Dr Perpetua Neo

Do you crave certainty? If so, read this.

Some of us love certainty. We plan, a little too much as some say. And we love templates for what to do. If someone could point out “If X, do Y; if A, do B”, we’d be elated. A high need for certainty is how some of us feel psychologically safe. Psychological safety is when we feel we can speak our minds. Whether we have concerns, ideas, questions or mistakes, we trust ourselves and the situation enough to say our piece. This is essential for teams to perform optimally. Because, picture a team where everybody goes with what the leader says, for fear of offending someone or rocking the boat. The dynamics of the group can easily lead to extreme polarisation of views, or the team living in LaLaLand away from reality. And, innovation, creativity and efficiency are born out of people daring to rock the boat, and then devising and integrating solutions.

And I know, when you read ‘love certainty’, you imagine a person who needs to be hand-held and spoon-fed. 

That’s not true. There are plenty of high performers who love certainty. They are still highly productive even in the face of low certainty, except that this chasm between what they need and what they get means there are vast amounts of untapped potential. Or, situations leave them feeling anxious. Imagine, getting the certainty that you need and sleeping better– how much more energy would you have. How much brighter would you shine?

And here’s what you can do if you love certainty. 

1. Clarify

Asking what exactly someone means, and to follow up for details doesn’t make you look stupid; in fact, it’s a bridge to connecting with someone else because you are interested. 

Because you are keen on getting the facts right, and to ensure your meanings are aligned, that leaves less room for error. It’s like what they say in medicine– test, don’t guess.

This is way more effective than merely assuming. 

In my experience, this makes someone a better communicator or coach; in fact, I attribute my success rate to the strategic use of questions.

Story time. 

I remember as a young therapist, asking clients follow-up questions. These questions were short and simple, rather than nosy. For instance, I asked a client who had panic attacks on the tube, how long her commute was. My then-supervisor, on listening to my recording, hauled me up for asking unnecessary questions. I explained that the longer the commute, the more difficult the experience would be for said client. And, knowing how long she had to travel meant we’d tailor the treatment differently.

My client, on the other hand, told me she was grateful I asked the question. Because it helped her countdown to create safety, and she knew at which spot she could practise her exercises to reset her fear centre in her brain.

Similarly, I was chided for asking questions like how much a gram of a certain substance cost. Because if I needed to understand the extent of a client’s substance abuse, I had to calculate how much he was using, as compared to simply the amount he spent on a weekend. These questions helped us to get clear on the picture rather than assume. He told me I was the first psychologist who bothered asking, rather than judge him immediately for using substances.

I tell these stories because clarifying serves a function. It’s not just about you.

And, all the better if you love certainty.

So here’s what you can say:–

  • “This question/topic is really broad, can you tell me more?’
  • “When you say (issue), what exactly do you mean?”
  • “I learn best by examples. Can you run me through a case study/time you did this?”

When used sparingly and wisely, clarifying will evolve how you navigate relationships with others and yourself.

2. Scripts

In my Networking For The Socially Anxious and Introverts workshops, I always point this out:—

Those whom you admire for mastering social situations come from two backgrounds. The first grew up watching their elders navigate social interactions flawlessly; with a combination of nature and nurture, that became their inevitable destiny. The second started off socially anxious aka awkward; or as introverts, they were networking like extroverts, ending up feeling miserable and hopeless about their social skills. 

The difference between this second group and the people lamenting “I’m not one of those privileged people raised with social skills and opportunity”, is that this group simply looked at the social masters and asked “How do I get there?”

Yes, like training a new muscle, it requires practise— that’s for you to organise and commit to. And the other two parts of the equation are mindset and skills. As you build up deliberate intelligent practise and skills, your belief about your competence skyrockets. You also start to buy into the idea that you are allowed to speak up, vis-à-vis fumbling awkwardly for the right words to say.

And skill comes in the form of scripts.

There are scripts for everything. From how to send your food back gracefully to saying no to something that drains your energy.

Before a potentially awkward conversation, you can simply write it and say “This sounds strange; this conversation is difficult for me, so I wrote it out, and am reading off a script”. Prefacing it changes everything

 

Scripts are useful for asserting boundaries. Because people with a high need for certainty feel afraid to stand up for themselves, for fear that boundaries make them appear pugnacious, as they don’t know the right words to say. And so, they sometimes play too nice.

In these cases, some scripts you could benefit from include:—

  • “I’d love to give you the attention you deserve, and right now my energy levels are low. Let’s reschedule to speak about this for N minutes on (date and time)”— this way, you take care of yourself, and you set a time boundary for this interaction, rather than having it go on for potentially too long. 
  • “This is something personal, and I’m speaking with (expert) about it. Thank you for caring, and I’d prefer to focus our time together on something we both share”— how to refocus attention away from something you do not want to talk about, or when dealing with unsolicited advice.
  • “I am happy to tell you about (situation) as a friend/colleague/(role). What I want to say in advance is, I do not want any advice or sympathy about it”— this way, you set the tone. 

3. Acknowledge your uncertainty

I may be a psychologist but I’m not interested in merely going “feelings, feelings, feelings” till the cows come home. 

What I know, however, is that we are extremely good at lying to ourselves about how we feel, and then it comes to bite us back with a vengeance. 

Picture someone you know who goes “No, I’m okay” when they’ve gone through something devastating. They mantra it away, smile, and act tough. Except that you can’t lie to yourself. This goes on and on and on, until they explode. In something impulsive, like a drinking or shopping binge, or a breakdown. And then they go, “This is what happens when I trust my feelings”. 

