Anxiety thrives on doubt. What if the plane crashes? What if I offended that person I was talking to at the party? What if my coworkers think I don't know what I'm doing? What if the fork at the restaurant wasn't properly cleaned? What if I hit someone while I was driving? What if I'm screwing up my kids? What if my anxiety never gets better?
Our anxious thoughts fill us with uncertainty and prompt us to eradicate doubt. And when the search for certainty goes unchecked, anxiety can take on a life of its own.
Problems with seeking certainty
It doesn't work. Our typical response in the face of anxiety and uncertainty is to, understandably, find ways to seek reassurance, or avoid, or try to control a situation, i.e., to be sure that what we are afraid will happen, will not happen. The unfortunate downside of this approach is that it does not actually get us closer to a feeling of safety, relaxation, and certainty. In fact, quite the opposite, reassurance and avoidance maintain and reinforce anxiety. Because we cannot ever know with 100% certainty....anything really, we will always come up empty handed, mentally exhausted, and still anxious when we try to seek certainty.
It breeds disconnection from people and from the present. When we spend our time planning out every aspect of an experience so nothing can surprise us, we've given up time and mental energy that could be spent pursuing something else that is important to us. When we are constantly asking our partner to reassure us, we are disrupting our relationship. When we are endlessly dwelling on if x, y, or z will happen, our minds are elsewhere. We're not truly engaged in our lives or connected to what is actually important to us. We've made feeling certain our number one priority at the expense of everything else.
What does it look like to embrace uncertainty?
It's uncomfortable at first, but making room for a little doubt gets easier and easier, until it becomes empowering. It is a mental attitude that embodies willingness to be unsure.
Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean you don’t care about the kids making it through the school day or whether or not you are working hard enough on that project at work or about if you could be exposing yourself (and others you come in contact with) to illness by touching that elevator button. But embracing uncertainty does mean that you accept that we live in a world we cannot control or predict.
I do not know if the plane will crash, but I'm willing to sit with the discomfort of not knowing because getting to my son's graduation is important to me. I may have offended someone in my conversation at the party, I just can't know. My coworkers might think I'm an idiot and have no idea what I'm doing--oh well. The fork at the restaurant may not have been cleaned thoroughly; I'm going to be uncomfortable and take my chances so I can enjoy this night out with my wife. I could have hit someone while I was driving, but going back to check will only fuel my uncertainty. I might be screwing up my kids, there's really no way to know, but I definitely love them, am doing my best, and want to be present in the time I have with them. My anxiety might not get better, I really can't know for sure and that's scary, but I will stick with my treatment.
When we take calculated risks to live with uncertainty and to be vulnerable, we free ourselves from the never-ending, impossible to win game/job of controlling and predicting. Furthermore, we allow ourselves to refocus our attention on what is actually happening right in front of us.