Developing Comfort with Uncertainty

Developing Comfort with Uncertainty

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Developing Comfort with Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a fact of life.
No matter how much we try, how much effort we put toward the end goal, complete certainty is unattainable.
The 80/20 rule comes into play and trying to close the gap of the last 20% of your value to get to certainty, one realizes that the task of closing the gap is subject to the 80/20 rule.

Consequently, learning to accept and tolerate uncertainty is a necessary skill in life if you aren’t planning on going stark raving bonkers slamming your head against the brick wall of Universal Truth.  More importantly, one must learn not only to tolerate its presence, but to continue to act in the face of uncertain outcomes.  The latter part is vital because most people (like me, for instance)  can easily tolerate uncertainty is we have nothing else to do but focus on tolerating the presence of an unknown outcome.  The hard part comes when we are called upon to take actions, make decisions and otherwise act with intention toward desired outcomes in spite of the fact that we don’t know for certain that those outcomes will work out the way we want them to.

As far as I can see, the main factors needed for increasing tolerance and comfort with uncertainty would be the very factors that people with anxiety have trouble with in the first place: Hope, Trust, and Faith.

Hope is belief that a positive outcome is even possible in the first place. The other two factors cannot even be considered reasonably without it since it is impossible to have trust that things are not entirely hostile or have faith in a benevolent or even a neutral Universal Power if the foundational belief that a good outcome can even happen is missing.  Fortunately, Hope is something that can be generated by some rational activation of the fore-brain by activating memories of positive outcomes or engaging in statistical analysis of likelihood of outcomes based on real world data.

Current research (as compiled and meta-analyzed by A. L. Mutcher, 2011) , suggests that even false hope is better than no hope or false despair, so developing hope and maintaining it is vital to a positive outcome.  The process of building, growing and maintaining hope seems to have certain qualities that can be implemented as a practical process.

  1. Envision a desired possible (but not necessarily probable) future.  Probability is not necessary… all it needs to be is possible. For people in the midst of depression, this part may be challenging, but remember that we are freed of the requirement that the desired outcome be probable. The statistics don’t matter for this step… only that the outcome be, in some fashion, possible in the world we live in.
  2. Reverse engineer the necessary steps to bridge the gap from there to here… meaning, take the outcome and ask what would be needed for this possible outcome to exist?  How can those things be brought about or what would be needed to make those stepping-stones happen?  Recurse and iterate as needed to bring the chain of activities and constructs into connection with the current state of affairs.  Look over the map that shows you HOW to get there and recognize that the desired outcome IS possible.  WRITE IT ALL DOWN SOMEWHERE.  I have a background in software development and project management, so I like Gantt charts, but whatever method you use, make sure you have it recorded so you can check it later.
  3. Maintain hope by revisiting the plan and adjusting it as necessary to account for new or unrealized obstacles and windfalls.  Track progress and maintain a clear indication of the progress made against how much there is left to do… but always remember to focus on the fact that the path is already mapped and it just needs diligent activation.
  4. Even if you choose not to engage this action plan, you have proved to yourself that positive futures are possible.  If you decide that THIS positive future is not really the one you want, do the process again with one that you DO want.  Feel the positive motivational energy that comes with hope and ride that horse to glory!

Trust comes in two flavors, though they are closely related in this case

  1. Trust of Self to be able to handle whatever the Universe throws at you out of this Uncertainty.
    This one is easy for some people, but harder for others, possibly because they have had their sense of self-reliance stripped away, or because they have a habit of self-abandonment, or both.  It’s important to remember, though, that whether your road has been rocky or smooth, you are still here… still breathing and still muddling your way through the world, so you must have been able to handle what the Universe threw at you in one way or another.  Could you have handled things better?  The answer is almost always yes, but the Universe isn’t black and white; your method was good enough to keep you going and you had an opportunity to learn something that you can use to formulate a better response next time.
  2. Trust of the Universe that it will not throw anything from this Uncertainty that you cannot handle.
    It’s true that the Universe has dangers in it. but most of them we have the ability to deal with, or have learned to avoid over time.  For some of us, though, we used our powerful brains to generalize something that maybe shouldn’t have been generalized… this is called over-generalization and it is a way to conserve cognitive resources, but it has a down side… we miss important details… like the fact that, though the Universe has dangers in it, it also has friends, and good stuff and lots of opportunities for fun, growth and success.  In general, I tend to believe that the Universe won’t throw anything my way that I cannot handle, and if I am still breathing when it passes, I handled it.