Wrong. This is what happens when you don’t let your feelings work with your mind. And you swing into impulsive behaviours or your body decides it’s time to force you to change something. 

Here’s the deal. 

Your feelings are not negative. It’s okay to feel anger, sadness, bitterness, frustration, jealousy, whatever.

Because we evolved emotions to guide us about what needs to change in ourselves and in the situation. 

For instance, depression is an evolutionary mechanism to signal to us to withdraw, so we can conserve energy and recharge, before going back to the (literal or metaphorical) arena. Otherwise, we’d die. Evolution wants us to survive; it’s not perfect, so it does its best in its primitive way.

And when we pretend we’re not feeling ‘not okay’, that’s when we take these negative feelings too far. And then take us over, becoming parts of our identity. So from “I’m feeling depressed”, you become a depressed person. 

The gist is, emotions are intel. Data. What you need to win any war.

People who love certainty— myself include— tend to pretend they don’t. Because it sounds stupid or babyish. We should all be able to ad lib on demand, right? And then if we’re already good at that, then it sounds stupid to love certainty, right?

Except, our psychological safety drivers are what they are. So work with them, and they work for you.

Fighting with yourself and how you’re wired, simply incinerates energy, and makes you more uncertain about who you are.

And a very easy way to milk your love for certainty? 

Acknowledge the complexity of what you’re experiencing. The thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.

It’s a cocktail, and so what if you’re feeling 50% upset, 30% relieved and 20% jealous?

Like Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes”. 

Being certain about acknowledging what’s going on means you’re not enslaved by it. 

4. Checklists

As a Type A++++ person, I love checklists. But I make sure I’m not consumed by them, so they’re used sparingly when I’m doing something different, building a new habit, or to ensure I’ve ticked all the boxes off a key project. 

Checklists are fabulous for instilling a sense of certainty. 

The simplest way is to invest five minutes, and I promise you this will buy you back exponentially more sanity and time. You’ll thrive, and you’ll love your energy levels. 

Break down this undertaking into micro-steps, and then make a checklist out of them. 

You can chunk these checklist items according to stage, time required, or similarity. 

This way, you free up energy in your brain because the list looks easy-peasy rather than “OMFG 1 zillion items, I’m so overwhelmed, let me scroll instagram first”.

5. Spreadsheets

“This is something you can tell me, but you shouldn’t tell anyone else”, my friend laughs.

Because I spreadsheet my entire pantry.

For me, it makes perfect sense, takes very little time, and guarantees efficiency. Here’s why. I cook alot, from Mediterranean to Chinese to Persian cuisine. I have 20 types of salt, and 5 types of olive oil; and I use them all. And I make my own pasta. 

Back in the day, I’d find that I ran out of turmeric, and then dug up 3 bags of herbs de Provence. That sucks. Especially when you’re a student trying to save money. So I spent an hour listing, classifying and spreadsheeting everything. These days, I know what I have, which I have extra supplies of, and what’s running low. When I’m out, I simply consult my spreadsheet. 

I have a sense of control over my pantry, because I want that sense of control over my pantry. Without said spreadsheet, I do not feel control. 

Now, I have clothes for every single occasion and about 50 pairs of shoes. I don’t care about knowing what exactly I have, and I already feel a sense of control with my current wardrobe setup. So, I have zero need to spreadsheet that.

In contrast, when I gave myself three months to pack up a decade of my British life to ship home, I used spreadsheets. 15 months after moving, I know what’s in what box. That’s efficient when I need to retrieve something. 

Bottomline: You decide what you need to spreadsheet. 

6. Flowcharts

And then there are complex situations that are new to you, or which you’re learning to navigate.

You know that if you go in blind, you’ll feel lost, and you can’t perform.

Here’s where the flowchart helps. 

A simple one would be, “If yes, do/say/ask ___”, “If no, do/say/ask ____”.

Flowcharts can be used in situations like negotiating a promotion and pay rise, pitching a project, or how you’re going to live/work/play with someone.

7. Allow yourself some uncertainty

I see certainty as the bedrock for spontaneity. 

If I’m certain that I know what to say, how to play by ear, and about who I am, then I can happily play.

I can explore and indulge in life, whilst trusting myself to make wise decisions and stay grounded. 

As compared to feeling uncertain, second-guessing myself, and then making impulsive decisions where I have to clean up my messes over and over again.

Once I have that certainty, then uncertainty can be fun. 

Sometimes, it’s a matter of reframing.

Like, if I don’t like this dish, then the worst that’s happened is I spent $20 to find out I hate it. But I’d still have enjoyed something else, and the company. As compared to obsessing over that one thing that went ‘wrong’.

At other times, it’s a matter of experimenting. 

Such as, varying what you’ll say during a speech, rather than memorising it word-for-word. Because you already know the gist. 

Maybe it’s not a big speech per se, but a simple presentation with a trusted team. 

Or maybe you’ll decide you’ll wing it in a new networking context, because you have had enough practise, you can shake things up a little. 

Start with low-stakes environments. That will teach you to be certain in your uncertainty, and that might be the best gift of all.

Indeed, I love certainty if possible. But I no longer feel anxious in situations that are ambiguous, nor do I second guess myself any longer. In fact, 90% of the external situations that I required certainty in, I no longer think about them– I simply roll my sleeves and get going, feeling confident. This is because I trust myself and my abilities, after experimenting with enough uncertainty.

And this is what it can be like for you. To ride the waves of life, and to taste the richness it can potentially gift you, because you’ve built strong enough bedrocks in yourself. 

Want to make your need for certainty work for you? Book your free Chemistry Call here.