A few days ago, one of the members of my Facebook group Port in the Storm said: "I hate not knowing all the detail of lockdown and what will happen with work..." What a mood for 2020, right?! We're all craving certainty at a time where it feels like global news shifts from chaos to catastrophe on an hourly basis.
For some of us, it even goes as far as what Psychologists call "intolerance of uncertainty" - a disposition that results from a negative belief about uncertainty and its implications. That's fancy speak for "not knowing feels dangerous" and gives an explanation for why we feel anxious and stressed. One of my coachees summed it up as "that feeling of impending doom". Intolerance of uncertainty is commonly associated with anxiety, depression, obsessional compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders and autism.
What is "certainty" anyway?
There are some things in life we can be certain of. I know my name is Anna, my cats will gatecrash at least one zoom call every day, and my dream podcast guest is Brie Larson. Seriously, Brie - drop me an email some time.
In all honesty, that was quite a hard list to write. I was going to say that I was certain my partner Mel loves me, but every now and again that critical voice in the back of my head likes to ask me how I know, and what if I'm wrong - so am I 100% certain? I nearly said that I own more books than I'll ever be able to read, but if I really put my mind to it (and didn't buy any more) then I could probably work my way through them over time. I couldn't even name a favourite food without dithering.
So I'm wondering - how much of life are we actually certain about? When I really think about it, it feels like a lot of the time we are swimming in a sea of uncertainty and doing a decent job of staying afloat. When were you last certain about something? How do you know when you reach certainty?
What are we actually looking for then?
I have a theory about this. I believe that we start looking for certainty when our doubts and self-limiting beliefs are running the show. Take the quote from my group member - what is it that she's actually predicting might happen?
It could be that she found working from home really difficult in the first lockdown and she is telling herself that if it happens again, her mental health might take a dip.
It might be that she's worried about her finances and has a niggling belief that she can't have a fulfilling career and make money from it.
Perhaps it's reminding her of a very specific event in the past that she hasn't fully processed, and old emotions are rising to the surface.
I don't know if any of these are close to the mark - they're three hypotheticals out of infinite possibilities. My point is this - the uncomfortable part isn't actually the uncertainty, because we deal with that every day. The uncomfortable part is what we make the uncertainty mean to us. It's the story we're creating about what is going on and the challenges we are predicting might occur.
What on earth do I do about it then?
That's the gold star question, right? What do we do about it? No one wants to feel uncomfortable, particularly over long periods of time. Here are my top tips for coping with uncertain times:
RECOGNISE - get present to the story inside your head. You could try journaling about whatever is worrying you and see what pops up for you. (Stream of consciousness journaling is particularly good for this kind of enquiry.)
RESTORE - how are you feeling in body and mind? If you're feeling run down, revisit your needs and meet any that are currently unfulfilled.
RECOVER - does this situation remind you of anything? If you're being triggered into past emotions, try grounding yourself in the here and now using some mindfulness techniques.
REWRITE - what future feeling would you like to have? No matter which way things pan out, how would you like to be feeling in six months?
REVEAL - what are the possibilities and potentials that are hidden inside this uncertainty? You could learn something new about yourself, develop your resilience skills or even come up with a brilliant idea when your brainspace isn't taken up with all that stress.
If after all that, you're still feeling stuck in the cycle of uncertainty, you might want to call in some outside support. Having someone to bounce ideas off can spark deeper discoveries, and you might need a bit of accountability if your plan involves significant changes to your habits and routines. Booking a chat might be a brilliant first step in discovering that you've actually got a lot of skills and experience to get you through whatever 2020 has left to throw at us!