Over the last few days there has been a peak in uncertainty, especially here in the UK following recent announcements from leaders of each country. Many have felt that these announcements have not been in harmony with each other and we find ourselves in a situation where the different countries within the UK have different rules for lockdown and out of sync responses to the current pandemic we are all facing. For many, the announcements and messages coming from national leadership have been riddled with contradictions and have exasperated the sense of uncertainty about the future.
The purpose of this blog is to not make judgements one way or the other on the clarity of the announcements and messages delivered. But, to respond to the thousands of people who have experienced a significant change in mood, an increase in anxiety or sadly an increase in despair as lockdowns are extended and the only real clear message being delivered is 'we are still very unclear what the future looks like'. For many, last weekend will have become a hinge point in their COVID-19 experience, where lockdown and social-distancing seems to be the only certain and immediate future in their lives and for too many this will be more than they can bear.
As I have reflected on this current situation, I came across a quote from Steven R Covey;
"If there's one thing that's certain in business, it's uncertainty."
This is as true for life, as it is for business. Life is full of uncertainty; the current circumstances are exposing our intolerance for feeling vulnerable and our resistance in accepting uncertainty as a way of life. For so many years society has dictated that we should be chasing the comfortable life. How many times have you heard someone say, I just want to be comfortable, I want to have an easy life? I wonder if we reached a point, where the majority of people believed that this was actually a viable destination, a realistic end-point where the arrival of comfort and certainty would take up residence in our life? In reality the absence of uncertainty in life has never been a viable destination for anyone.
For me, I do sometimes worry about the future, 12 months ago, almost to the date, I was made redundant after 14 years with the same business, receiving no more than half of what I was entitled to. Now, here I am with a 12 month old business, five fabulous children, a wonderful wife and my business has had to practically start all over again. To say the future is uncertain is an understatement. I know there will be many in far worse situations than myself and I intentionally remind myself every day of the things I am grateful for. Uncertainty is an experience in life, that is not to be taken lightly, and should never be resisted. Who really has anything certain in their life? Think of the countless businesses and workers who were going along 'just fine' before this pandemic, none of us can ever really live in a paradigm absent of uncertainty.
I know some will be probably be thinking, 'well, thanks for that, now I am more miserable than before'. I understand, but the point of this introduction is not to depress people, but to be clear on one key certainty that we do have right now, which will in time empower and inspire us all to change for life, that is; uncertainty is a vital part of life, and one we cannot live without. The essence of my opening message is that we have been selling ourselves unrealistic perceptions and false-positive narratives for years. Being comfortable with no uncertainty in life was never going to be a realistic end-point. Now is the time to realise that it's not 'uncertainty' that's the problem, no, it's the way we perceive and the beliefs we have about 'uncertainty' that is the issue. The only certainty we have right now, is that uncertainty is certain. Some will be calling this view pessimistic. But it isn't, because a healthy view of uncertainty is full of optimism, hope and personal growth.
"The only certainty we have right now, is that uncertainty is certain"
The title of this blog is stabilising uncertainty, the answer to this is to shift our experience with uncertainty. To change our beliefs, thoughts and feelings regarding uncertainty. As we do, we can truly stabilise uncertainty, we can build a resilience and wellbeing that will empower us to thrive in life regardless of circumstances. Of course, I am not suggesting for one minute that it will be easy, however, it is possible, and it is worth every bit of energy and effort that you put forward to achieve it.
A Personal Experience
When I was 18 years old my Nan died. The weekend of her unexpected death was a previously planned extended family gathering. I was meant to travel the 300 mile trip with my family to visit my extended family and stay with my Nan. I didn't, choosing to stay home and play football with my friends. On the Sunday evening of that weekend, my parents called me on their way home, when I answered, my mum was crying and said that my Nan had died of a heart attack that morning at church. The next time I saw my Nan was at the funeral home, prior the funeral. I had not really spoken to anyone about how I felt. All I remember feeling was guilt, shame and hatred toward myself for not being where I should have been that weekend. The future seemed dark to say they least, there was no reality of the future where I felt happy again. I stood by my Nan and finally spoke, begging her to forgive me. My Dad was in the room and was completely shocked by my reaction. He and my mum consoled me, but I could not see past what was currently happening. Now many years on, I still get emotional about this experience, I obviously regret my decision that weekend, but I do have a different perspective, which has meant I have benefitted greatly from that experience. In fact I can honestly say that this one event in my life has played a critical role in me becoming who I am today. I share this experience to show that even in our deepest sorrows which cast the darkest shadow of uncertainty over our future (which this experience did for me) we can benefit greatly and grow tremendously. But it is in our resistance and fear of uncertainty that many, including myself, experience significant mental health and emotional wellbeing challenges.
"...even in our deepest sorrows which cast the darkest shadow of uncertainty over our future, we can benefit greatly and grow tremendously"
We cannot make life certain, even if others messages and narratives are crystal clear, what certainty does it ever really give us. Anything could happen at anytime. It is in the experience of overcoming uncertainty that we truly experience the best this life has to give us. But as I said before, it is not easy.
