Uncertainty, an unlikely friend

Sitting with the discomfort, with patience and curiosity

"Uncertainty." Watercolor crayons on paper. Original artwork by Bernadette Cay.

"Uncertainty." Watercolor crayons on paper. Original artwork by Bernadette Cay.

I like knowing what’s next. Behind the cells of my spreadsheets and in the rows of our team's task management software, I felt safe from the chaos and uncertainty of the world.

The unknown is a scary place. So scary that sometimes we prefer known misery to the discomfort of the unknown, whether it's a certain job or relationship, or our own internal stories. Right after undergrad, I had almost committed myself to a two-year master’s program, partially to delay facing the unknown.

Recently, I had a decision to make. I turned it over in my head, repeatedly. Thankfully, I came across a simple piece of wisdom: Uncertainty is a fact of life. Intellectually, we all know this. The problem is that we’re uncomfortable with how it feels, so we run away from it. It might even serve us walk around the living room with a blindfold on for a few minutes, to become familiar with that feeling.

Get curious

The next time the discomfort came up, I became curious. Instead of chasing away the feeling, I tried to learn more about it, specifically:

1. My reactions
How does uncertainty feel in my body? What does it sound like? How do I manage it?

2. The type of uncertainty
There are different types of uncertainty. Which kind was I feeling? For example, was I unclear about what I wanted? Or that I didn’t know how a situation will play out?

3. The situation
What assumptions about the situation or my own abilities were I taking as truth? What are a few, small real-life experiments can I run to get more information? How time-sensitive is the decision? Could I make a better decision with more time?

I noticed that uncertainty made me feel a little nauseous. My breath would become shallow. I felt ashamed, because my inner critic kept telling me I was alone: “everyone” around me seemed to have it all “together.” I was poring over books and journaling prompts like they were Ouija boards, looking for external validation that I was making the “right” decision and that I wouldn’t fail.

While I was traveling recently, I practiced this in small ways. For example, I had arrived at my destination with only the first week of accommodations booked. I craved the feeling of safety and security of “knowing” where I was staying next, but I knew that I could make a way better decision in just three more days, after I collected more information. In the meantime, I practiced having fun and being present amidst the uncertainty, and reassuring myself when the thoughts would come up.

Whether it’s starting a creative project, a company, or making a life change, growth involves uncertainty. Even a plant doesn’t exactly know where in space its new leaf will land, yet it can't help but to grow anyway.

The more comfortable I’m becoming with the feeling of uncertainty, the more expansive and grounded I feel–a more solid place from which to move forward.

“I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.” –Sally Mann

Bonus: Exercise

This exercise is a chance to practice another way to face uncertainty–to move through it. 

1. Prepare
Set aside 10 minutes. Go to a quiet room. If there are any large pieces of furniture you may bump into or things you could step on (e.g. coffee table), move them aside. Put on an eye mask or a scarf as a blindfold. Have a journal and a pen nearby. Set a timer for 7 minutes. Put your phone on Airplane Mode.

2. Move
When you're ready, move, dance, and walk through the space. Navigate your next steps with your hands, feet, senses, and intuition. Connect your movement with your breath. Express what arises through your movement.

When discomfort arises, note it and take a deep breath. Say a mantra to yourself, e.g. “Uncertainty is part of life,” and continue with your movement.

3. Close
When the timer goes off, stop where you are and take a comfortable seat. Take a few deep breaths. Slowly remove the eye covering and open your eyes. Journal about what came up for you through this experience.

Adapted from The Moon Deck.