Surviving In The Unknown

Whether by choice or from being pushed, we all find ourselves in unknown territory at times – perhaps due to the end of a significant job / relationship or even questioning your life purpose. Here’s how to survive.

We human beings are unique in our ability to imagine the future. The rest of the animal kingdom occupy themselves with matters of shorter-term survival, such as the coming winter. However us homo sapiens are dreaming of how delightful retirement will be in 30 years.

Coupled with our ability to imagine the future, we have developed the ability to plan and take steps to create or manifest the things we want from our Imaginary Future.

But at times, Reality, being the non-accomodating being it is, rudely blows in and lays waste to our carefully laid plans and Imaginary Future.

Like when my future career as a world famous pop singer was ruined by the reality of my lack of actual singing talent.

Or we ourselves come to realize that this Imaginary Future is no longer one we really want.

Honestly, being a world famous singer on tour all the time would have been soo tiring!

When our plans are scattered to the wind, we find ourselves thrust into unknown territory. We are unable to progress with our prior desirable Imaginary Future, but we cannot yet see a reliable, equally desirable alternative future. This can be terrifying.

Examples of these times include:

  • Ending a job
  • Deciding to change what you do for a living
  • Ending a long-term relationship
  • Loss of faith, spiritual quest, questioning your life purpose

Battling In The Unknown: How to Survive

You’ve entered into the territory of the Unknown and it’s unclear how long you’ll be here for. Deep breath. You can do this.

Here are the six key challenges you’ll face in your journey, and some strategies for dealing with them.

(1) The Twin Beasts of Anxiety and Self Doubt

Identifying features:

Often working together as a pair, these two thrive in the Unknown, feeding off uncertainty.

Anxiety will slither up and over you, postulating on the possible future outcomes, all of them bleak.

Shortly you are both joined by Self Doubt, who’s been circling overhead, but now swoops down to land nearby. Self Doubt gets you wondering if you’re really capable of surviving this:

How to survive:

In the Unknown you are surrounded by uncertainty and it is natural to encounter both anxiety and self-doubt. In the context of this Survivor’s Guide, the most important thing is to keep going.

Even if you can’t be sure you’re moving forward, don’t stop. The only way to resolve the uncertainty is to continue.

One of the worst consequences of self-doubt is when it prevents you from trying. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: not trying means you definitely won’t succeed and you’ll also doubt yourself even more.

When you feel like giving up, ask yourself if you’d later regret doing so. One of the most common “end of life” regrets is not having had the courage to live a life true to oneself. Have the courage to continue, despite the doubt and uncertainty.

Remember: you’ll only fail when you stop trying.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Winston Churchill

(2) Loss of Identity

Identifying features:

It is likely you felt the loss of a large part of your identity upon entering the Unknown – many of us feel defined through our work, major relationships and home environment.

And the more time spent in the Unknown, the further the wearing down of your identity. You may find yourself wondering: just who or what will be left if you ever find your way out?

How to survive:

It can be incredibly disconcerting to lose what feels like a defining feature of your identity.

Our identities

For the purpose of this blog, we’re going to differentiate between the external and internal parts of our identity.

  • “External Identity”: external factors which we consider an important part of who we are – career, relationships, friendships, social status, community etc.
  • Inner Identity: your inner self – including your desires, personality, expectations, values, opinions, skills, experience and outlook towards life.

Both parts of our identities interrelate with each other.

We often use our Inner Identity to manifest or build our External Identity. For example, a career or major relationship is built upon our experience, personality, values, goals and skills.

But in turn, these external factors influence and develop our Inner Identity. For example what you learn or experience as a result of having a career or relationship will influence your values, skills, outlook etc. Further, these external factors often provide validation to our Inner Identity.

Validation of Ourselves

We often receive an enormous amount of validation from the external factors in our lives.

Our careers can make us feel productive and successful. Our relationships or communities can make us feel loved and wanted.

In losing one or more of these external factors, we can be left struggling not only with loss and how to define ourselves, but also with feelings of unworthiness and shame.

The loss of a key part of our External Identity leaves us feeling exposed and vulnerable. Without this external manifestation, we may no longer be sure of our own self worth.

Further, paradoxically, often external factors that appear to be validating from the outside can actually be detrimental to our self esteem.

For example a highly paid job that looks great on your CV, but comes with a boss who constantly criticises you. Or working in a competitive environment where others undermine you. Likewise, a relationship that seems great from the outside, but includes a partner that does not treat you well.

