How To Be Sitting And Dealing With Uncertainty

3 April, 2011

People who read my blogs often say to me that the blog sometimes seems to be written just for them: like somehow I know what they are thinking and feeling exactly and this is described in the blog. People then often ask how I decide which topic to write about each month, given these personal connections to the topic.

How I do is based on two things: sometimes these two things are actually one of the same thing and go hand in hand. It is either something I am personally experiencing and have found my way through, and / or a pattern with my clients that shows up consistently in my practice; i.e. that a number of clients in that week or two week period come and, unbeknownst to them of course, start talking of the same struggles. Sometimes what I am challenged by or working my way through in my own life comes up with my clients, or sometimes what my clients say to me triggers something inside of me that I realise I too want to solve (these are well known dynamics within the therapy and coaching world, and there are many different theories and schools of thought as to why these parallels occur - which I won't go into here).

Either, or both, there is always inspiration - I can't write without being inspired by the topic - and the inspiration usually comes from finding solutions to the struggle or the challenge: helping others find a solution that really works for them, or me finding one that really works for me in my own life.

This month's topic is a combination of inspiration: from my own personal life and from what has been showing up in my practice lately, which I think has possibly been sparked off by the recent natural disasters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Japan: uncertainty.

There is a lot of practical and personal uncertainty in these areas: not knowing where your income is going to come from, not knowing where your child will attend school, not knowing what is going to happen to your job or your business, not knowing exactly how your loved one died, not knowing what the new city will look like / be like, not knowing if it is safe to drink the water or not, not knowing if your government is telling you the truth and so on.

It is at times like this, when our every day structure and conditioning - by which I mean those things in your life which have become associated together through repetition or habit - provide a sense of "certainty" (note the inverted commas here). Our brains are conditioned into thinking when that happens then that happens, then that happens and then that happens: i.e. when the alarm goes off, I get out of bed, I make breakfast, I go the bus stop, I walk to my office, I go through my office door, I sit at my desk, I have my morning coffee which wakes me up, I come home, my partner will come home half an hour later, we make dinner together, we laugh we talk about our day......etc.

These natural associations or conditioned responses in our cause patterns in our brains that creates a sense of "certainty" - we think we know what is going to happen and when, what things are going to be like, because these things have been conditioned together in the past. A = B. This is a very safe anchor for your brain to attach things to. These associations make us feel stable and secure and creates a feeling that we know what is going to happen in the future, which creates a little safe web of "certainty".

The problems occur then, when these anchors are disrupted and taken away, or when we have new experiences, where we don't have the old associations to rely on to tell us what the outcome of these experiences are going to be: we don't know it will "be OK" because we haven't experienced it before, it is new to us and our brains. When a significant anchor is removed, we no longer have an office door to walk through, or a school to take our child to, or our partner is no longer coming home in the evening, our brain has lost its safe associations: it doesn't know what now, is supposed to "happen next" because the bit that went before it is missing - it has lost its anchors - its goal posts and road signs, and may well be dealing with a whole bunch of new road signs or goal posts that it hasn't been able to work out what they mean or what happens afterwards yet.

One thing I have noticed about myself over the last few months, is that I am really not very good at sitting on something which is unresolved, especially when that unresolved thing is highly important; something to do with one of my relationships or my work. I am a coach, and my brain is wired into finding solutions and a positive way forward. When something occurs that is "disruptive" - my mind immediately goes in to solution mode: this makes me feel better, having a plan or a some steps to move forward. This sometimes involves making quick decision and / or talking it through with someone.

The problem with this strategy is that solutions are not always obvious or clear, or always possible. My partner and I have very different conflict resolution styles: I need to sort the conflict out as soon as possible, like now, and I am driven by this emotional need to have it resolved. Once it is resolved, I can relax again. He, on the other hand, needs time to think it through. If something is emotive, it is difficult to think and see things clearly. He needs time and space to sit with it, and work it out. I need to clear my emotion immediately so I can feel better, and so need it sorted out now. You can see how these two things are mismatched!

We have come up with solutions to make these very different styles work together. For me, I am learning how to sit with something that is unresolved, and deal with my own emotion about it, whilst he has the space to think things through. It works for me if we plan a time when we will speak about it: perhaps in one hour's time, or tomorrow morning. We may not actually speak about it then, but it helps my brain to know there is a plan sitting out there in the future. I am having to learn (and I purposefully put this in the continuous tense - as I am certainly still very much learning) how to sit with something that I don't know the answer to yet, and don't have a solution to yet. It is hard!! Yet totally worthwhile. And what I have noticed is it takes some very different mental strategies to do this, which I would like to share with you here, as I think they are useful no matter what kind of uncertainty or unknown you are dealing with or to the degree of importance it takes.

