Picture yourself driving along your daily route to your nearest theatre. You know every turn, every stoplight, and have become accustomed to the rhythm of this familiar journey. You are confident that you will reach the theatre before the show begins.
Suddenly, you encounter an unexpected detour sign in the middle of your path – the road you’ve always taken is temporarily closed for construction. Now, you must navigate a new route to reach your destination.
This unforeseen obstacle not only disrupts your routine but also challenges you to adapt to the change and find a new way forward.
Such is the course of our lives. We are often moving along familiar paths when unexpected obstacles or anomalies arise, throwing us off our well-planned routes. This post is trying to decode our human responses to these unexpected shifts and explore how they can shape our journey through life.
Navigating the Unforeseen: Our Brain’s Role
Humans are naturally inclined to seek stability and predictability in their environment. This inclination is rooted in our evolutionary history, where predictability equaled survival. We build our lives around familiar routines and predictable patterns, creating a cognitive map of our world that allows us to anticipate future events and plan accordingly.
However, when an unexpected obstacle appears, it not only halts our progress towards our goals but also presents us with a profound question: this obstacle wasn’t supposed to exist, so why does it?
Now, our brains must engage in a process of ‘cognitive updating,’ where they reconcile the new information with our existing worldview. This involves substantial mental work as our neural networks reconfigure to incorporate the unexpected data. Sounds challenging, right? That’s the idea!
Cognitive Dissonance: The Psychological Clash
When we meet the unexpected, it triggers a psychological clash. This clash, called cognitive dissonance, happens when we juggle opposing beliefs or ideas.
On one hand, we have our idea of how things should be, built from our routines and predictions. On the other hand, we face the real-life hurdle that stands in our path. To deal with this dissonance, we often change our beliefs and attitudes. In some cases, we might need to rethink our whole view of the world.
So, facing the unexpected isn’t just about breaking routine. It’s a major cognitive and psychological event that demands that we reshape our understanding of the world.
Unpacking Grandpa’s Survival Kit: The Modern-Day Predicament
Losing a job unexpectedly is similar to encountering a ferocious predator on our regular way home. 1000 years ago, that predator was an uncertainty for our forefathers; now it might be a layoff.
It is a disruption that throws off the steady rhythm of your life, bringing in its wake uncertainty, financial stress, and an understandable level of anxiety. To tackle this change effectively, cognitive flexibility – akin to what our ancestors exercised in the face of predators – becomes a crucial tool in our survival kit.
1. Embracing the Hard Truth
Start by acknowledging reality. You’ve lost your job. It’s a tough fact to digest, especially due to our innate ‘confirmation bias‘. We have a tendency to favour information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs or situations, and it is cognitively more comfortable to deny or downplay the shift. But to make any progress, accepting the truth is vital.
2. Shifting Perspectives through Cognitive Reframing
Next, reframe the situation. In cognitive psychology, reframing is a technique used to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning.
It involves actively constructing a new perspective. Instead of viewing the job loss as a disaster, see it as an opportunity for growth, a chance to explore new career paths, or a chance to gain new skills.
3. Divergent Thinking – Fostering Creative Solutions
Once you have reframed the situation, brainstorm potential solutions. In this phase, it’s crucial to exercise ‘divergent thinking,’ a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Consider different career options, alternative income sources, or even acquiring new skills or education. Consider any solution, no matter how outlandish it may seem initially.
This is where the decision-making and prioritisation tools that can be useful.
For example, the Eisenhower Matrix, one of my favourites. The matrix consists of four quadrants: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. Read more about it here.
4. Implementing Change Step by Step
Finally, it’s time to act. Implementation can feel daunting, especially after a job loss. However, it’s important to remember that progress often happens incrementally. Break down your chosen solution into manageable steps and tackle them one at a time. This approach, called ‘action planning’, can make a big task seem more approachable, and it has been scientifically proven to enhance goal achievement.
Throughout this process, it’s essential to maintain a self-compassionate perspective. Job loss can lead to feelings of self-doubt or criticism. However, research has shown that treating yourself with kindness in times of failure or difficulty can foster resilience and well-being.
Final Thoughts: Tackling Life’s Crises with Evolutionary Tactics
As we journey through life, navigating unexpected obstacles and tackling life’s crises, it’s fascinating to consider the neurological systems at play. Just as our ancestors used specific neurological systems to detect and react to physical threats – like a lurking predator – we use these same systems to perceive and manage the abstract threats and issues we face in modern life.
Abstract problems – like losing a job or facing a break-up – become the ‘predators’ of our lives, lurking just outside the safety of our known world. When these problems arise, they activate the same neurological platform used by our ancestors, proving how our evolutionary history still influences our reactions to contemporary challenges.
So, dealing with the unexpected isn’t just about updating our cognitive map of the world, it’s also about confronting these abstract ‘predators’, managing life’s crises, and leveraging our inherent neurological capabilities. As we better understand and harness these capabilities, we can become more adept at navigating the uncertainties of life.