11th June, 2024

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

We all have moments in life when we feel disorientated and unsure where to go next. Maybe there’s a sense of shame for not knowing the answer. But the truth is it’s OK not to know; it’s OK to live in uncertainty, and “wait and see” is a viable option.

When we notice and then challenge our left-brain interpreter – the bit of our brain that’s constantly trying to piece together a narrative – we can start to make clearer decisions. And instead of rushing to a solution, we can identify the next best action, even if it’s as simple as going to bed or getting some exercise.

If we rush in, we can end up solving the wrong problem or getting stressed over not being able to solve something that doesn’t have an immediate solution. We might even ignore our own emotions, suppressing the feelings that are actually trying to guide us.

In this quick dip episode, Rachel helps us take a pause, reflect, and embrace the uncertainty in our lives.

Is there an area of your life that’s in flux? What would be the next best action to take right now? Remember, “wait and see”, “go to bed”, or “have a cup of tea” are all good answers!

Show links

Reasons to listen

  • To learn strategies for dealing with uncertainty and not having immediate solutions to problems
  • To understand how the left-brain interpreter can influence our perception of problems
  • To identify your next best action when dealing with issues, especially those causing discomfort or stress

Episode highlights


Shifting the furniture around


Beware the left-brain interpreter


Stay within your zone of power


What’s your next best action?


It’s not forever


Common mistakes we make

Episode transcript

[00:00:00] Rachel: Last year on our You Are Not a Frog retreat in Devon, we had a bunch of amazing, amazing people, some of whom knew that they needed to make a really big change in their life, make a big shift, but didn’t quite know how to do it or what to do. And we held a workshop about how to design a life you’ll love, what to do with your career, and I asked people, what was the biggest thing, holding them back. And somebody shared that they really didn’t know what the next step was, that it was the first time in their life where they didn’t know what to do. And that they felt really ashamed about that. If thought that as a doctor, they should have all the answers, particularly answers about themselves.

[00:00:40] I know how this person felt because I’ve been there myself. I’ve been that, and I’m thinking of quite recently, even just a few months ago, where things that happened. A close friend of mine died. Where, where, several things had happened, quite significant things in my life. My whole worldview has shifted recently. Work has been changing, what I’m doing is shifting a bit, and I was feeling a bit discombobulated. And I was talking to my coach who’s a very incredibly insightful person. And he said to me, I was just talking about how I felt. And I was annoyed that I couldn’t put my finger on it, and that felt really uncomfortable. And he said to me, Rachel, you know, sometimes it’s okay not to know. Sometimes it’s okay not knowing.

[00:01:31] Now the problem is, is doctors. Oh, uncertainty is awful. And we can go from anxiety about uncertainty or uncomfortableness and discombobulation, which was what I was feeling, to actually feeling ashamed of ourselves and beating ourselves up about the fact that we don’t know the solution. But some problems just don’t have a solution or certainly don’t have an obvious. Immediate solution.

[00:01:55] And so we get quite upset when we can’t solve these things. And we get really, really stuck. Now the problem with believing that every problem has a solution. I just need to puzzle it out, is that often we just race forward and we end up solving the wrong problem. And then we finished the soul something, but we’re still feeling exactly the same and the original issue hasn’t gone away at all. And if we genuinely believe that we can solve and puzzle out everything, then we end up what the Buddhist call taking the second arrow. So not just having the problem in the first place, but feeling awful about ourselves for not being able to solve it, like my colleague was feeling. Causing even more distress and anxiety.

[00:02:37] So instead of viewing every issue as a problem that can be solved or every time you’re feeling uncomfortable, discombobulated thinking, right, there’s definitely something I can do about it, I think we need to get much more comfortable with uncertainty and with the not knowing. And actually have not knowing as a strategy.

[00:03:00] This is a You Are Not a Frog quick dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea so you can return to whatever else you’re up to. Feeling energized and inspired for more tools, tips, and insights to help you thrive at work. Don’t forget to subscribe to you are not a frog wherever you get your podcasts.

[00:03:26] Many of you will know, I’m a huge fan of Rob Bell and his podcast, the Robcast is well worth a listen. And in a recent episode, I think it’s called The Void, he was talking about what happens when you’re just feeling a bit empty and a bit low, and you’re not quite sure what’s wrong. And he describes it as shifting the furniture around. Things are moving. You don’t quite know where they’re going to end up, but you know that they’re moving.

[00:03:49] And I love that. Metaphor because we’ve got a. A slightly odd shaped sitting room and it’s been really hard to work out how we get the configuration of safers and chairs and bookshelves and the TV and where everybody’s going to sit, and I’ve tried all sorts of different furniture configurations. And sometimes I come up with something that looks really good and really works. And sometimes I have an idea. I think that is a brilliant idea, and then I do it and it just doesn’t look right, but all the time, I’m sort of shifting it and it’s not quite right, and I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with it.