1) Remember the future is uncertain and unknown for every single one of us, every single day of our lives. We only believe things are "certain" because we have conditioned ourselves through habit and repetition. We think the future will be like the past - which of course, can be a blessing and a curse, depending on what your past has been like. This is, however, always an illusion that your brain has created, to keep itself safe. This is a useful thing for your brain to do, of course, yet it is still illusionary. The future is ALWAYS unknown - for all of us, as it just has not happened yet. So, remind yourself, when you are not sure of the outcome of something, or there is a problem that hasn't been solved yet and you do not yet know how or when it will be solved, it is no different from any other time in your life, as the future is always, always unknown, and when we think about it, always just imagined.

2) Notice your control issues for what they are. People who have more difficulty dealing with the uncertain or the unknown (i.e. like going on holiday with a group of people you don't know and a place you have never been) will have a higher need to control the things around them and their lives. When the threat to your ability to be in control is present, your brain can freak out, and then everything becomes uncertain. I most certainly do prefer to be in control of things, it makes me feel safe. Most human beings have a degree of needing to control something, and It doesn't make you a "control freak" - a phrase which is commonly used and has unhelpful negative connotations. I don't agree that the need to be in control all the time is useful: as we all need to find a degree of flexibility in any behaviour that we have; however, it is useful to just acknowledge it as a safety mechanism, and just accept that the reason you feel afraid in this situation is because you can't fully control the outcome. And then, of course, find and use a useful antidote to this:

3) Practice trusting. This to me, is essential, and something I have had to really tune into in my own practice of sitting with uncertainty. The reason not knowing the outcome becomes problematic or unbearable is because there is a thought that the outcome will be less than desirable to us; and that maybe we won't be able to cope with that negative outcome. If we all sat around and hallucinated positive outcomes and really believed they were going to happen, then we would not be concerned at all about what was unknown, as we would know it was going to be good. However, of course, this is not easy, given that some of the circumstances that currently present themselves are difficult enough in and of themselves, let alone what might unfold later on. The real skill to practice is in not being deluded in "Pollyanna Positivity" but to build strength and resilience to know you can cope with whatever happens, and a belief that no matter what happens you will be OK.

So, how? Practice reminding yourself of the following:

a) I have got through things in the past, and I can get through this.

b) Things do always work out.

c) I have support around me, or support I can go to when I need it.

d) In a pragmatic way (not a catasrophising way) predict the worse possible outcome, and work out what you would do if that happened - develop a plan. For example: If I lose my job then I would move back in with my parents and it may take me a while to get back on my feet again but I will and I will be OK. Or: he might break up with me, but I have dealt with that before, it is painful and I know that I would recover and be OK again. The sentiment being IF that happens I WILL work it out like this AND BE OK again.

e) I trust in that and those around me. I trust what is right will unfold for me.

4. Know you have a choice about what to do when you just don't know. This includes how to think about the possible scenarios or outcomes BEFORE they have happened, and before you know what the outcome is going to be. As we never really know the outcome, we just think we do through past conditioning - there are therefore a myriad of choices in how we interpret things and think about things we don't know. If I send an email to my brother, and he doesn't reply, I could choose to think he is upset with me for a reason I am not aware of. That may or may not be true, I won't know until I have checked. It is therefore, uncertain. So how I think about it before I have checked (or indeed, IF I decide to check) is a choice. Two mantras that can be helpful are: I have a choice about how I think about this right now or I just don't know yet and I can deal with it if it happens.

5. Decide if there is appropriate action to be taken, and take it. This depends on how your brain is wired, however, if you are very uncomfortable with uncertainty or the unknown, it means you probably prefer to be in charge and in control in your life. Even though you accept then, that there are some things you just can't control and you don't know what is going to happen yet, you can feel better by identifying what steps can be taken now, and taking them. Even if that action step is making a plan to talk to someone in a week's time, it is still action and it is still a step and it allows you to feel a degree of being in charge and in control again. This feels very safe for your brain in its illusion with "certainty" which remember is based on the logic of past conditioning that if that happens, then that will happen, and that will, being able to take a step forward that is familiar to you because it had a positive outcome in the past, will feel good for you. It may not get the outcome yet, and it will certainly feel better in that moment, which is your aim, given that you don't know what is going to happen yet.

I remember reading once that when things don't feel good in this moment, for whatever reason, the practice is reaching for the next best feeling-thought: i.e. the thought that feels better than the one before it. It may not provide The Solution, and as we know, this may not be clear for a while, but it is about reaching for what can feel better in that moment, given that the future is uncertain.

I am practising all of this with you - so please let me know what you think, or if you have any comments or questions or tips which may be useful!

As always I welcome your feedback. With love, Charlotte. for coaching services.

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