We may survive a long time through the “validation” that external factors provide. But when we lose a key external factor, we can be left with the mess of an Inner Identity that has very little self-esteem.

All of which makes battling in the Unknown even harder.

Evolution of identity

Change is a part of life. As difficult as it is, it is important to accept that your External Identity (jobs, relationships etc) will and should evolve over time. And although we can influence our External Identity, we cannot control its evolution.

We can be good at our jobs and still lose them. Likewise with relationships.

Our Inner Identities too will change over time. However, we have the power to decide how we wish to define our inner selves.

When we lose a major piece of our Outer Identity it is an opportunity to reevaluate our underlying values and priorities.

For example, my career in finance reflects the part of my identity that enjoys analysis and investment. Upon taking a career break, I had the opportunity to prioritise the development of other abilities – including learning a language and developing my ability to write.

Furthermore, when the loss of our Outer Identity reveals deficits in our Inner Identity, this too is a chance for evolution.

For example, if you realize that you have very low self-esteem that was being covered up (or caused) by a job or partner that you no longer have, being in the Unknown represents time you can spend on healing and building this part of your inner self. It is an opportunity to recognize that true self esteem does not come from others or from what you do. It comes from accepting who you are.

It is also time you can spend reflecting on how you wish to replace that missing piece of your External Identity. Do you want to search for a similar job or partner? Or is it now time to make a change?

Defining yourself with others

Defining ourselves through external factors is often an easier way to answer the question of “Who am I?”. We hold titles such as “director / architect / spouse / parent etc.”.

It is important to remember that although we may lose or change these “titles”, the underlying skills, experience and values (which were reflected in your career or role as a partner etc.) remain.

Your value as that person is unchanged, regardless of whether the title does.

However, without external titles, it can be difficult to define yourself with others. You may need to find a new way to introduce yourself at a party.

My favorite one is, “Happily unemployed, purposefully single and citizen of the world, you?“.

Impact on social circles

Losing or changing parts of our identity often impacts our relationships with others.

With changes in your External Identity and as you re-evaluate your Inner Identity, you may find parts of your social circle are no longer a good fit for you. Or parts of your social circle suddenly feel that you’re not a good fit for them.

Discovering you have lost your social circle can be really hard. As if it wasn’t enough being lost in the Unknown, you are now lost and friendless.

But it’s ok. Your social circle should be one that supports and welcomes you as you are. If it turns out instead to be conditional upon a piece of your identity which you no longer have (or no longer want), it’s best to seek change.

Have faith. As you free up space in your social life and rebuild your identity, you will find new people to fill any gaps.

“Be who you are and say what you feel. Because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Dr Seuss

(3) Slings & Arrows of Criticism

Identifying features:

Criticism can come in many different forms and from genuinely well-meaning sources (friends, family) which makes it even harder to handle.

It can range from a direct “I think you’re making a mistake.” to the more insidious, unspoken disapproval, sensed perhaps from a chill in the conversation or the sense that others are talking about you when you’re not around.

You might not even notice you’ve been hit, just feel a vague sense of discomfit, and later growing self-doubt.

Even a simple lack of support from someone who should be supportive can be a blow.

How to survive:

Good” vs “Bad” Criticism

As difficult as it is to hear, we shouldn’t reject criticism simply on the basis that it is something negative about ourselves.

If the criticism is constructive, particularly if it comes from someone you trust, it should be considered. It could be that they are seeing something that you are not:

OH, maybe taking 4 hours lunch breaks IS the reason I keep losing my job!”

However criticism that is non-constructive and / or unnecessarily repetitive is not helpful. Additionally, non-constructive criticism is more a reflection of the speaker and their own problems and issues, which they are projecting onto you.

You have enough to deal with in the Unknown – don’t let other people dump their doubts, fears and insecurities on you. That is not your load to carry.

Dealing with the “bad” criticism

It is best to avoid responding in a confrontational manner – this just takes up more of your energy, and often simply generates further conflict as people become defensive to protect their own egos.

Instead, do not retreat from setting boundaries around the conversations. This includes asking that the topic not be discussed further and being firm about your right to make your own choices.

It is your right to choose which conversations you wish to participate in.

Further, do not let criticism detract from your journey. It is easy to judge from the sidelines (as all you couch experts on Sunday football know), but you’re the one with the real vested interest in the outcome. Trust in yourself.

“Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your inner voice.”

