‘Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one‘ – Voltaire
‘When you become comfortable with uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities open up in your life‘ – Eckhart Tolle
Uncertainty of outcomes can be really tough to handle, mentally.
More than that, holding our nerves in the face of the unknown determines the kind and the quality of the experiences that we have. The kind of life we will have. Overvalue certainty, and we are destined for a safe and secure (yawn) life. Undervalue it and that’s the territory of recklessness.
Ideally we want to be able to dwell in the grey to a point where that serves us. Just like negotiators do.
This post discusses some ways we might to do that, using mindfulness as our tool.
Costs of clarity?
When we seek clarity above all else, here are some potential consequences:
- Lost opportunities (sometimes something better presents itself when we bide our time).
- Limit ability for creative solutions to be found.
- Miss out on an exciting and varied experience.
- Limit growth.
- We get anxious and/or conflicted.
- We don’t make objective, effective decisions.
Uncertainty is life
Have you ever experienced that you can feel two ways about a thing?
According to psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswick, ‘wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is so common that we might even consider it a baseline condition of human consciousness’.
In other words, uncertainty; ambiguity; limbo; these states are inherent in the human condition. To deny them is to deny a part of ourselves.
Moreover, more and more research is showing that our ability to tolerate these states is predictive of our success in various things. Which stands to reason when you think about it.
Is this an issue for you?
Can we improve our ability to handle uncertainty?
Yes we can. First get aware of how much this is a problem for you.
Consider the following:
- How does your need for certainty feature in your narrative of your life so far? Do you have an explanation for most things?
- How does your need for certainty affect the way you behave in your relationships? Your career?
- Can you think of a time when you ‘rewarded’ yourself with the pain and effort of struggling with uncertainty by relaxing into complacency? (Think specifically about times you stopped trying once you ‘secured’ a relationship or a job.)
When you ask yourself these questions, you start to see how clever we are in constructing our realities around the illusion of certainty.
Some mindfulness practices for managing uncertainty
We’re wired to react to uncertainty with fear. That’s why we need to train ourselves to override the tendency.
How do we do that? Below are some ideas. They all involve being mindful of our thoughts; being on the balcony of your thinking:
- Quietening the primitive part of the brain that goes nuts when uncertainty arises.
- Keeping thoughts positive. Consciously directing your attention to the good stuff that is happening in life helps to maintain perspective.
- Having a bias towards action. Uncertainty paralyses us into inaction. That’s why when it comes to mastering ambiguity, we need to incline ourselves towards decisive action.
- Gathering information – but delaying briefly before acting on it. It is good to delay making a decision until we have given ourselves some mind space. Einstein often went sailing for his best ideas. Steve Jobs took a walk.
- Taking stock of the unknowns. Again, this is about sailing confidently into the sea of the unknown, knowing that we have done the best we can.
- Being realistic and honest about what we can control (often, not much).
- Focusing on what matters to us. When we are clear on what we want, we can be selective about what life areas we will risk with very uncertain outcomes.
- Avoiding seeking perfection. A need for perfection is a need for certainty. And certainty is a fallacy.
- Not dwelling on problems/challenges. Being aware of pitfalls is good. Focusing on them is our brain’s attempt to maintain control.
- Trusting our guts. This includes identifying our own filters, giving intuition the space it needs to emerge, and developing confidence in our intuition.
- Having a contingency plan. Plan Bs are your way of already getting your brain used to alternative outcomes.
- Not asking ‘what if’. When you have made a decision, avoid second guessing it.
Dealing with relationship-specific uncertainty
Early dating scenarios can be particularly difficult for a lot of us. Here are some additional thoughts on managing that
- Acknowledge that you can have zero certainty to begin with; not if everyone is being honest anyway.
- Bring mindfulness to your early feelings.
- Distract yourself. Ensure that you continue to nurture your passions and pursuits.
- Get support. Talk through uncomfortable feelings and emotions with your friends.
- Be wary of rationalizations, making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. These things are masquerading as your need for certainty. Just deal with the information you are receiving. Resist the urge to comfort yourself with a neat narrative!
Learning how to tolerate emotional discomfort gets easier the more that we practice. Doing so makes us more resilient during difficult decision moments.
Uncertainty with creative/entrepreneurial endeavors
Obviously uncertainty features big in any creative or entrepreneurial endeavor.
To the extent that we can permit ambiguity, we can charge ahead with projects without knowing whether they’ll be a success.
Our challenge is to have goals whilst accepting the reality of uncertainty: to embrace that uncertainty, and say to ourselves ‘given that goal, and given the uncertainty, what’s to be done next?’
As with relationship uncertainty, we benefit from bringing a lot of mindfulness to our feelings so we don’t get overwhelmed by them.
Summary – a skill worth working on
Our ability to strategically manage ambiguity is one of the most important skills to cultivate.
If you do one thing after reading this post, presence yourself to the pain of living a life driven by a need for clarity. You’ll rob yourself of peak experiences – and the unparalleled joy of risks rewarded.
With practice, we can all get better at managing uncertainty.
And life is the richer for it.