CERTAINTY FEELS GOOD
Every morning the sun rises in the east and in the evening, sets in the west, even if I don’t see it for days during the winter here at my home in the Pacific NW. Two plus two is four, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, an object in motion stays in motion and whatever goes up must come down.
There’s something comforting about the certainty of all these experiences. It’s why I loved math and science as a kid and became a health professional as an adult. There were laws of physics and biology, and mathematical certainty. I didn’t have to think about why the earth is round because I had the scientific data to explain it.
Having an explanation was powerful. It comforted me to know there was an answer out there to why my friend’s dad had a heart attack and what the words myocardial infarction meant. But I didn’t know how to explain why he had to die before his 63rd birthday or what it meant to suddenly lose someone so close to you or how to help my friend feel better.
CERTAINTY FIXES SOME PROBLEMS
Certainty brings solutions to our problems. When you know what creates a problem and how to fix it, life proceeds like one of those home remodeling shows on HGTV. “There’s wood rot under the bathroom and the joist holding up your toilet is non-existent, you say?” “Well, shucks, we can fix that”. Because you find cause and effect easily, you have a strategy for quickly getting things back to the way they were.
Unfortunately, our life’s struggles do not follow basic laws of science. When my co-worker is acting like a jerk and I am not enjoying working with him today, my head is telling me “be sarcastic and rude because he deserves it”, even though my heart tells me “be kind and generous with other people cuz’ that feels like the me I want to be in my life”. But damn, I didn’t sleep well last night and he’s getting on my last nerve so it’s just easier to be a jerk to HIM right now.
Humans are much more complex than housing repair. We’re full of experiences and emotions that show up differently in different situations. If the rot in the bathroom joist only worsened when my husband was being insensitive or dismissive but not when I shared with him how important it is for me to tell him about the crappy day I had at work with my jerk co-worker, HGTV would look more like an episode of Dr Phil. Helping people understand and deal with the uncertainty of their lives would become a top priority.
FACING UNCERTAINTY MEANS WE CAN LEARN AND GROW
Being wrong is okay. Not knowing is okay. Read that again. Being wrong is okay. Not knowing is okay. Especially when it comes to other people’s behaviors and the beliefs that drive them.
Wanting everyone to think like I do, and agree with everything I say would make life a dull bore. Always having the answers to every problem and knowing how to relieve mine and everyone else’s distress would limit my experiences with reality. Learning, growing, creativity and innovation would all go out the window. When we get comfortable with negative or difficult emotions, and situations or people out of our control there is a freedom to imagine endless possibilities and a better outcome.
ANXIETY FROM UNCERTAINTY
A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or ‘alert’ response in your emotional centers. Your brain doesn’t like uncertainty – it’s like a type of pain, something to be avoided.
Anxiety starts as uncertainty-a fear of the unknown. Why does my co-worker treat me the way he does starts as a question and depending on my past experiences that morph into truths or beliefs about how the world works, my thoughts may be “Did I do something wrong?” or “Does he have something against women?” or “Am I a screw-up?”
Instead of finding out what my co-worker’s behavior is all about, I take myself through fun house mirrors of distortions and assumptions. Without the certainty of knowing what is really going on in another person’s mind, I create a story that feeds on my uncertainties, creating more bad feelings and I withdraw and beat myself up emotionally, (“I’m the problem”) or get angry and rude or create a rational reason why it’s okay to judge and criticize my co-worker behind his back. I might even relieve my anxiety by being overly helpful and offer to stay late and take care of a backlog of emails that need answering (“that will make him happy”).
ANXIETY IS ON THE RISE
The more uncertainty about the cause of distress without the life the skills to resolve it, the more the threat response, and the less reward response there is and suddenly the tension in a relationship with a co-worker grows out of control.
Our need for certainty in our life and intolerance for the setbacks, disappointments and devastation that comes with being human is the reason we are seeing more anxiety and depression in recent years than ever before. Recent studies show:
- 62% of respondents in a survey reported experiencing some degree of anxiety. (SingleCare, 2020)
- An estimated 31% of all adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.
- Anxiety disorders are more common in females than in males. Anxiety affects 23% of female adults and 14% of male adults. (NIMH, 2017)
- Anxiety is also more prevalent in female adolescents than male adolescents (aged 13 to 18). As of 2001-2004, 38% of female adolescents had an anxiety disorder versus 26.1% of male adolescents. (Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005)
- Women are twice as likely to have generalized anxiety than men. (ADAA, 2020)
We’re bombarded with events that are out of our control and we cling to any source of certainty we can find to relieve our distress. Politics, religion, and social media have become our source in finding the black and white answers to explain “the laws of human behavior.”
Remember, though, there are no laws because humans are not one size fits all. We can recognize patterns of behaviors in each other the way we predict weather by looking at cloud formations, but it’s called predicting because there is a chance our forecast could be wrong.
LIFE SKILLS TO FACE UNCERTAINTY
Since life is full of uncertainty and always will be, it helps to have a few strategies for dealing with it.
- Don’t know something? Ask questions or ask for help, and problem solve. DON’T GO IT ALONE!
- Want/need to clarify what’s important to you? Express feelings appropriately, validate your feelings, say no and set healthy limits and boundaries. BE THE PERSON YOU WANT TO BE IN YOUR LIFE!
- Not sure how to begin a conversation, a project, or your life after a terrible loss? Take charge by being responsible for you own feelings and initiate conversations and change with small doable steps. LET GO OF PERFECTIONISM AND GET THINGS DONE!
- Not sure how to talk to your co-worker when he’s being a jerk? Learn to negotiate and listen with the give and take of differing opinions, high stakes, and strong emotions. CREATE BETTER COMMUNICATION AND CONNECTION!
- Not sure how to relieve the stress of a busy life? Learn to play and create or rest and recharge. EMBRACE THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF LIFE!
BEING UNCERTAIN CAN LEAD TO GOOD THINGS
Once I initiated a conversation with my co-worker, and asked questions, I found out that he too had not had much sleep (his baby daughter had colic) and the uncertainty of the situation eased up. We had a good laugh about how off base our beliefs and assumptions were. He assumed I was being a jerk by ignoring him, believing I didn’t care why he was irritable and then disappointed that I hadn’t asked about his new baby, so he could show me a picture. What a cutie!
How do you deal with uncertainty in your life?