OK to be at a different life stage to someone else. We’re all on our own paths, and that’s great. Embrace it.
Mollie eventually got back in touch with Vanessa, by the way. She explained how hard it had been for her to see their lives take different directions. Vanessa was understanding. They’re still on different life paths now – but they’re friends again.
So, comparison: not all bad, as far as big feelings go. And the same goes for our next big feeling, too: anger.
A friend of the authors, Griffin, was on a foreign trip with the multinational company he worked for. He and the team were on their way out to lunch one day when a senior team member shoved his hand under Griffin’s shirt and started feeling his chest, chanting the word “Gay!”
Initially, Griffin didn’t feel angry. He felt ashamed – and, understandably, confused – but, having been brought up to believe that anger was a bad thing, he didn’t let it out. It was only after describing the incident to a friend – who rightly pointed out it was sexual harassment – that his attitude changed.
So Griffin got angry. But, after thinking it through, he decided not to channel that anger into a lawsuit. Instead, he worked really hard and got himself a different job. Not a perfect solution – but at least his anger was put to use.
Sometimes anger is righteous. It can simply be an understandable, justifiable reaction to actual injustices you’ve faced. What’s unhealthy is the idea we should suppress it. Because in reality, it’s like water. As the author Soraya Chemaly has said, you can dam it or divert it, but it’ll always find a way through.
So how do you deal with anger, then? Yet again, the first step is to acknowledge it. If it’s a particular problem for you, try writing an anger log: write down everything that sparks anger in you for a week or so. You’ll start to see patterns.
You should also think about how you tend to respond to anger. Some people are anger suppressors, who simply bottle it up – not healthy. Some people are anger projectors, who lash out at others. That’s not great, either. If that’s you, give yourself a chance to cool down before you engage with other people. And some people are anger controllers, who maintain that everything’s fine, even when it clearly isn’t.
Some people, though – and this is the one to work toward – are anger transformers. They understand that anger can be channeled into something productive and creative. It can be healthy and give you clarity.
Being an anger transformer doesn’t mean yelling at everyone. You should consider meditating to get into a clearer state of mind, rather than reacting impulsively. The key thing is you’re not denying the way you feel – rather, you’re using it, strategically, to move on.
Mollie used to work as a consultant for a global innovation firm. She did this while also writing her first book with Liz. It was a hectic lifestyle and it required a lot of traveling.
It’s a moment she’ll never forget – the moment the burnout phase began. She was flying home to Seattle for Christmas, having already been in New York City, Montreal, Shanghai, and DC. She was in first class because she had the miles.
Someone next to her started to cough. And then Liz felt a whole wave of anxiety wash over her.
This was prepandemic, so it wasn’t a COVID thing. She just knew that she couldn’t get sick at all, because she had so much work to do in the month ahead.
Sure enough, she got a cold – a bad one. Which she then made worse by trying to take another trip too soon. She ended up having to cancel a whole host of events around the launch of their book.
Mollie’s burnout made her badly sick. In fact, she’s still recovering from it today.
But she’s taken steps to make it better. She and her husband left New York for the calmer pace of LA. She stopped giving herself a hard time if she skipped the gym one day or didn’t reply to an email straightaway. And she started to plan a career that gave her enough time to take care of herself.
Burnout is a message. It’s your body telling you: you can’t do this anymore; something has got to change.
And burnout doesn’t always look like Mollie’s did – it isn’t just for people jetting around the world. You might get burned out through exhaustion caused by long hours, but you can also experience it if you find whatever job you do meaningless – or if you feel that, no matter how hard you try, your work is never good enough.
So, what do you do about it? If you have the kind of burnout that Mollie did, you need to get comfortable giving a little bit less than 100 percent of yourself. Aim for operating at 80 percent capacity – which should give you enough time to have a little bit else going on in your life besides work.
Properly sorting out what you do and don’t value goes a long way, too. Figure out which aspects of your work you don’t find meaningful and which aspects are contributing to your feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. Then find ways to move away from them.
And spot when you don’t feel like the effort you’re putting in is truly worth it. Putting stacks of work into a project but still not getting that sense of achievement out of it, is a classic sign of burnout. In that case, you might need to think again about what you really value in your career.
Liz’s favorite pair of pajamas was a long pair of men’s pants with a hole in them. Her favorite evening snack was a bowl of popcorn soaked in soy sauce. Sometimes, Liz liked to get up in the middle of the night and pace around frantically, just to tire herself out. Oh, and her apartment was a mess.