[00:04:21] So this, this idea that sometimes this furniture is shifting for us has been really helpful for me, because. It means that I know what the problem is. The problem is maybe not the problem. It’s how I’m thinking about the problem. So this is all getting a bit meta.

[00:04:37] If I viewed the problem as what we’re doing is shifting the furniture, we’re trying different things, we don’t know where the furniture’s going to end up, but that’s fine because we’re not going to know until we’ve tried out and we’ve seen what it looks like, then maybe I’m going to be happier in the process. Maybe I’ll be comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing and with the uncertainty. And I think that will help me be calmer, less stressed, more relaxed about things and just able to see how things unfold.

[00:05:05] It would also help me embrace those difficult emotions. ‘Cause I don’t know about you, but if I’m feeling sad or upset or annoyed, I tend to squash it down. I think that might be a doctor thing, things that I’ve learned from when I was little, that you don’t really express a lot of emotional, it’s really bad to express anxiety or worry or anger about things, because those are bad emotions and it must be pressed down and not let express, because we can actually solve it, we can actually do something to make us less angry, or we can do something to, to solve the stress and anxiety, we can solve that problem ourselves. And so I’m not really very used to sitting with those difficult emotions and certainly expressing them. It feels really difficult.

[00:05:43] I think this idea of furniture shifting around and it being okay to feel and express those emotions while it’s happening. It’s really helpful to. I hope it’s going to help some of you guys as well.

[00:05:54] So, how do we do this? How do we actually start to tolerate the moving of the furniture? I think there’s a few things that, that we can do that are helpful.

[00:06:02] Firstly it’s to be aware of the left brain interpreter. Now I love this concept. I’ve read about it very recently. And this is the concept that our left brain is constantly trying to interpret stuff around us. That’s our very logical side of the brain. I mean, the right brain thinks much more creatively and in fact, side note, probably one of the reasons I find the metaphor of moving furniture around really speaks to the situation is because it’s a creative thing. It’s a right brain thing. It’s helping me connect my emotions and my thoughts with, with images. So talking metaphors could be really helpful way of exploring some of these issues that we’ve got.

[00:06:34] Anyway, the left brain interpreter. When it picks up that something’s wrong will look around for why. Now sometimes there’s an obvious solution. Like if I’m allergic to bees and there’s a bee buzzing around the room, I’m going to have my threat detection system on that’s going to be saying get away from the bee, there’s a bee, you don’t want it to sting you. But if I’m feeling anxious like that, but there’s no bee in the room and I can’t really find a reason, then the left brain interpreter will just start making it up. And it will make it up in a way that’s going to keep me safe, not happy though.

[00:07:05] So it’ll start to say, well, I’m feeling really anxious that maybe that person’s being a complete arse about something, or maybe he dissed you, or maybe there’s something you haven’t done quite right, or did they look at you a little bit wrong or that person’s having a difficult time. Are you sure that wasn’t you, that they’re annoyed? at And so we start to put stories on everything that’s happened, just so that we can explain it.

[00:07:25] Now sometimes we’re right A lot of the times we’re completely wrong. And you’ve heard me say this before, but the evidence says that we are incredibly bad at mind reading and we actually mind read the people that we know and love the worst of anybody. So the closer you are to someone, the worse, your mind reading is. So just bear that in mind.

[00:07:45] And the other thing, the left brain and particularly the Michela starts doing is questioning and saying, well, what if, what if, what if this happens? And, uh, protecting our thousands of the future. So recognizing you’ve got this left brain in separate to that that might not be right, that might not be right, and probably actually isn’t right. And we’re trying to put a narrative onto something that is actually unknown. Recognizing that with doing that and go, actually, let’s just stop, and the truth of the situation here is that I don’t know what’s wrong. There’s stuff being shifted around and I’m not going to know about the right solution until we arrive at it. That’s been very helpful for me. And instead of thinking, but what if this happens? What if that happens? Thinking, well, what if it doesn’t happen? What if not? So a little bit of a different spin on it. So recognize that left brain interpreter and question it. I think it would be the first thing.

[00:08:35] The second thing is when you were in a furniture, moving situation is just to stick with what’s in your zone of power. So I talk about this all the time. I make no apology for that. It’s a simple circle on a piece of paper. What’s inside the circle. It’s in your control. What’s outside the circle is outside of your control.

[00:08:50] So in any discombobulating situation, there’ll be stuff that’s outside your control and stuff that’s inside your control. Do not confuse the two. And make sure that’s stuff that’s outside your control you just accept because that’s the only thing you can do. Well, you could get stressed about it, but that’s not productive either.

