How can we become more comfortable with uncertainty?

Don’t you just hate uncertainty? That feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen, how things might turn out, and whether we’ll be able to cope with what life throws at us. 

For me, I feel uncertainty in my stomach. It starts to churn, I feel queasy. Sometimes I get a flutter in my chest too. My brain will not stop whirring. Trying to figure out all the options for might happen, and what I can do in every single case. Its like I have to convince myself that I am prepared for every eventuality, and the more prepared I am, the more I am convinced I will be able to cope. 

Does this work though? Does anticipating as many possible futures as we can really help us in how we respond to the events of life? Do we actually respond better? 

A life of certainty

When we feel uncertain it is easy to start to wish that things were opposite. If I just knew how my life was going to unfold then I wouldn’t have to worry about all the different things that might happen and I could focus on preparing for the things I knew were going to come up the best I could. 

But lets step back a moment and think about what this would mean. If we knew what was going to happen and what the outcome might be to every situation, would we even need to prepare for it? What would that preparation achieve if it didn’t influence the outcome? 

How far do we take this? If we know with certainty what’s going to happen in our life, then that means that our life is completely mapped out for us. We’d know what our career was going to be, major job changes, when we’d meet the love of our life, whether we have kids and how many, and of course when we were going to get ill and when we’d die. 

We think we want certainty, but just how much certainty do we really want?  

I know I sometimes wish I knew what was going to happen so that I could be prepared, but if that meant knowing everything was going to happen, it’s not something I would choose. 

Big decision points

So if full certainty isn’t really that attractive, maybe what we want is a state of semi-certainty where we pretty much know what is going to happen if we continue along our current life path, but at key points decisions come up where we can change direction. 

This seems to be the way that many people assume that life works. They live as if everything is certain (or are at least comfortable with the level of uncertainty they think is present). They’ve created a structure around their life so they know pretty much what is going to happen on a daily basis, and then every so often a big event occurs (moving job, moving house, illness, Brexit) which forces them to consider the direction of their life. 

The trouble is that this makes these decisions feel big and important. Suddenly we believe that the whole course of our life depends on us making the right decision, choosing the right path right now. We want to be as prepared as we possibly can, and because we believe that we usually live our life in a state of certainty, we try to map out as clearly as possible what each decision means before we take it. To add to the challenge, many of the experiences that could happen as a result of the decision are often new experiences, with information and learnings that we’ve not had before. So no matter how hard we try we can’t actually figure out what is going to happen. No wonder we find it stressful. 

Its at these points that we crave the certainty that we think we usually have. But maybe the certainty we crave isn’t what we actually need. Maybe what we’re looking for is a certainty and belief in ourselves. 

Uncertain life, certainty in ourselves. 

What if there were no big decisions, but just lots of little decisions all the time. What if everything was always uncertain AND we knew were resilient enough to deal with that uncertainty, continually adjusting and adapting to live life to its fullest. 

What if the most important approach in being able to respond to that uncertainty was for us to be present, in the moment, and not worrying about what had happened or getting anxious about what might happen? 

The key thing here is in knowing we can deal with what life throws at us, no matter what. Even with no preparation. And we can. We do. Every day things happen which we haven’t planned for and we respond, we deal with it. Sometimes we enjoy it and sometimes we don’t. But we get through it, and at the end of the day we are ok. 

We are ok, no matter what happens. Nothing is predetermined, except for the fact that we will grow and learn along that journey. Life takes a new path in every moment. While it sometimes feels like some decisions are bigger than others, actually that’s just the way we think about them. In every moment we can influence the direction and the path that our life takes by choosing what to focus on and what to take from the experience. 

You are ok!

I don’t state these ideas lightly. I’ve had the unexpected broken leg, which was undiagnosed for a week, and resulted in a month in hospital. I’ve had times, sometimes even months when its felt like my life was falling apart. I’ve had a broken relationship, moved house, and changed job all in one go, and it was absolute hell. If you’d told me I was ok then, I would have disagreed with you very violently. But I was ok deep down – and I navigated my way through it, most of it without preparation. Things settled, time moved on and I came through, finding a more resilient, grounded place inside me. Deep inside I was ok, I’d just lost my connection. 

I don’t know about you, but for me this approach is way more attractive. Over the last year I have started to use it in how I live my life. Of course, occasionally things happen that feel big, and feel like I need to figure out what might happen so I can make sure I control everything towards the best possible outcome. But at these points I find it easiest to remind myself that I can’t ever know what’s actually going to happen in the future, and that what actually happens is probably going to be totally different to anything I try to imagine – so I’m much better preserving my energy, enjoying the moment and allowing things to unfold.

For me this way of viewing uncertainty has been life-changing. I’m much more in the flow of life, it has allowed me to take the leap and set up my business. It allowed me to just let our 5 months of travelling to unfold naturally, rather than trying to make sure that everything was booked and sorted from the start. It means I’m much more relaxed and able to listen to and connect with people instead of worrying about what they might be thinking and how they might react (because I’ll deal with the reaction if it happens). And life is just way more fun!

So does trying to anticipate and plan for everything that might happen help us manage uncertainty? Does it put us in a better position to respond? Well possibly, but for me that way of thinking wore me out and meant I had less energy to respond moment to moment. 

For me, viewing life as an unfolding adventure, trusting that I am ok and I will be ok, is much more exciting, engaging and flowing. It means I’m more open, see more opportunities and live life with a richness which wasn’t there when I tried to anticipate everything. 

We’ll never be able to anticipate all the experiences life has to offer. New things will always appear, every experience is different. This is the richness of life. Rather than trying to change it and manage it, embrace it and enjoy what life throws your way.

How does this fit with your experience? Do you push and try to anticipate everything or are you happy to go with the flow? What works best for you? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

One thought on “How can we become more comfortable with uncertainty?

  1. Pete says:

    Interesting! I’m trying to take things as they come as well. “Busy busy” people think I’m crazy, but I’m getting a lot more done with less time spent worrying :). Thanks Emma!

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