All that was fine – it was just who she was. But when she got food poisoning, her boyfriend sweetly offered to come round and make some soup for her. Then she panicked. She couldn’t bear to let him see the state of her apartment! She panicked so much that she threw up.
We all have flaws. The problem is that an alarming number of us are perfectionists, constantly insisting on higher standards for ourselves than we can actually manage. Some people, like Liz, are perfectionists in their social lives, and some are perfectionists at work.
And some people will swear to you that perfectionism is a good thing – that being a perfectionist means getting things done.
Be wary of that. There are plenty of people out there who become so paralyzed by their perfectionism that they never take any action at all – people whose perfectionism, like Liz’s, causes unnecessary angst and stress.
But how do you let go of something like perfectionism? It’s hard. But one of the keys is to get comfortable with (what you think of as) failure.
It’s common to think of failure and success as opposites – picture two little piles of stackable bricks, one colored yellow, one blue. The truth is, the wall that each of us is building is made up of bricks of both colors and in no particular pattern. Because, of course, you learn from failures, and they help you along.
Here’s another tip. Ask yourself what your friends love about you. I’d bet good money that your ability to maintain a pristine email inbox does not figure highly on their list. Other people don’t hold you to the same standards that you hold yourself.
And here’s one more. Give your internal perfectionist voice a name. Call it Grace, or Bozo, or Voldemort. And when you hear that voice, remember that it’s them talking, not you.
Oh – Liz and her soy sauce popcorn. The boyfriend who came round when she was sick and saw her messy apartment? It was fine. They moved in together not long after that. And now, he’s her husband.
Let’s start this chapter with a trigger warning – it mentions suicide, so if you’d rather not read about that, skip to the next one.
Mollie was 32, and her first book had just come out. She was happily married and had no history of depression. But something changed, suddenly.
A big part of it was chronic pain – she was struggling badly with a pain in her feet that meant she could barely stand for five minutes without severe discomfort. The doctors weren’t able to help much, and some of the treatments actually made things worse.
She’d also been trying to conceive, but she was so stressed that she stopped getting her period.
So one day, on her way to a hotel on a work trip, she wrote a note to her family, saying goodbye. She made a plan for how to end her life. She got to her hotel room and lay down on the bed, knowing that all she had to do to set her plan in motion was call a taxi.
But she couldn’t bring herself to make the call.
The big feeling we’re dealing with here is despair. It doesn’t always get as bad as Mollie’s did, but it really can – and in the US, it’s been on the up for the last few years.
What can you do about despair? Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. In fact, that’s pretty much the first step you might need to take: realize that it’s not a question of curing it but, rather, of getting through it gradually. You might have heard this bit of advice – take it a day at a time. Scrap that: take it a moment at a time. Because when you’re in the pits of despair, getting through just an evening can feel like an eternity.
So break that time up by indulging yourself. Have a hot shower, watch a silly movie, eat a tub of ice cream. Nothing is too frivolous if it helps you get through that time.
And when you do get through that time? Give yourself a pat on the back. And the same goes for every time you accomplish anything at all. Going to the pharmacy might not sound like a great success, even if it only takes a small part of your day, but if that’s all you’re capable of doing, then it’s something to celebrate.
One more tip? Talk to people – but only the ones who get it. In fact, avoid the ones who don’t. Seek out those who can give you empathy, not just sympathy. Politely distance yourself from your less helpful friends – just for a bit.
Mollie made it through. It took time, and there was no specific moment when she stopped feeling that low. A few little things did change – a new job, a book club, her husband was a big help. And now she looks back on her period of despair and she’s amazed at herself for finding so much strength. She found a way to get through it. So can you.
When she was a kid, Liz spent every summer with her grandmother in Germany. Liz cherishes those memories – of her grandmother’s dated floral wallpaper in the hallways and her big cozy armchairs in the living room, all in a strange and enthralling foreign land.
But when her grandmother died, her mother asked Liz to go with her to Germany to clean out the house – and Liz said no. She was busy with work and she was angling for a promotion, so the timing was just off.
And still, to this day, she feels the regret in her stomach.
We all have regrets. We’re hardwired to have them. In terms of evolution, it’s our brain teaching us to learn from our mistakes so we don’t do the same thing again. But the thing is, we end up feeling regret even when we’ve made decent choices or done things that were unavoidable. We just can’t stop imagining what might have been.
