A few months ago, my supervisor recommended that I take a specific certification test. She thought it’d be a great professional development goal. Though I wasn’t too sure about the idea, I just smiled and nodded. That’s what happens when you’re not too comfortable saying “no” outright.
But that wasn’t a great decision. Between then and our next meeting, I allowed myself to get way too worked up about it.
You see, it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do, nor did I feel it was 100% necessary for my career (at least not yet). Sure, it’d be cool to have a few more letters to put behind my name, but the test costs a few hundred dollars, and I would have to front the money. Months of studying and a good portion of my paycheck for something that wasn’t a priority for me? Nope. No thanks.
I spent the next several days silently fuming. Whenever my mind was idle—while brushing my teeth, riding my bike, or sitting on the bus—I’d have entire conversations about it in my head.
Am I really supposed to pay for something she’s requiring me to do? Shouldn’t I be reimbursed for that? Why was I even hired if this was needed and I didn’t have it? Isn’t it wrong to evaluate my performance on something I have to pay for?
My heart beat faster, my chest tightened, and my jaw clenched, as I prepared my side of the argument. I was readying myself for a debate.
I brought it up in our next meeting. I was so nervous about it, expecting confrontation, expecting to have to vehemently defend myself, that I actually did a power pose before I walked into her office. And do you know what happened?
After I uttered eight simple words—“I’m not sure I want to do this”— she immediately reassured me it was just a suggestion, not a mandate. “No, no,” she said. “You don’t have to do that. I just wanted to throw it out there as a step you could take in the future. It’s absolutely not required.” Gosh, think of all that time I wasted predicting every possible conversation and crafting my comebacks. I could’ve used that time for so many more useful activities (like catching up on Vanderpump Rules, of course).
This type of thing—taking a situation and turning it into something it really isn’t, something bigger than it has to be—happens to me pretty often. My partner often tells me I’m calling the fire department before there’s even any smoke. (I take Smokey the Bear’s lessons seriously, OK?)
Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution . says , the reason we do this is because “ uncertainty makes us feel vulnerable, so we try to escape it any way we can. Sometimes we even settle for misinformation or bad news over not knowing.”
In other words, we want to be sure about things—we want them written in stone—and so we replace the unknown with data that may not be true simply because it makes us feel better than not knowing.
In my story, I wasn’t sure whether or not I really needed to earn that certification. Instead of asking the only person who could provide me with the correct answer (my boss) I chose to fill in the blanks myself. And what I put in them was, well, wrong. I turned her advice into, “You must do this. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
The thing is, our lives aren’t as simple as a Mad Libs book. We don’t get to insert random words and then turn the page and forget about it. Rather, we have to live with the story we’ve just made up, which is often untrue.
In Rising Strong, Brown explains that “we make up hidden stories that tell us who is against us and who is with us” as a defense mechanism. We like to be prepared, and we’re preparing for the worst. Our distaste for ambiguity causes us to create these “self-protecting narratives,” which can “eventually distort who we are and how we relate to each other.”
This isn’t healthy for any part of your life, and at work it can result in quite the unpleasant environment. Had I not finally addressed the issue with my manager , it’s likely I would’ve continued to harbor resentment about the situation, which would probably turn into resentment toward her. I would’ve probably been curt, bitter, and inflexible. That’s not fun or fair, nor does it lend to productivity and collaboration in the slightest.
I’m thankful that I came clean with her, but I only wish I’d done it sooner. Because, for the short time that my self-protecting narrative was cycling through my head, it was really, truly, unpleasant. And distracting.
So, what’s the moral of the story here? If there’s something you’re unsure about, ask about it. If there’s information you need, request it. If there are any pieces of the puzzle missing and you don’t have them, don’t stuff miscellaneous pieces of cardboard in it and call it a day. And until your blanks are filled in, deal only with the facts.
TopicsSucceeding on the Job , Here's the Thing by Abby Wolfe , Tools & Skills , Syndication , Bad Habits , Communication
Photo of unsure person courtesy of Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images.
Abby works in health education and prevention at a university in Washington, DC. When she’s not trying to make the world a healthier place, you can find her taking selfies with her cat (Mildred Meow Meow), hunting down the city's best grilled cheese, or zipping through the city on her bike, named Libby. Say hi on Twitter.More from this Author