Written by therapist Pete Marlow
College is a time when students are told they need to determine what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The problem is, there is a big world out there with lots of opportunities, and many students aren’t quite sure yet what they want to do after school. Not to mention, the idea of choosing one area of focus for the rest of your life can create enough stress to cause a panic attack. If you’re a student considering changing your major, you aren’t alone. According to the Department of Education, 30% of students enrolled in a bachelor’s or associate’s degree program have changed their major at least once within three years of starting school and about 1 in 10 have switched their major multiple times.
Concerns Related To Switching Your Major
While switching your major is more common than expected, there are some anxiety-inducing concerns that are likely swirling in your head. There is the concern of potentially having to start over in a new major, and having to take additional classes to pursue your new major that could mean you are in school longer than you expected. Related to this are potential financial concerns that extra semesters in school could cause. The main concern I would like to focus on in this post is the uncertainty that comes with switching majors.
“What if I switch majors and don’t feel any more interested than the major I’m leaving? Or what if I like it even less?”
This question is one that no doubt has crossed your mind. It’s the question of, “Can we be absolutely certain that our decisions will work out for the best?” And this question is one you will face on into adulthood about many different topics both personal and professional. So how do we cope with uncertainty?
Where Does Intolerance of Uncertainty Come From?
I won’t lie. If you’re someone who struggles with uncertainty, the ability to accept it takes work. You may see it as a benefit to consider every possible outcome for a situation. As a way of “preparing for the worst” and thinking, “maybe I can predict the future and not have any surprises.” However, this just replaces the feeling of uncertainty with anxiety. The worrying reduces your feelings of uncertainty and makes you feel like you have more control. The operative word there is “feel” like you have more control. But does worrying really make a less than favorable outcome more likely?
I once heard a comedian tell a story where he told a friend he was taking a flight and jokingly said, “I hope my plane doesn’t crash.” And his friend’s response was, “Don’t say that! What if it actually happens?” And the comedian rightly pointed out to his friend that he can’t actually make his plane crash by just speaking the words. Then he talked about how it would be great if he did have the power to speak things into existence. The thought of what if that were possible probably just gave people who struggle with uncertainty some level of joy just thinking about it. This is obviously not a skill anyone possesses. Uncertainty is just a part of life and we have to learn to accept it. The sense of false certainty is not enough to counterbalance all of the anxiety you cause yourself.
Questioning Your Intolerance of Uncertainty
The first step towards accepting uncertainty is to challenge those thoughts you have that your worrying can bring you certainty. This can be done by asking yourself:
- What has been helpful about my requiring certainty in life to this point?
- What have been the disadvantages?
- Do I tend to assume something bad will happen if I feel uncertain? What is the likelihood that bad things will happen? Could something good or neutral be just as likely of an outcome?
- What are some uncertainties in my life right now that I can live with? Can I translate whatever I do with these uncertainties into situations where I have difficulties handling uncertainty?
Finally Accepting Uncertainty
When it comes down to it, we can either learn to accept uncertainty, or continue dealing with the anxiety that comes from worrying about uncertainty and trying to control outcomes. Training your mind to accept uncertainty will take some time and practice. Here are some tips that may help you embrace uncertainty in the moment:
Awareness: Be aware of when you want to be certain about something. It’s okay to notice these thoughts exist and the feelings that arise from them.
Observe without judgment: Continue to observe these thoughts and feelings as they come up. Use mindful breathing to regulate your nervous system and let your body know it isn’t in danger, even though you may feel anxious.
Watch the thoughts and feelings leave: Your thoughts and feelings for certainty will leave, just like all thoughts and feelings do. It could be helpful to remind yourself of uncertainty being just a part of life.
Shift attention to the present moment: When you’re struggling to accept uncertainty, your mind is future-oriented, so it’s important to shift your focus from the future to the present moment by focusing on your breathing and your five senses.
If you’re switching majors, it’s great to do research on what options are available to you, what careers you could pursue with that degree, what your professional values are, etc. But ultimately, remember that you’ll never have total certainty.
If you are someone who is struggling with anxiety caused by the inability to accept uncertainty, a counselor can help you process the difficult emotions that arise due to your uncertainty and look at how you may want to proceed. Counseling can help you come to terms with not having complete control and certainty. Reach out to us here at Optimum Joy today and set up an appointment!