There are six types of regret, and they all require different strategies for tackling them. The first two are hindsight and alternate-self regrets. The hindsight regrets are when you look back and wish you’d known then what you know now. And alternate-self regrets are when you imagine how your life would have been if you’d followed a different path altogether.
With both of those, the key thing to do is to stop imagining some other life for yourself with rose-tinted glasses. And give yourself a break – if you really had known differently at the time, or if you had followed a different path, you’d be a very different person right now, and you might not have a lot of the things that you now hold dear.
Rushing-in and dragging-out regrets are about acting too quickly or too slowly – so slowly, in fact, that your indecision costs you dearly. These are regrets you can learn from, to improve your future decision-making. Analyze why you made the choices you did, and think about how you could have acted differently.
With ignoring-your-instincts regrets, the name says it all. And they contain a positive: your instincts were right! So give yourself some credit for that, and learn to trust yourself. Self-sabotage regrets are common in people struggling with addiction, and may require deeper work. But again, self-analysis and honesty are key. Be clear about why you made the decisions you did at the time.
It’s impossible to shut off regrets altogether. But you can get rid of the “should haves” – and replace them with “what ifs.” Because you can ask “what if” about the future – not just the past. Which, let’s face it, is much more practical.
So, Liz didn’t go to Germany to help pack up her grandmother’s house. Years later, her dad had to go to the hospital – it was his heart. And her mom told her not to bother taking the long trip from San Francisco to Chicago. We’ll be fine, she said. You’re busy.
But this time, Liz knew what she had to do – and she was on the next flight to Chicago.
Big feelings have the capacity to knock us out. But you can learn to use them to grow. Whether you struggle with comparing yourself to others or battling despair, the first step is always to acknowledge how you feel. You can’t make big feelings vanish completely – but you can move past them.
And for those looking for more actionable advice: Get therapy.
Talking through your feelings with a professional is a step that can help people enormously, so it’s worth considering no matter which big feelings you’re dealing with. And it isn’t necessarily always that expensive. There are numerous online resources and nonprofits that can connect you with free or low-cost therapy options. In the US, see if any local clinics have psychotherapy students offering free sessions. You can try looking up “sliding-scale therapy near me” online or check out the Open Path Collective.
About the author
Liz Fosslien is the Head of Content at Humu, a company that uses behavioral science to make work better. Liz’s writing and illustrations have been featured by the Economist, The New York Times, NPR, and Freakonomics.
Mollie West Duffy is an organizational and leadership development expert. She has helped companies and start-ups such as Casper develop good workplace culture. She writes a blog about start-up culture, and has written for Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Quartz.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Uncertainty 1
Chapter 2 Comparison 31
Chapter 3 Anger 57
Chapter 4 Burnout 85
Chapter 5 Perfectionism 119
Chapter 6 Despair 145
Chapter 7 Regret 179
Big Feelings Assessments 215
List of General Resources 229
List of Resources by Chapter 233
From the duo behind the bestselling book No Hard Feelings and the wildly popular @LizandMollie Instagram, an insightful and approachable illustrated guide to handling our most difficult emotions.
We all experience unwieldy feelings. But between our emotion-phobic society and the debilitating uncertainty of modern times, we usually don’t know how to talk about what we’re going through, much less handle it. Over the past year, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy’s online community has laughed and cried about productivity guilt, pandemic anxiety, and Zoom fatigue. Now, Big Feelings addresses anyone intimidated by oversized feelings they can’t predict or control, offering the tools to understand what’s really going on, find comfort, and face the future with a sense of newfound agency.
Weaving surprising science with personal stories and original illustrations, each chapter examines one uncomfortable feeling—like envy, burnout, and anxiety—and lays out strategies for turning big emotions into manageable ones. You’ll learn:
- How to end the cycle of intrusive thoughts brought on by regret, and instead use this feeling as a compass for making decisions
- How to identify what’s behind your anger and communicate it productively, without putting people on the defensive
- Why we might be suffering from perfectionism even if we feel far from perfect, and how to detach your self-worth from what you do
Big Feelings helps us understand that difficult emotions are not abnormal, and that we can emerge from them with a deeper sense of meaning. We can’t stop emotions from bubbling up, but we can learn how to make peace with them.
