Look up the current COVID19 buzz word “uncertainty” in the Oxford Dictionary and you’ll see “The state of being uncertain, ‘times of uncertainty and danger.’” You’ll also see “similar” words such as, “qualm, apprehension, precariousness.” Sounds rather portentous and ominous to me. Instead of acknowledging that all of life is uncertain, accepting it and growing through it, many find themselves anxious, apprehensive, and filled with destabilizing fear when faced with uncertainty. But when are we not NOT faced with ambiguous, unpredictable and” novel, uncertainty? There is no crystal ball of certainty…even for the next paragraph.
What’ll the weather be tomorrow when our party is scheduled? Will our children be accepted to good colleges and have successful careers? Will I have enough money for the bills this month? Will I be safe today? Who has certainty in life? Uncertainty is unavoidable in our lives, always has been and always will be, not just during COVID19. Some are fine with this, and others fill themselves with unsettling anxiety and stress.
Yes, the neuropsychobiology of our brain is such that we are consistently being updated with overestimated “warning signals” of threat and danger up ahead. Often the predicted menacing peril is an erroneously self-crafted worst-case scenario of what’s ahead, but a threat that, most often, really isn’t. Rarely are these alarms signaling accurate endangerment. Yes, “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us,” but we still “drink l’chaim to life.”
But it’s not uncertainty that we actually fear. It’s what we imagine is coming in the uncertainty we plant, what we think about. It’s what we fill in the blank. It’s what, well, it comes back to “the link is what you think.” For example British researchers discovered that study participants who thought “for sure” they would receive a painful electric shock actually felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told and thought they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock.
In the 1990s, a group of researchers at Laval University proposed that intolerance of uncertainty may be a common thread that underlies the array of diverse concerns associate with generalized anxiety disorder. Intolerance of uncertainty is a tendency to have a great many negative cognitive, emotional and behavioral reactions to continuous uncertainty in everyday life situations. Intolerance of uncertainty is a R.I.D.E. of “rigid, inaccurate/irrational, dogmatic and extreme” thinking that harms your life. Having uncertainty intolerance makes it more likely to be vulnerable to worry throughout life.
Those who have an intolerance for uncertainty fill themselves with a demand for certainty. This leads to seeking reassurance, over-planning, “awfulizing” and believing that one cannot bear the uncertainty of a situation (when in reality all situations are uncertain). Those who embrace uncertainty on the other hand, often seek new opportunities, are open, curious, spontaneous and resilient enough to experience discomfort.
Psalm 23 comes to mind, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” “Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty,” Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observed. Faith is medicinal. Having the wisdom to not struggle and not to insist that life be filled with certainty is an essential first step in dealing with life’s only daily certainty – that life is uncertain.
The “rules” and guidelines of living through COVID19, the plans we make, the routines we live by, create a false structure. But a structure we feel safer with. That at any moment, these can fall by the side of the road is immaterial. We think they are certainty. The link, once again, is what you think. Certainty is clearly an illusion.
With the goal of recognizing and accepting uncertainty as a fact of life, that sometimes uncertainty is not enjoyable though it can always be tolerable, there are several tips we can follow to grow our ability to embrace uncertainty. This will help you enjoy more of the fullness of your life, even thrive through COVID19, and be more flexible in the face of the adversities that fate inevitably and often unpredictably brings.
1. Adopt a mentality that uncertainty is the norm of life and that it is healthy to face, rather than to avoid, life’s unpredictability, and that accepting it is empowering. This will begin to build your tolerance. Remember the old saying, “Man Plans, and God Laughs”? “Man thinks and God Winks,” is another version. The best made plans are often derailed with sometimes better, and sometimes, worse destinations.
2. To build your tolerance of uncertainty, it’s valuable to mindfully recognize it in your daily life, experiment with it, play with it, be curious about it, and see how well you actually do tolerate it. This will help you see that you can indeed bear and thrive through uncertainty.
3. While avoiding life’s adversities is not a healthy way to build uncertainty tolerance, it’s often valuable to unplug from information you cannot control, and instead focus on what you can control such as how you spend your time, your thoughts, breathing exercises, and your daily routines. Gratitude, the wonderful generic medicine for many ills we face, comes into play in learning to embrace uncertainty. Pivot your thinking to be grateful for not knowing what will come, and for finding lessons for growth for whatever comes. The unpredictability of life is like sandpaper that comes to buff us up. Without the friction, there is no buffing.
4. Think of yourself living in four zones, a comfort zone, a fear zone, a learning zone and a growth zone. Uncertainty intolerance is the fear zone in which you believe that it’s “horrible, awful and terrible” not knowing what to expect, or erroneously thinking that others have more certainty than you do. Moving into the learning and eventually the growth zones, means you are applying these, and other positive, life enhancing tools.
5. Listen to your own self-talk about uncertainty. With self-awareness, you’ll hear yourself demanding and awfulizing about, and “can’t standing,” a normal part of life. Change those thoughts to less extreme, less rigid and less illogical ways of thinking, substituting preferring more predictability, thinking it’d be better to have more predictability, that you of course can and do bear unpredictability, and see how much better you feel in the face of the inevitability of unpredictability.
6. An acronym that I believe sums up much of the healthy pathway to embracing uncertainty is C.R.A.F.T. from Maxwell Maltz‘ Psycho-Cybernetics:
C= Cancel your negative, rigid, demanding and extreme self-talk concerning uncertainty
R = Replace this unhealthy negative self-talk with an embracing, grateful, curious and learning mindset
A= Affirm your new unconditional uncertainty acceptance by sharing this new found ground with others
F = Focus on seeing an image of yourself embracing uncertainty
T= Train yourself for lasting positive acceptance of life’s one certainty, uncertainty.
7. Finally, the words of the famed song “To Life” from “Fiddler on the Roof” reminds us of the joy that comes with uncertainty, “To us and our good fortune! Be happy, be healthy, long life! And if our good fortune never comes, here’s to whatever comes, drink l’chayim, to life!”