THE VALUE OF UNCERTAINTY
by Ginger E. Blume, Ph.D.
Ever since I can remember, I was raised with a belief system that is common in our American culture. I was schooled on the importance of “being in the know.” I was taught that knowing what would be happening next, knowing what my parent’s expected of me, knowing how I should behave in certain situations, etc. was paramount to being safe, secure, and in control. Only in adulthood have I questioned the truth of this childhood belief. Let’s explore if there is any value in accepting uncertainty, the opposite of certainty.
Who doesn’t like to feel in control? We all like to believe that we can predict what is going to happen in our daily lives. When we walk out the front door in the morning to go to work, we want to believe that our routine will happen without a glitch---our car will start; we’ll drive our usual route to work; we’ll greet the same people at the office; our office will be in the same place it was last night, etc. This sense of predictability is clearly helpful and has a lot going for it. But the world isn’t black and white and the unpredictable does and will happen when you least expect it. How you cope with the sudden upset in your expectations will depend upon your beliefs about change and uncertainty.
Acceptance is key
If “uncertainty” is framed in your mind as awful, then you’ll be less likely to search for the positives imbedded in the unexpected experience. Your mindset will determine how you react. Many people immediately begin to search for ways to bring the situation back to normal (how it was before). They don’t question if this new, unexpected and unexplored situation or outcome might provide some new ideas, new learnings, and new possibilities. This is a reflexive response when you believe that restoring certainty should be your first objective. In fact, the anxiety and fear of loss of control drives this automatic need to restore order and certainty. But are there other responses that might be helpful? Yes, and these evolve from acknowledging the uncertain nature of everyday life.
Psychologist, Susan Jeffers wrote the well-known book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway in 2003. Dr. Jeffers said, “Always remember that how we live our lives is a personal decision, not something that is put upon us from the outside world.” She encourages people to realize that we have very little control in the external world. Hence, we can choose to view ourselves as a victim, at the mercy of circumstances, or, we can choose to develop trust that we will have the inner resilience to deal with whatever happens and create something good from it.
If you feel lousy about something terrible happening in your life or to others, realize that the “something” is not the problem. The problem arises from your holding onto expectations of how things are supposed to be. Jeffers emphasizes that we gain more control in our life when we accept that we do not have control of the outside world. With this mental shift in mindset, we become less concerned with all the imaginary “what if’s…..” and more curious about how thing might turnout. By giving up control over the external world, we gain control over ourselves!
Downside to Certainty
Another reason to embrace uncertainty is to realize that there are so few things in life that are totally black and white. Life is best understood as many shades of gray. While “certainty” definitely has its value, there are some downsides. Living with a sense of certainty can lull us into a dulled mindset where we become bored and uninspired. Predictability can cause us to stop living in the “here and now” and feel constantly upset and unhappy when predictability falters and life doesn’t go as we had expected. Some people are so fearful that they imagine life is predictable and only see what they expect to see, refusing to recognize our ever-changing world. Certainty can cause us to remain stuck in the past and refuse to grow with the future.
And while you know why you recoil from uncertainty, with its associated fear, anxiety, and loss of control, have you ever considered that uncertainty also has value? Our most amazing scientific discoveries would never have occurred without scientists who watched for truths that emerged from unpredictable outcomes. Our internal sense of personal happiness is dramatically increased the minute we stop insisting that the world behave as we expect. Happiness guru, Lionel Ketchian says, “When we break our attachment to our expectations of control, we become happier people.”
I encourage my readers to leave room in your mind to embrace uncertainty and welcome new learnings and understandings that can occur when you’re open to the unexpected. Realize that a primary cause of your unhappiness results from wanting things to be different from what they truly are.
c Copyright, 2009, Ginger E. Blume, Ph.D.