Uncertainty, the problem that's not
Uncertain: not able to be relied on, not known or definite,
not knowing the outcome.
Uncertainty can feel awful. We’ve all experienced it over the last 18months of the pandemic. Will the company make it? Will my family be safe? How will this all affect my children?
Uncertainty can feel great. The uncertainty of whether your favorite team will win, the uncertainty of which dessert will taste more delicious, the uncertainty of if your attempt at tiling your kitchen backsplash on a whim, with no prior training, will be a triumphant success or a total disaster.
And then there is the uncertainty that we have to overcome when trying something new, when stretching out of our comfort zone in hope of attaining something more desirable. There is the uncertainty of making a decision without ALL the information, without guarantee of deciding “right”.
Uncertainty is a mental state, a subjective cognitive experience.
And yet it feels like so much more. As Andy Clarke, cognitive scientist put it, we are in a constant state of “surfing uncertainty.” And that’s what it feels like, that at any minute everything could come crashing down and we could end up with a mouth and nose full of salt water.
So why do I bring it up? Uncertainty is what can keep us not only from trying new things but even from imagining them possible. On the most basic level, it can prevent problem solving, on the grand level, it can prevent us from having anything other than what we have right now.
Uncertainty can be the preamble to fear. It is so easy to paint a terrible picture of all the “what-ifs”. But when we do this, we erroneously draw the conclusion that the absence of uncertainty (AKA certainty) means safety and happiness. Nope, not the way it works.
It can keep us stuck… but only if we say so. I mean, after all, if it’s a subjective cognitive experience then shouldn’t we be able to do something about it?
Everyone has uncertainty,
it doesn’t have to mean anything.
If Benjamin Franklin is to be believed, the only thing we can be certain of in life is death and taxes. So what if the answer is not to be paralyzed by uncertainty, or solve for uncertainty, but just to take it in stride?
What if it’s not a big deal?
Ok, so if it’s not a big deal, why does it FEEL like a big deal?
I’ll tell you why. When we are faced with novel situations with unexpected outcomes, our bodies respond with a heightened attention to all the details, our brains go on high alert…. This is the same physiological response that happens with anxiety. So no wonder why we try to avoid uncertainty!
What skews uncertainty toward the positive or negative is the “mental simulation” (aka: the story) we apply to it. Research has shown that if we are primed to really focus on the uncertainty itself, we become more close-minded and rigid. Not two of my favorite character traits and certainly not character traits that are generally attributed to successful and happy people.
So what do we do? Drum-roll please…
We use our IMAGINATIONS! Yup, that’s right. Using the imagination to think of multiple possibilities, multiple outcomes, and then to take it one step further to imagine not only the outcome, but your response to the outcome. This is enough to strengthen and support our own emotional regulation. We don’t have to accept our first response or mental simulation to something new (the one that ultimately ends up with us living in a box on the corner).
I was deep into the research on affect and uncertainty when this gem jumped out at me. As a child, I was an expert at imagination games. What if I could tap into this skill that I already had? What if I could translate all of the time I spent in our magic appletree/time travel machine and could apply it to my uncertainty about ALL THE THINGS!
It’s kind of like visualization- what if I could imagine that the steps I am taking are NOT a waste of time? What if I could imagine that the stresses at work didn’t HAVE to affect my evenings at home? What if I actually stuck with the plans of getting healthier and fitter? What if I imagined myself taking it in stride when something brutally disappointing happened?
If you're feeling uncertain, it’s totally fine. It doesn’t mean anything other than you are facing something new. New can be amazing, new can be challenging, new can be tough. Imagine all the possibilities (hint: there are more than 2). It’s all good.
Just imagine yourself on the other side of it.
I promise you, more is possible.
Ready to look into more possibility in your life? Schedule a call here to get started.