Both of these carry a certain amount of uncertainty in themselves, so analyzing this too deeply runs the risk of creating a rabbit hole of logic that doesn’t go anywhere productive.
Suffice it to say that Trust of Self and the Universe is needed and under the circumstances, since uncertainty is in the mix, having these forms of trust is dependent on the last item…

Faith.  It has variously been defined as many things ranging all over the board, including such gems as “Believing in that which logic and rational thinking say cannot be true” or “Continuing dedication to a person, cause or process in spite of indications from local cost benefit ratio analysis of a negative balance.”  The psychologist James Fowler, a noted authority on the subject, has this to say:

One’s faith qualifies and gives tone to one’s entire way of interpreting, reacting to, and taking initiatives in the world.  It is the awareness, the intuition, the conviction of relatedness to something or someone more than the mundane. – James Fowler

The described nature of faith is that it is ineffable, indescribable and unquantifiable. That said, you all know I have to take a stab at it…
The definition that I like is that

“Faith is a belief in or dedication to something for which there is not yet enough evidence for experiential certainty, or for which there is mixed or contradictory evidence”.
~Jack Greeney

Lets look a little more closely at that…
Faith is:

  1. “A belief in or dedication to something…”  There has to be a sense of belief or dedication… of considered expectation that a thing is, on some level, true or worthy of our time, effort, and energy.
  2. …for which there is not yet enough evidence for experiential certainty…”  The key phrase here is “experiential certainty”.  It’s a subtle but important point.  There are many kinds of certainty, but experiential certainty says that basically, you’ve experienced the thing in question directly.  Not heard about it from someone else, nor surmised it from gathered information… rather, you’ve been there and done that.  You got the T-shirt to prove it…. or something.
    SO, a lack of evidence for experiential certainty means you haven’t experienced it yourself.  In a faith context, it means you haven’t experienced it yourself yet, but still believe that it’s, on some level, true.  Many people apply this to the concept of a Higher Power that guides their lives… they have not shook hands with God, but believe that there is a God and that God has some influence in their lives.
  3. …or for which there is mixed or contradictory evidence.”  This one makes it a little more complicated.  Evidence is a funny thing.  Mostly because any evidence at all is being interpreted by a (in most cases for my readership) human brain; which means that it is being interpreted through filters, both experiential and neurochemical.  So a person’s history can have an impact on what shades the evidence they perceive, as will certain factors of biology; however, conscious choice of which evidence to consider and which to reject is also part of this process and here is where we get to have some control over the outcome for ourselves.

SO what, Jack?

The important takeaway here is that:
Hope is possible with a willingness to look for creative ways to foster or manufacture a positive outcome;
Trust is possible when we have an idea that we can handle whatever comes to us and maintain memories of the times we have done so;
And that Faith, that ineffable, unquantifiable thing, essentially comes down to a choice in how you interpret evidence and where you put your energy.

Handling uncertainty is, at its most basic level, choosing to put your effort and energy behind the construction of an interpretation of reality that best suits your own mental health and desire for outlook on the world.
If Uncertainty is a fact of life in this Universe, and it is at one point or another, for uncertain values of certainty, then it behooves us to choose an approach that benefits us more than hurts us, right?  I have a values framework that holds that it is better to be happy, healthy and effective than to be technically correct on a logical level, but depressed and ineffective on all other levels.

An important element that needs to be remembered is that the Universe is friendlier than you think.  Even though it has resident dangers, they are not personal (meaning that they are not usually out to get you in particular), nor are they general (meaning that they happen all the time to everybody everywhere).  Most of the time what dangers exist do have boundaries.  The same goes for Uncertainties… there are boundaries to most uncertainties that we are going to deal with in life and those boundaries are very finite in time, space and circumstance.

So get to the practical part already!

OK, so here’s my three-step process to turning your life around and getting comfortable with uncertainty –

  1. Realize at a deep level that you have the ability to meet your main goals in life.  REALLY think about it. Meditate on it. Spend some time in reflection.
    You may not have everything you need at the outset, but you do have agency during the process and can acquire what you need along the way.
    Realize also that you can handle what comes at you from the Universe… you have done just that to get where you are and though it hasn’t been perfect, it has been good enough to keep you going.  You probably don’t need a life overhaul… just a little tweaking here and there.
  2. Spend time each day thinking positively about yourself and where you want to go in life.
    Reflect on what you have learned and give yourself some credit for getting through difficulties in the past.
    Consider how what you have learned prepares you to better approach your goals and overcome obstacles along the way.
  3. Have an Ultimate Dream Goal written down and commit yourself fully to that goal.
    Use it as your North Star and navigate the rest of your life by it.
    Make it specific and make yourself accountable for it by telling others what your goal is and how you plan to make it real.

From this point forward, it’s a matter of gaining experience with having uncertain situations work out positively for the win, or having them work out not so positively, but being able to handle what comes down.  Either way, you get multiple opportunities to gain experience that the outcome of uncertain situations is not all that bad.

So embrace Uncertainty… small uncertainties at first, then bigger ones as you go along….
Take some risks… small ones at first to get yourself familiar with the terrain, then bigger ones as need and opportunity arise…

If you win, you will be happy.  If you lose, you will be wise.
Either way, you will be truly engaging with life, and that’s how you get in the game!


As always, this is a dialogue and not a diatribe.
Please leave your comments below and let me know if this was helpful or how I can tweak it to be more useful.
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