“I don’t want it all to be pretty–it’s a combination of loss and gain. Things are born, live and hang in limbo. That’s what life’s about…” Cornelia Parker
Each had brain scans this past week. These friends of mine, neither of whom live near me, lay motionless as machines whirred by, creating images which will hopefully hold answers. But not for days. Now they wait. I wait with them. It’s not easy.
This weekend a client called me while I was out for a run. My office is in the process of filing for the divorce. S/he had the “conversation” with the spouse. And now waits. What will the reaction be? Will they be able to peaceably, reasonably work through parenting issues? Will they deplete their resources battling over property?
An interesting study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology evaluated 50 people who took the California Bar exam.[i]There is a 4-month waiting period between taking the exam and getting results. And I can tell you, the wait is miserable. Limbo always is.
What influences how we wait?
In this study, researchers looked at the tendency to engage in rumination—thinking repeatedly about the source of anxiety and worrying about the outcome.
And they also looked at tolerance for uncertainty and the need for closure, which reflects how much people like to be done with things.
Finally, two other personality characteristics were important: defensive pessimism—assuming the worst case while waiting, and dispositional optimism—assuming things will work out well in the end.
So those who weathered the wait well in the study spent less time bracing themselves for bad news. They also spent more time trying to be optimistic and had high levels of hope that the outcome would be positive.
What does all this mean?
First, think about how you deal with waiting for news and reflect on your tolerance for uncertainty and the need for closure. It’s a period of uncertainty by definition. Can that be okay for a bit? Can you rest knowing that closure will come and you’ll have direction and clarity? Just the act of taking one’s need for certainty off the shelf and looking at it objectively can reduce its power over you.
Second, while you wait, consider rebalancing your natural tendencies toward optimism and pessimism. The more optimistic and less pessimistic your outlook, the better you cope with waiting for news. When you find yourself considering only the worst—you will definitely have incurable brain cancer or your divorce will be the worst in history—consider that there are other, more optimistic possibilities. Perhaps you caught a disease early which will be easily treated. Perhaps your spouse will decide to divorce without war. Ruminate on those possibilities when you’re able. If that’s just too difficult, try to avoid ruminating about any outcome or spending time preparing yourself for the worst. Those behaviors are associated with a high level of anxiety and all its associated costs.
Third, if you struggle to not think about outcomes, researchers recommend finding ways to think about other things. After all, you can’t affect the outcome while you are waiting, so instead of spending too much time worrying about it, think about other things. Distractions in this instance can be positive. Focus on other aspects of your life. Exercise, play a musical instrument, go out with friends. Do things that are unrelated to the news for which you wait.
My own strategy?
The day after I took the bar exam, I hopped a plane for a vacation in the Caribbean! Not realistic most days I realize. I can’t do that while waiting for my client’s spouse’s response or my friends’ MRI results. So more realistically, my go-to strategy is listening to engrossing books on audible.com which engage the mind and divert my attention.
All that said, when the time for getting the news is very close, researchers acknowledge it will be hard to avoid thinking about it. Give yourself at least a little time planning for what you would do if things do not go well. While an outline of a plan for what you will do if you get bad news can be useful, there is no point in starting that planning process too early.
Wishing you wisdom,
[i]Sweeny, K., & Andrews, S. E. (2014). Mapping individual differences in the experience of a waiting period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(6), 1015-1030.