Dealing with uncertainty

Life is uncertain. Getting comfortable with that reality doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to life’s randomness. We have agency and influence over what happens. Worrying is okay. Don’t ignore it, investigate it. What are you afraid of? What do you need? How can you get it?

When you think about how much uncertainty we deal with in life, isn’t it strange that we aren’t more comfortable with it? Better able to handle it?

That we feel worried and struggle with uncertainty is normal. It’s literally part of our biology, we’re wired to worry. Thousands and thousands of years ago when our ancestors were running around on plains, feeling anxious was necessary for survival. But just because it’s part of our biology doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can or should do about those difficult and uncomfortable feelings of worry, anxiety and fear. Rather the opposite, because it’s so common, we should develop better ways of managing how we react to uncertainty to avoid its paralyzing effect and unnecessary suffering.

Worrying by itself doesn’t help

Worrying can easily become a nasty habit. Nasty because it’s uncomfortable, but more treacherously because it can easily stop us from actually doing something about our situation. We can’t control everything, but there are things we can do to lessen the intensity of uncertainty. We can gather more information, prepare ourselves for different outcomes, talk about what we’re experiencing. We can also just worry. But how does that help? Simply wallowing in the pain of uncertainty doesn’t help. I don’t mean to suggest that this is something we consciously choose - who would choose to expose themselves to needless suffering? What I am suggesting is that it’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that we’re doing something about the uncertainty because we are worrying. Worrying tricks us into thinking that because it’s top of mind, at least we’re doing something but there’s a huge difference between productive worrying and unproductive worrying and only one leads to action.

It’s a fact, you’re freaking out. It’s okay

So what can you do about uncertainty? Feel it and don’t fight it. So you’re worried about your job or the health of a family member? That’s okay. It shows that you care about your job, income, family, etc.. Remembering that there’s nothing you can do that will instantly and completely eliminate all uncertainty might be depressing, but it can also be a reminder that this is normal. Instead of hoping for the impossible, what can you do to get familiar with the feeling? By welcoming and investigating the uncertainty we can get more information about what’s going on for us and what we fear. This clarity can help us down the road when we’re figuring out what we can control (and how) and what we can’t. Getting familiar with uncertainty doesn’t mean you have to love it or welcome it with a smile and a beer, but resistance only adds more suffering. Beating yourself up for feeling sad, afraid, or ashamed for worrying only makes things worse. Be kind to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. We all deal with uncertainty differently.

Accept that you’re afraid

When things are uncomfortable, it can be easy to be tempted to zone out and ignore it completely. Rather than face the reality of a situation, we distract ourselves with useless scrolling on social media, alcohol, Netflix, excessive exercising, or a host of other numbing distractions. While some distraction can be helpful and even necessary at times, if it’s our default way of coping, we aren’t not coping. Accepting that we’re worried is the first step to take to be able to figure out what we need and what we can control. Instead of resigning ourselves and feeling helpless, we need to realize that we have agency. There are things in our control. We can’t will ourselves into getting the promotion we deserve or into better health but there are things we can and should be doing to increase our chances, beginning with asking for what we want.

Ask for help

Society seems to expect us to do things alone: succeed alone and suffer alone. What a load of rubbish. Nothing’s ever been accomplished by one person alone and what’s wrong with asking for help? It doesn’t matter how actively we’re dealing with what’s causing us to feel so worried and uncertain, the discomfort will likely not fully go away. There’s nothing wrong with us. Talk about it. Talk about how afraid and frustrated we feel. Talking helps. Bottling it up and believing that we’re weak or inadequate for feeling this way, doesn’t and only perpetuates this dangerous individualistic drive that separates us from one another. What else do you need to empower yourself at this moment? Again, distractions can be helpful when everything feels too intense. Go for a walk, read a book, meet some friends or write in some journal.

Life is uncertain. We have to get comfortable with that reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to life’s randomness. We have agency and influence over what happens. Worrying is okay. Don’t ignore it, investigate it. What are you afraid of? What do you need to feel just a little bit less afraid?  How can you get it? Who can help you?

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