Video and Podcast
“Lucid, wise, illustrated advice for when we are overwhelmed. Neither patronizing nor pedantic, just good sensible advice that helps you have more control over those mental avalanches.” – Matt Haig, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library and The Comfort Book
“Writing (and drawing) with their signature insight and humor, Liz and Mollie dispense the wisdom and compassion we all need for working through our most difficult emotions.” – Susan Cain, author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole
“Over the past few years, our emotions have often gotten the better of us. This book will restore your sense of control—and make you feel less alone in the world. Liz and Mollie do an outstanding job bringing your fuzziest feelings into sharp focus.” – Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
“Big Feelings is a work of tremendous heart. Filled with vulnerability, humor, and hard-won insights, it offers concrete tools to help us move through difficult emotions.” – Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and cohost of the Dear Therapist podcast
“The rise of stress, burnout, and anxiety is one of the most urgent issues of our time. Big Feelings is a vital guide to not only handling complex emotions but learning to thrive through difficult times—and emerge even more resilient.” – Arianna Huffington, founder & CEO, Thrive Global
“Big Feelings is not another self-help book. It is an intelligent, empathetic, and often delightful guide to navigating life’s most difficult moments and emerging from them with a new-found sense of meaning.” – Daniel H. Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive, and A Whole New Mind
“This book is witty, insightful, and filled with brilliant, signature cartoons about work, life, and everything in between. Big Feelings is just the honest, funny, and useful read we all need right now.” – Katy Milkman, bestselling author of How to Change
“A timely gift as we collectively struggle with tendencies to despair, to compare ourselves, and to overwork ourselves into burnout. As always, Liz and Mollie have nudged us in the direction of becoming more informed, more empathetic, and more whole, so we can show up in the world with more bravery.” – Mari Andrew, New York Times bestselling author of My Inner Sky and Am I There Yet?
“Combining compassion with their trademark visual wit, Liz and Mollie deliver a message we all need to hear in our current unsettled moment: feeling bad isn’t bad.” – Cal Newport, bestselling author of A World Without Email and Deep Work
“A candid, warm, and practical guide to navigating difficult emotions. Liz and Mollie’s work is full of wise ideas, expressed both through storytelling and memorable illustrations. This book will absolutely enrich many lives.” – Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Liz: The first headache hit like a jackhammer. I stumbled toward the bathroom, dizzy and gagging.
A week later, the second sent me to the emergency room. After a barrage of blood draws and scans, the doctors ruled out a list of life-threatening issues-pulmonary embolism, brain aneurysm, tumor-and categorized me as a medical mystery.
Searching for a diagnosis is excruciating. “Don’t worry until you have something to worry about,” a coworker told me. But I worried all the time. I yo-yoed between imagining the worst possible outcome and feeling like a drama queen. Was I dying? Or was it absolutely nothing?
That was my life for months. I shuttled between neurologists; ear, nose, and throat specialists; and ophthalmologists. One neurologist gave me thirty-six injections of Botox in my head, shoulders, and back to prevent neurotransmitters from sending pain signals to my brain. An ophthalmologist thought the muscles around my eyes might be inflamed, and prescribed steroid medication that skyrocketed my blood pressure and made my cheeks flush a dark pink.
Then an internist suggested that I had an atypical case of migraines and put me on a high dosage of Topamax, an antiepileptic drug. The clanging in my skull finally quieted, but the side effects that popped up left me just as out of sorts. My emotions exploded. One afternoon, I stepped onto the L train in Chicago and into the clutches of the worst panic attack I’ve ever experienced. I clung to a ceiling pole. When the doors opened again, I crawled out onto the Merchandise Mart platform and forced one foot in front of the other until I was finally back at my apartment. I spent the rest of the day in bed, shaken and ashamed.
In the morning, I emptied the pill bottle into the toilet. I was done with Topamax.
I didn’t know that it can be life-threatening to stop prescription medication cold turkey.
At four o’clock the next afternoon, my heart lurched. I managed to make it to the lobby of my apartment building before I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance. A nurse’s face swam before my eyes. She told me my parents were on their way.
“Am I going to die?” I felt the back of my neck prickle in terror as darkness clouded my vision again.
The nurse looked at the jagged line displayed on a nearby monitor. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to die before my mom gets here,” I tried to tell her, but I couldn’t move my mouth anymore. Then everything went black.
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“This is a period of radical uncertainty, [by] an order of magnitude greater than anything we’re used to,” said Columbia University historian Adam Tooze in April 2020. That October, a New York Times headline announced, “awake at 3 a.m.? we are too.” The same year, the most popular Harvard Business Review articles were about how to navigate turbulent times and grieve the loss of a guaranteed future.
