One of the things that many of us grownups struggle with is uncertainty. We can find it difficult to not know exactly what’s going to happen next. We want to be able to move through life with the confidence that comes with knowing that something is definite. If we had our way, we’d be happy 100% of the time and not experience loss, disappointment, conflict, criticism, or rejection. We forget that life ebbs and flows and that we learn what ‘up’ is because we also learn what ‘down’ is. We have to learn how to navigate these so that we can enjoy and maximise those ups and gradually recover from those downs.
What many of us are looking for though, are ironclad guarantees or at the very least, a crystal ball to let us know whether or not we should bother. These would remove the uncertainty that comes with being vulnerable. We wouldn’t have to think or respond.
So we might, for instance, have to commit to following through with our desire to start a business and while we’ll have our idea and plan, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen from end to end and we don’t have a play by play list of what we’re going to be and do. Instead, we have to make the decision, commit, and then invest our energy towards that commitment instead of looking for reasons to back out or question it.
Same goes for relationships. Before the point where we’re going to commit to something longer term and start talking ‘forever’, we have to give getting to know a person through the discovery phase of dating and then a relationship, a shot. We don’t know how it’s going to pan out hence why it’s a wise idea to do some due diligence, not so that we can avoid anything we find remotely unfavourable but more so that if and when we decide to give a relationship a go and commit, we’re making the commitment with the best of the knowledge that we have at the time rather than doing it without self-knowledge, self-awareness, and a healthy dose of reality about the person in question.
When I hear people talking about ‘casual dating’ – Seriously, what else can we water down? – I realise that what people who are afraid of commitment and vulnerability are looking for, are guarantees.
“I need to know that they’re ‘the one’ before I dare to invest myself emotionally.”
“I need to know that they’re perfect and will basically be exactly as I imagine forever and ever, before I’ll commit.”
“I need assurances that they’re not going to be like my ex.”
“What if I fall for them and then we break up in 2035 and I have to start over?”
“What if they get really ill one day? I don’t think I could cope with that.”
While there are no guarantees about what lies ahead, what you’re guaranteed when a fear of uncertainty is driving your thinking and behaviour, is frustration and feeling as if you’re in your own Groundhog Day.
Commitment drives our energy and investment.
When we’re afraid of uncertainty to the point where we devote our energies to trying to control the uncontrollable by doing stuff like limiting or avoiding decisions and commitment, or worrying about what isn’t happening and forecasting doom, we effectively pee on our own parade and then wonder why we get wet and why it doesn’t smell too good. We commit our energies to the wrong things.
We become so fixated on the existence of uncertainty that we decide to play it safe with the certainty of our patterns – life-by-numbers. We’d rather be safe in our anxiety and undermining ourselves with unproductive habits of thinking and behaviour than run the risk of being vulnerable and not knowing that it will all work out perfectly and that we’ll be rewarded. We’re so afraid of ‘getting it wrong’ that we’d rather be ‘right’ with what we know doesn’t work.
We might feel ‘safe’ in an unavailable relationship because we don’t have to be vulnerable and we – even if we don’t admit it – have an idea of how things are going to work out. Sure, we’ll try to be the exception to the rule but when push comes to shove and it doesn’t work out, we get to validate our beliefs. We get to be right. We feel justified in our fears because we feel that this is yet another piece of evidence that corroborates our beliefs.
With the fear of uncertainty, we adopt The Long Shot Mentality and effectively accept failure from the outset (even if we won’t admit it). We effectively tell ourselves, “I only want to step up, be vulnerable and give it my absolute best shot if I can be guaranteed that I won’t be disappointed”, and obviously, because uncertainty is one of life’s inevitables, we secretly accept failure and give ourselves permission to follow our pattern.
Initially, becoming a mother really triggered my fear of uncertainty, from worrying that Em had been in an accident if he was late to worrying about the kids being ill or something happening to them or us. One day as I freaked myself out despite the fact that picking up the phone would have put my mind at ease, I realised that my fear of uncertainty and worrying about the fact that I couldn’t control the uncontrollable, was robbing me of my inner peace. I was robbing me of my inner peace, not uncertainty.
Thoughts still pop up – it’s natural – but I don’t feed them. A childhood friend lost his daughter recently and it was a stark reminder that I could spend my life feeding my fears about what might happen and trying to avoid having a stake in anything that might bring loss and pain, but really all that will happen is that I will miss out on love. I’ll miss out on living.
Trying to avoid uncertainty lends itself to entitlement and not too far behind that is obsessing. We work out what we think are the conditions to control uncertainty and then when we feel anxious, or something doesn’t go as predicted, we feel robbed and hurt because based on the conditions that we felt would allow us to be OK and even bring reward, our prediction hasn’t worked and so uncertainty is ‘back’ despite it never leaving. We equate uncertainty with us not being OK, when actually, it’s nothing to do with whether we’re OK or “good enough” and everything to do with losing command over us and our happiness because we’re trying to control the uncontrollable.
We cause ourselves unnecessary pain by trying to imagine what the pain about something might be like, feeding it, ruminating, and then after living out our lives in our imaginations, holding us back in real life. If I think really hard about anything I’m afraid of and feed it with fear thoughts, I can conjure up all sorts of unpleasant feelings and images.
All of this dining off of a fear of uncertainty is akin to living life with a permanent Imagination Hangover. We mistake the existence of anxiety as indicative of a threat when actually, the anxiety is increasing because we’re feeding it. We’re trying to cup the ocean in our hands.
The way to deal with the unknown without losing it in the now is to work on 1) being mindful (conscious, aware, and present) and 2) the sources of your anxiety.
- Is it fear or is it knowledge?
- Is it real or is it imagined?
- Is there something that you’re not addressing that worrying about the uncertainty of something else is providing a distraction from?
- Is it about depriving you of something out of sense of not wanting to allow you to be happy?
Keep a Feelings Diary and identify your cues and triggers. Look at where you are not engaging in self-care and home in on where you’re not talking back to you. Thoughts pop up but you don’t have to chase after them – why can’t they just pass by?
We can’t change uncertainty but we can change our relationship with it by changing our relationship with us.
Take care of you.