[00:09:07] So, accept the stuff outside your sign of parenting actually bought is in my phone of power here right now? And it doesn’t mean rushing to some solution that might not be right. Things that are in your zone of power are holding on, waiting, having patients. Wait and see is a strategy. So waiting and not having the answer and acknowledging that is in your zone of power. So in a weird way, you feel more powerful when you’ve acknowledged that waiting and seeing, ’cause I can’t do anything now is the strategy. And if you’re a GP or any type of healthcare professional actually, you’ll know that wait and see is, is a treatment isn’t it yet? We don’t know if someone’s symptoms are going to get worse and we’re going to have to really deal with them, or if they’re just going to get better by themselves. Time is a healer. Time reveal stuff to us. We can’t speed up time, obviously. So waiting and thing is sometimes the only strategy that you have.

[00:10:01] The other thing you can do by using the zone of power is just thinking about what your next best action is. So you might not have the answer to this, but you might know that the next best action. Is to do this.

[00:10:12] So the other night I was feeling really annoyed, actually about some things that were going on and I’d got myself into a bit of a state and just everything seemed to be dark, and I was tired and not very well, and my left brain interpreter, honestly was having a field day telling me well it’s cause this person cause it’s that and everything’s going to go wrong and why don’t you just stop doing this and talk to them about that?

[00:10:34] And I just stopped myself and thought I’m not sure my interpretation of events here is quite right. What’s my next best action? And it turned out. My next best action was going to bed. But this sounds really stupid. Honestly, this is a sort of, um, cycle we get ourselves in, and particular when we’re tired, we think the next best action is to solve it straight away, but often it’s go to bed, have a rest, take a day off, have something to eat. Often makes things much much better. And you know what? The next day I felt an awful lot better.

[00:11:06] Something happens today that made me really annoyed and, um, I was just in the middle of dealing with it. And I thought, you know what? I can feel this sort of pent up energy here. And something that happened earlier was that I tried to go to the gym, but all the roads were shut so I’d completely missed my exercise class so had to come home. And I was feeling really irritated. And then thought, what is the next best action here? I thought, you know what? I just needed to do some exercise. So I did. I got in the air go and do some stretches. And, you know what? Things looks so different an hour later. So just a quick side note about your state, if you’re hungry, angry, late or tired, just do something about that. But also don’t let that left brain interpreter hijack what’s actually going on for you. Work out what your next best action is in order to get your state better or in order to sort of question that interpreter.

[00:11:56] And then for me, another strategy is thinking well, okay. I’m moving this bit of furniture over here, but that doesn’t have to be permanent. Why don’t we try this solution? We’re not committing to forever. And there’s actually been a lot of literature about this coming out recently. Adam Grant has written a book called Think Again, and there’s lots of stuff around how the sensible thing, the wise thing to do in many, many situations is to rethink. Rethink as data comes up. Rethink our interpretations.

[00:12:24] And now we’ve started to do that in medicine haven’t we, as new evidence comes out about things that we thought were absolutely set in stone, we rethought how we treat people. We need to do that with our lives as well. You know, just get your faded decision once doesn’t mean you can’t get back on it or change it. Just doing something for a little bit of time thinking, well, I’ll try this for a bit, it’s not permanent. It doesn’t need to be forever. That can be really helpful because then you’re thinking right, I’m doing this for now, until something better opens up or a better avenue or it just, uh, I get the answer coming to me.

[00:13:00] So beware your left brain interpreter. Recognize when it’s catastrophizing and putting all sorts of interpretations and stuff. That’s just not there. Stay in your zone of power and realize that wait and see is a strategy, and it’s a powerful strategy. Work out what your next best action is going to be, and it could just be as simple as going to bed or getting some exercise. And realize that these things don’t have to be permanent. The furniture will move. It will probably move again in the future. And it’s not always your job to figure it out. Sitting with the uncertain is a skill, and it’s also something that will stand send you in really good stead.

[00:13:39] Now here’s what we do get wrong about this. Sometimes we ignore things that we actually know what to do, but we think we don’t all, when I’m uncertain, because it’s just too hard. Like say, if you’re working with a colleague, they’re really not pulling their weight and actually they’re in the wrong role and you know you need to have a chat with them, or go down some performance management processes, but it’s just too difficult, sometimes we say, oh, I don’t really know what to do, let’s just wait and see when actually you’re just, it needs sorting out and you haven’t had the courage to do it. So don’t make the mistake of ignoring the urgent stuff that needs doing, just because it feels too difficult.

[00:14:14] The other mistake we make is actually not noticing when we’re going through this. As I mentioned before, we often suppress our emotions and we don’t like talking about it. We don’t like acknowledging what’s actually going on because we feel it makes us seem weak or somehow bad for feeling angry or upset about something. So don’t ignore the emotions that you’re getting.

[00:14:33] And the final mistake we make is that we just want everything sorted so quickly, because that’s what we’ve been used to in are working lives. Well, but when it comes to these personal issues, the furniture moving around in your life in whatever way, shape or form these, things take time. They don’t get sorted immediately.

[00:14:50] So if the furniture is currently shifting for you, know that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, that wait and see is a strategy, and that the best thing you can do is thanks yourself what is my next best action whilst I wait to see what pans out?