As millennials-“the new lost generation,” according to The Atlantic-we (Liz and Mollie) have lived through three major economic recessions, have quarantined for more than a year during a global pandemic and a devastating wildfire season in California, and view 401(k) matching (let alone pensions) as a relic. We consider ourselves to be among the fortunate, and even we felt overwhelmed by uncertainty.
Psychologists who study stress have identified three primary factors that make us feel awful: a lack of control, unpredictability, and the perception that things are getting worse. In other words: uncertainty.
In this chapter, we’ll deconstruct uncertainty and the emotion at its core: anxiety. To clarify definitions before we continue:
Anxiety is general unease because of an uncertain outcome. We feel anxious when we aren’t sure how larger forces will interfere with our lives.
Fear is when we believe that something specific will happen (like tripping over your words during an important presentation, or a loved one dying).
We’ll start by walking through three common myths around uncertainty and the anxiety it causes and then offer a few ways to find solid footing even when the world moves beneath you.
Myths about Uncertainty
Myth #1: Certainty is attainable
While sheltering in place during the first few weeks of the pandemic, we felt that we were living through a period of unprecedented uncertainty. (We werenÕt alone: Google searches for the word ÒunprecedentedÓ spiked to, well, unprecedented highs in March 2020.) But the level of uncertainty during the Cuban Missile Crisis or World War I or even the bubonic plague was just as great, if not much greater, than it is today.
Life can change in an instant. At age thirty-three, Liz’s CrossFit-loving, teetotaling friend developed a sharp pain in his ankle. Three weeks later, he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and a week after that his right leg was amputated. Or take Liz herself, who decided to buy a treat at Berkeley Bowl, a local grocery store, on her way home from a particularly draining day at work. While beelining through the produce section, she bumped into a friend-of-a-friend she had met once years ago. He suggested they grab coffee together sometime. Five years later, she married him.
We tend to be too confident about our ability to predict the future. Behavioral scientists have shown that we’re overly optimistic about things we want to happen, we notice immediate changes but tend to overlook longer-term shifts, and we overemphasize the importance of new information that fits into our existing beliefs. If you really want to travel to Paris, you’ll probably see flight prices going down as a sign but then shrug and ignore it if your hotel stay suddenly becomes more expensive. The track record of “expert” forecasters (think economists and meteorologists) is so dismal that some claim that being an expert in something actually makes you worse at predicting the future than if you were a generalist.
The ancient teachings of Buddhism center on this fundamental problem. “We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability,” writes Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, “always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure.” And precisely what makes us anxious.
Myth #2: Anxiety accurately reflects risk
ThereÕs often a mismatch between how stressed we feel about something happening and the likelihood that that thing will happen. In an experiment, researchers told one group of people they had a 99 percent chance of receiving a painful (but safe) electric shock and told the other group they had a 1 percent chance. Surprisingly, the two groups were willing to pay about the same amount of money to avoid the shock. In other words, the likelihood of getting hurt didnÕt affect peopleÕs anxiety about getting hurt-or what they would do to avoid the scenario.
The more uncertainty we face, the worse we feel. When the risk level of a decision is unknown, brain activity spikes in the area that processes emotions. Research even shows we’d rather be absolutely sure that something bad is going to happen than deal with ambiguity. Scientists found that people who had a 50 percent chance of receiving an electric shock were three times as stressed as people who had a 90 percent chance of getting the shock. (Seems 100 percent certain that uncertainty researchers love delivering electric shocks.)
If we know what the bad thing is, we can plan for it. But when we don’t know what’s going to happen, we spiral. “I knew for a long time that I had to leave,” reader Carmen told us after finally quitting a job that had made her miserable. “But I was so anxious about having to figure out my next steps that I chose unhappiness over uncertainty for four years.”
So while it’s normal to fret in the face of uncertainty, your emotional reaction might be disproportionate to reality. Not knowing is the worst. But it can be useful to say to yourself, “The fact that I’m worried about the future doesn’t guarantee that the future will be bad.” Ahead of her wedding, reader Marcie had trouble sleeping. “I’m bad with change and get nervous ahead of any big event,” she told us. But Marcie, who has now been happily married for twenty-five years, realized, “My insomnia wasn’t about me doubting my relationship.”
Myth #3: You just need to be more resilient
Over the past few years, “resilience” has popped up everywhere as the answer to everything. Having a hard time because of a toxic environment? Just be resilient. Struggling to homeschool your kids while working fifty-hour weeks during a global pandemic? Try some resilience.
