by Lisa Baron, Ph.D., LCSW
As an experienced therapist who is making a personal commitment to get more comfortable with uncertainty, I share the following thoughts.
The author Elizabeth Lesser said “How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.”
Our clients come to us with depression, anxiety, relationship concerns, health issues, grief, and loss. We list our specialties on our cards and websites. How many of us list “dealing with uncertainty” as a specialty? Yet, when I look over the 20 years that I have been a psychotherapist for adults and children, this is a major theme. Is it our discomfort with uncertainty ourselves? We might state that we can work with “transitions,” but might the word “uncertainty” cause more pause?
We like being in control. In this age of technology, you can e-mail a picture, write a lecture, and balance your checkbook, all in the palm of your hand. People are interviewed for jobs through Skype with a person overseas they may never meet. “Relationships” form through the Internet, and planes are being invented that can get to Europe in half the time. America does not build in any type of siesta or break into the work day. People are rewarded for working long hours for less pay. We live in an age when predictability, speed, and certainty are emphasized and rewarded.
Gandhi said, “There is more to life than increasing the speed.” This is something to think about in this technological age.
What about uncertainty? Gilda Radner, the late comedian, said it wisely:
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
How do we help ourselves, and our clients, to live with uncertainty? Here are some ideas that might help us to navigate this potentially new and sometimes rugged terrain.
When driving down the highway, sometimes we will see a sign that says, “Expect Delays.” This tells us that something is up ahead and to be wary. It could be an accident, construction, or any number of things. The fact is that when we see this sign, we know to slow down and be cautious. Envision a sign that says “Expect Change” along the road of your life. No matter what technology does, or how much money is earned, life is change. There are ebbs and flows. There are joys and disappointments. People are born. People die. Expecting the natural flow of life will help to decrease disappointment from natural occurences.
“Life doesn’t match,” said the wisest woman I know.
Cell phone cases may match our purses, and our purses may match our shoes. Wouldn’t it be nice if life was matched that way? Life is more like a puzzle. Sometimes pieces are mis-matched, or missing, or both. Embracing that life doesn’t match means when uncertainty happens, we understand. We roll with it—we hold our head up to the best of our ability, and carry on what we need to do to just get through. Encompassing this concept in a more flexible way will get us through uncertainty.
This is a cognitive behavioral technique that teaches us to identify and shift negative thinking. (It’s called Cognitive Reframing or Cognitive Restructuring.) The way it works is we have the ability to shift negative automatic thoughts, such as “I have a flat tire, so now I will have a bad day,” to: “I have a flat tire. I’ll call to get help. This doesn’t mean my day is ruined.” By practicing these techniques, we can reduce stress and depression. It also enables us to roll with uncertainty in an easier way.
Think of three red buckets—one small, one medium, and one large. Which bucket would you put the flat tire incident in? Is it a life crisis? When we put incidents in emergency places—when we catastrophize—it makes uncertainty harder. To learn more, read the works of David Burns and Marsha Linehan on cognitive reframing.
Delicious ambiguity. What’s delicious about it?
Over the years of my practice, I have heard numerous stories about crisis bringing opportunity to families. An example of this would be when a family member gets a medical diagnosis, families may rally together in new ways to help each other out. Although the crisis may be shocking and unwelcomed, there may be some good that comes out of it. Being open to the possibilities is a gift that uncertainty may bring.
Perfection is overrated.
Living in a perpetual state of looking for perfection leaves us in a place of setting ourselves up and being disappointed when perfection doesn’t occur. Expecting change and rolling with it to the best of our ability is the sign of a stronger self.
Shrink your mountain.
Think of expectations as a mountain. If our expectations are too high, when we realize we will not reach them, we will quickly tumble down the mountain. This can bruise us, physically and emotionally. If our expectations are not as high, the crash will not be as fast or as painful or as dramatic. Setting realistic expectations is a way of making uncertain situations less jolting, and less dramatic. Shrink your mountain down to a more reasonable level, and the fall won’t hurt as much.
Practice makes it easier. I won’t say practice makes perfect.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Olympic athletes practice long hours, enter many contests, and deal with defeats and disappointments. How can you practice to have more comfort with uncertainty? Put yourself in unique situations. Go somewhere different. Eat something new. Make a new friend. Challenge yourself.
Believe in your abilities.
Look at all of the transitions you have gone through during your lifetime. What strengths did you draw on? Who was your support system? What healthy coping skills did you use? Which unhealthy coping skills will you try not to turn to?
Make a list of your support people—those who are truly in your inner circle. Draw strength from this list in times of uncertainty.
How can we practice to have more comfort with uncertainty? Ask yourself these questions—particularly in situations when you might feel uncertain or may have fears. What would happen if? How will I handle it? How have I handled adversity in the past? What three strengths in me will help to get through this hurdle? (Sense of humor could be one.)
And remember the famous line from Winnie the Pooh.
You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.
A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
Help yourself and your clients to live with the unknown, to look at it as a mystery, a present...one they may want or one that they would never want. Even so, when it is here, what might come out of it?
Jon Kabat Zinn said, “You can’t stop the rain, but you can learn to surf.”
Are you ready to learn to surf?
Lisa Baron, Ph.D., LCSW, is a clinical social worker in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She can be reached by e-mail at LisaDBaron@gmail.com.