Embracing the unknown?

The project that I am currently working on finishes on the 30th June. In two months’ time, I might not have a job. I might not have any income.

On the 30th June, my housemates and I are breaking the lease on our rental house. Depending on whether I have a job, I might be living in a share house again. Or on my own. Or I might be begging my parents to let me sleep (cheaply) in their grand manor again.

Maybe I should look for work outside the area. It might be easier. But I know that I am very content living where I am. If I moved, I might feel overwhelmed without my support network close by. I might not make friends so easily or it might take a while to find like-minded people.

If I think about it too much, it feels as if my world is a towering stack of “mights” right now. If I keep thinking about it, I begin to see myself as a spoilt and whingeing princess. 

When people ask about my work and living arrangements I have no idea how to respond, so I joke about hosting a homeless and unemployed party. Neither funny or appropriate really. But they tend to remark that I’m dealing with it all very well. Now, that seems funny.

The thing that is most annoying though is that whilst it may seem that I am dealing with a lot more change than usual, the rational reality is that for most of us most days start and end with uncertainty.

Even when we think we’re curled into a cozy cocoon of predictability, anything could change in a heartbeat. The only thing certain in life is uncertainty. The fact that life is filled with surprises, unexpected events and change – a whole lot of it – isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It’s simply reality. It’s just how life works. And it is most probably very good for us.

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” ~John Allen Paulos

One of the downsides of the mostly wonderful phenomenon of human consciousness is the ability to worry about the future. We know that the future exists, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in it.

In general, us humans seem to prefer certainty to uncertainty. Studies have shown that people would rather definitely receive an electric shock now, than maybe receive an electric shock later. Furthermore, people show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock (or other unpleasant stimulus) than an expected one.

Similarly, there was a study of men on death row in the United States. The research showed that while the men where under the threat of possible execution the inmates would produce high levels of stress hormones and feel high levels of anxiety. Once these same inmates had been given a date for their execution, even if it was a while in advance, their production of stress hormone would drop. The conclusion of the study was that uncertainty creates stress and anxiety but knowledge – certainty – reduces the stress and anxiety. Certainty, even when the outcomes are horrendous, is less stressful than uncertainty.  

Where we differ though is the degree to which uncertainty bothers us. Apparently not all of us are uncertain about uncertainty.

The inability to tolerate uncertainty tends to be a unique feature of people who experience generalised anxiety and excessive worrying. Hello, Sam.

The inability to tolerate uncertainty is an attitude that some of us may have adopted towards life.  When we have this attitude, uncertainly, unpredictability, and doubt are often seen as awful and unbearable experiences that must be avoided at all costs. People who hate uncertainty and need guarantees may:

  • Say things like: “I can’t cope not knowing,” “I know the chances of it happening are so small, but it still could happen,” “I need to be 100% sure.”
  • Prefer that something bad happens right now, rather than go on any longer not knowing what the eventual outcome will be
  • Find it hard to make a decision or put a plan or solution in place, because they first need to know how it will work out.

If the suspense of not-knowing is too much for us, we’ll typically use one of two strategies: approach or avoid. Furthermore, those of us who are more likely to have an intolerance to uncertainty are more likely to compare ourselves to others, research shows—another approach tactic. It stands to reason. If you’re not sure how successful you are, or how good your relationship is, you might gain clarity by figuring out how you’re doing relative to others. Or conversely, if you’re in avoidance mode, you might just ask someone else to tell you the answer.

I’ve mentioned previously that my default positions are perfectionism with obsessive thoughts. And I have a history of believing that worrying can be useful – a way of preparing me for anything that might happen, thus reducing my experience of uncertainty and unpredictability. I’m also in recovery from addiction to avoidance behaviours. However, for the past few years, with hard work and hope I’ve mostly managed to put these traits and behaviours to the side.

But with the uncertainty of the end of financial year looming, some of them are beginning to pop their heads up again. And use their loud and angry voices. So there’s a few things I’m planning to do, to shush them.