Resilience, or the ability to withstand hardship and bounce back from difficult events, is useful. But too often it’s presented in a way that overlooks systemic problems and instead encourages individuals to grin and bear whatever tough stuff comes their way. In an article titled “Smile! You’ve Got Cancer,” author Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “There is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure.”
Being told to look on the bright side when you’re suffering can be frustrating when coming from a friend, family member, or acquaintance, but it’s particularly galling when institutions and society at large use resilience as a way to sidestep responsibility for protecting people’s mental well-being. In 2020, amid concerns about the economy, their families, and their health, people became twice as likely as in previous years to feel overwhelmed by changes at work. The same year, nearly 75 percent of employees reported experiencing burnout at least once. And while burnout was almost universal, it was particularly bad for working mothers: nearly three million women dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic. As a source told psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin, a women’s mental health specialist, for an article about how her patients struggled during COVID, “The crushing toll on working mothers’ mental health reflects a level of societal betrayal.”
So we’re proponents of resilience, but not the kind that places blame on the individual or absolves leaders and institutions from their obligation to make structural improvements. There’s a huge gap between demanding that everyone be mentally tough and helping them take care of their mental health. We’ll spend the rest of this chapter walking you through a few mind-sets and strategies for how to better navigate uncertainty. Unfortunately, while the forces that cause uncertainty and anxiety are often not your fault, how you respond is your responsibility. But our goal is not to help you continue to battle for survival in a toxic environment. We want to help you achieve whatever outcome is best for you. That might mean reframing your thoughts to feel less anxious. Or it might mean walking away from an unhealthy situation entirely.
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Liz: Obviously, I didn’t die in the ambulance. I spent a day in the hospital and was then discharged into uncertainty.
After my panic attack on the L, I refused to take more mood-altering medication, even when my migraines started to come back. Over the next few months, everything revolved around pain. I would start scanning my body the moment I woke up. Was that a normal, minor muscle spasm, or the early rumblings of something more sinister? I went to work but then hurried back to the quiet, dark embrace of my apartment. I was too embarrassed to reply to concerned emails and texts. How could I explain what was going on? From the outside, I looked perfectly healthy.
I hit an emotional wall a few months later, on my birthday. By 3 p.m., I still hadn’t gotten out of bed. My mom was now calling me every hour. Each time I picked up, she sounded more and more worried. I was worried, too. I’d never felt this low before. Was this going to be the rest of my life? Just a bleak mixture of work and hiding under the covers with the blinds closed?
Looking back, I think some kind of instinctual survival mechanism must have kicked in that day. I was suddenly absolutely beside myself. The force of my fury made me sit up in bed. This was unfair and unfun and I was f*cking over it. I wanted to hug my mom and put on nail polish and go to a diner with friends and shove a greasy cheeseburger in my mouth. I wanted to claw back some control over my life.
For the next five weeks, I religiously tracked my schedule, moods, and migraines to see how they might be related. I scoured WebMD and migraine message boards for nonmedication treatment options. Based on what I learned, I cut out alcohol and chocolate, avoided the sun like a vampire, and made sure to be in bed at 9 p.m. to get a full night’s rest. I signed up for acupuncture on Tuesdays and Thursdays and started going to a nearby gym to get in thirty minutes of moderate exercise every day.
I decided to stick to my routine religiously for six months and see how it went. At that point, if my migraines were still bad, I’d reconsider medication or look into other, more intensive treatment options.
That also meant turning down business school. I had been admitted to Stanford, but the lifestyle I’d need to follow to thrive there seemed completely at odds with what I needed to do to take care of myself.
I also put safeguards in place for when my anxiety threatened to take over. I made myself a “brain cotton candy” list, which included Twitter memes, the r/aww subreddit (photos of cute animals), and news about the Kardashians. In moments when I started to sink into rumination, I would force myself to take out my phone and ingest brain cotton candy. I started to see friends again, though usually for air-conditioned lunches instead of 8 p.m. dinners outside in the heat and humidity.
I’m far from “cured.” I’ll never be able to lie on a sunny beach for hours without paying for it later. I still have a flare-up once every few months. But I’m able to manage my atypical migraines and live my life, and I don’t let worries about the future consume me anymore. I take care of myself, and then I take it day by day.
How to Work through It
“There’s [an] art of being at home in the unknown,” writes author Rebecca Solnit, “so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering.” People who learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty tend to rely on processes to help them navigate chaos. Those processes usually focus on two things: decreasing the amount of risk we expect and boosting our belief that we can handle uncertainty. This takes practice, but over time, you can feel more confident and start to see uncertainty as less overwhelming.