Steve Jobs

(4) The Vultures of Misfortune

Identifying features:

These are people that at the faintest whiff of potentially bad news can barely conceal the eagerness to flock closer, attracted by the sweet scent of someone else’s misfortune. They want to discuss how bad your situation is, whilst cawking pitying comments and harbingers of doom.

How to survive:

The less you respond the better, don’t provide more material to work with. Smile sweetly, nod, wipe a tear, and change subject as soon as possible. And then move on, they’re not bad people and it is often not intentional, they just get really caught up discussing the misfortune of others.

You may also face a similar challenge from people that come from a very well meaning place and who care about you – the Worry Warts. They may not be attracted to misfortunate but they cannot help worrying about you and imagining the worst (parents can be good at this).

As Worry Warts genuinely care about you, listening respectfully is appropriate. Ask them what experiences they have had such that they might worry and what advice they have to offer. Try not to respond dismissively or defensively – instead calmly and objectively give them the opportunity to be heard.

However, likely there will be a point at which you have already listened to everything and cannot dispel all the possible doomsday scenarios. In this case you need to lovingly but firmly establish appropriate boundaries for discussing the topic. Their concern may come from a good place, but you can be clear that it is your life and your decision.*

If you are feeling guilty about setting boundaries, keep in your mind that by unloading their fear and worries on you, they are not helping you. Even if they do not mean to, they are making your situation harder by obliging you to attend to their needs instead of your own.

It is not your responsibility to continually soothe and dispel the concerns of those around you.

* I am assuming that this blog is being read by those of a legal age. If not – listen to your parents!

(5) Sirens Crooning of Easy Exits

Identifying features:

Akin to sirens luring unassuming sailors to their doom, this refers to the multitude of generally well intentioned, sometimes tempting, but often unhelpful advice on how to find your way out of the Unknown.

Following all this advice is a bit like trying to exit an Ikea early by deviating from the arrowed path:

Wait, now I’m in the Dining section, AGAIN?! How did that happen?!”

You shortly realize you’re even more lost, as well as exhausted and unable to stop thinking of the Ikea meatballs. You’re also starting to worry that you’ll end up wandering in the Unknown the rest of your life.

How to survive:

Although getting advice can be helpful, never feel obligated to take the advice of others, as tempting as the advice may sound or despite any unintended pressure others may put on you.

What works for others does not mean it will work for you, this is your journey and only you can decide on the path that is right for you.

“No-one can save us and no-one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”


(6) Fog of Loneliness and Despair

Identifying features:

As every San Franciscan knows, fog can roll in without warning and settle in for hours, days, weeks, or months. Thick. Grey. Damp. Overwhelming.

You can’t see the way forward, nor how far you’ve come, nor can you remember a better time. You start to feel sadness, loneliness and despair.

How to survive:

Seek light and warmth in whatever form you can find it, whether through friends, art, music, food or nature. Be kind to yourself and take breaks – this is not a luxury but a necessity when you are battling in the Unknown.

Take whatever amount of time that you need to grieve. Whatever loss propelled you into the Unknown may need time to be processed and mourned before you move onto the next chapter.

Stay present – as difficult as this time is, avoid the temptation to “escape” through activities such as excessive drinking, unnecessary busy-ness etc. In the Unknown, it is important to keep a clear mind, be reflective and stay attuned to your intuition. This will be difficult if you are constantly overly busy and / or hungover.

Practice gratitude – try not to focus just on the bad. Remind yourself of things you have in your life to be grateful for (friends, family, health etc).

Seek support – talk to supportive friends and family. Seek advice from professionals, books etc. There is a wealth of shared experience and help available, if you are willing to ask for it.

Too often we believe we can survive our battles alone and through either pride, shame, or stubbornness, we don’t ask for help. We should.

The greatest battles are not won alone. Allow yourself to be helped, and in turn be someone that is available to help someone in winning their own battle.

Finding Your Way Home

Being in the Unknown is exhausting, the battles are real and sometimes feel never-ending. Breath, take breaks, be kind to yourself.

Seek help – whatever it is that you are searching for (job, relationship, life purpose), there is advice and help out there. You do not need to and should not do this all alone.

It’s also important to allow for for the fact that it may take time. As much as you want to shortcut your way into the sunny land of Greater Certainty, it’s often not possible.

Further, sometimes the journey as difficult as it is, is what you need in order to find that next, potentially amazing, chapter of your life. 💛

“Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters of our lives won’t have a title until much later.”

Bob Goff

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