  1. Remember that uncertainty happens everyday anyways.
The good news is that I’m already accepting uncertainty like all the time. I hop behind the wheel of my car. And walk across the street. Eat food in restaurants. Start conversations. Ask people I hardly know for advice and then take their advice. In each of these cases, I have no idea what is going to happen and I accept uncertainty. If I demanded certainty for everything, I would be home in bed right now.
If I struggle with this one I can use this this experiment: Think of all the things that I am planning on doing on any given day and ask myself if I have absolute certainty for these behaviours. See if I still will take action—without certainty. Will I play the odds?
  1. Replace expectations with plans.
Often when we form expectations, we can be setting ourselves up for disappointment. Sure, we can guide our tomorrow, but we can’t control the exact outcome. If we expect the worst, we’ll probably feel too negative and closed-minded to notice and seize opportunities. If we expect the best, we’ll create a vision that’s hard to live up to.
So, instead of expecting the future to give me something specific, I’m going to try and focus on what I’ll do to create what I want to experience.
I might be unemployed and living with my parents (again), or I might be working in a dream job in a beachside apartment in two months’ time. None of that is in my hands right now. What is in my hands is what I plan—what I will actively do to make sure that wherever I am when I get there I am in a good place to have strong connections, have meaningful things to do with my time and to live the life I want.
  1. Become a feeling observer.
Sometimes it isn’t even the uncertainty that bothers me; it’s my tendency to get lost in my thoughts about it.
If I let myself indulge in fear I can run the risk of becoming lost in a cycle of reactionary thoughts.  “I might be unemployed” leads to “How will I ever pay my phone bill again?” Before you know it, I’ve somehow travelled all the way to “What if I become a recluse, start overeating, and develop restless leg syndrome from sitting too much—alone—on my couch?”
Possibly a slight exaggeration, but my point is that speculation leads to feelings which leads to more speculation and then more feelings. It helps me to stop the cycle by recognizing the feeling—in this case, fear—and the reminding myself: I can’t possibly predict the future, but I can help create it by fostering positive feelings about the possibilities.
  1. Get confident about my coping and adapting skills.
This isn’t quite the same as “expecting the worst.” It’s more about assuring myself that I am (possibly) able to handle difficulties as they occur. And actually I may have done so in the past.
One of the best quick tricks to manage anxiety is defensive pessimism—when you consider the worst so you can plan how you’d handle it. This has been shown to help people manage anxiety.
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” In my case, the worst would be that I would be unemployed and living at home. Turns out I actually did this a few years ago and really enjoyed myself. I handled it. I could deal with it. Hopefully, my parents could deal with it again.
Another good trick is asking yourself – “Will this matter in five years from now?” If not, don’t give it more than five minutes of brain time.
  1. Utilise stress reduction techniques pre-emptively.
If we’re dealing with uncertainty, we probably have stress in your body, even if it’s not at the forefront of our thoughts in this exact moment. Over time, that body stress affects blood pressure, blood sugar, muscle tension, cholesterol level, breathing rate, and every other organ in our body – oh hooray!
So it is probably time to begin incorporating some stress reduction techniques into my day – daily meditation, exercise and eating a little bit better would probs be helpful.
  1. Practice mindfulness.
When we obsess about a tomorrow we can’t control, we’re often too busy judging what hasn’t happened yet to fully experience what’s happening right now. Instead of noticing and appreciating the beauty in the moment, we can get trapped in a fear-driven thought cycle about the potential for discomfort down the line.
I’m going to implement some strategies to ground me a little bit more. Some days it might be meditation, other days it might be gratitude practice. So I can’t yet plan for tomorrow—that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. That means I can spend today doing other things, like writing, reading, relaxing in the sun, and connecting with people I love.
Ultimately there’s no escape from living with uncertainty, for anyone. No matter how often we compare ourself to others, or check our email, or read the news. No matter how much we worry, we’ll never know what happens when we die, or what other people really think of us, or what our life will be like in five years.
So, it’s probably helpful to try and get more comfortable with uncertainty now. Then, at least, I’ll be more used to it.


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