"It is in the experience of overcoming uncertainty that we truly experience the best this life has to give us"
Shifting the Uncertainty Experience
As I said earlier a healthy experience with uncertainty can be filled with hope, optimism and personal growth. From this point on, I want to offer some suggestions that might help you in stabilising your experience with uncertainty and turn it into a healthy one. If you are someone that is already experiencing a healthy relationship with uncertainty, then maybe these suggestions will serve as a reminder or add to your current 'toolbox' of coping mechanisms and strategies.
1. Stand on Solid Ground
The first thing you need to do is make sure the ground you are standing on is firm and solid. The ground I am referring to is you knowing and understanding your values along with associated beliefs. In the work I do with people, I find that too many individuals do not really know what is most important to them, what they truly value most above everything else. The challenge with living this way is that it leaves us vulnerable to not living true to who we really are. It can often lead to living in conflict with our values (with ourselves), and can lead us to being easily swayed or influenced by others, which can lead to confusion, and increased experiences of discomfort with uncertainty, which in the most serious of situations could lead to mental and emotional ill-health. Living life without really knowing, understating and being true to our values is like living life with no compass.
The other challenge with not knowing our values, regardless of whether you think knowing your values is important or not, is that your brain knows how important your values are and knows them inside out, your values have been formed throughout your lifetime. Your brain uses your values for much of its emotional, cognitive and behavioural functioning which predominantly occurs within our subconscious mind. So, we need to be bring our values into the conscious mind, as we do this along with our associated beliefs, we can empower ourselves to 'stand on solid ground' and move forward with purpose and optimism. How do values and associated beliefs ensure you are standing on solid ground? Well, they serve as personal sails and an anchor for your life, let me explain these metaphors further:
The Sails Metaphor: A ship without sails cannot move in the direction it intends to go, it will be driven to and fro by the sea, the weather and the winds. likewise, an individual without consciousness of their values and beliefs is easily influenced and directed. They follow voices that seem right or have the most following, they are easily confused by contradictory messaging because they rely on the information of others to determine their choices. They are left out at sea, because they are unable to guide their own thinking. I am not being critical of people who are suffering in any way as a result of not being conscious of their values, everybody at some stage of their life has experienced this, and the current situation is extremely difficult to manage. In reality, the current circumstances with COVID-19 is producing the worst winds and weather your "ship" has ever seen, testing even the strongest of sails, or in other words testing even those people with the strongest understanding of their values and beliefs. But, despite it being difficult, people with the strongest sails will be the ones that will guide their ships through the strongest storms. In other words, those individuals with the strongest understanding of their values, and intentionally strive to live them each day, will be the people who will navigate their way through uncertainty with hope and optimism toward personal growth.
"People with the strongest sails will be the ones that will guide their ships through the strongest storms"
The Anchor Metaphor: A ship without an anchor will float away, it will not be able to fix its position when needed. It is left to the mercy of the sea without ever being able to come in to rest. Your values and beliefs are your gauge for when to stay and when to leave. They empower and inspire action and rest. Without them you are left to the dictates of others, you become someone who 'life happens to' rather than you 'interacting with life'. Your 'anchor' or your values and beliefs help you know how to take care of yourself and others. They empower you to act upon and control the controllable, as opposed to being acted upon and attempting to control the uncontrollable.
I hope you are starting to see from these two metaphors, that your values and beliefs when understood and lived provide you with solid ground to stand and move forward on. They empower you to face uncertainty responsively and intentionally, they inspire you to grow from the experience of uncertainty and to support others to do the same.
2. Define Your End-Game
Do you know who you are working to become, not where you are trying to get too, or not particularly what you are trying to achieve, but who are you striving to become? Your end-game is the ultimate you, the you in the future that has become someone who is living their values. Hope and optimism for the future are the ultimate remedy for uncertainty. It is difficult to really pin our hopes on materialistic achievements, or even accomplishments, although these have their place. But where your hope and optimism can be fixed, is in who you are working on becoming. What does this person look like? How are you going to achieve the growth needed? Who will be with you as you travel your journey?
When I come through this challenge of re-inventing a 12 month business with hardly any money to invest in the future, and no one wanting to invest (understandably) because of the uncertainty, who knows what it will look like! But, one thing I do know is the type of person I want to have become as a result of this situation and circumstances. It's on the days when the business doesn't look like its moving forward, on the days when I feel like a bad parent or useless husband, on the days when I feel like I am not achieving as much as I want, that I focus myself to who am I striving to become. Here I have full control, its not easy at times, but it is in my control. I read, plan, prioritise, learn, develop, love, serve, self-correct, evaluate, change and grow.
Do you have a vision board of some kind? have you got a visual of who you are trying to become? It is in this journey that personal responsibility truly transforms us into something beyond our original vision, something far greater than you could ever have imagined.
Family means something different to all of us. But what we can all agree on is whatever your family looks like, love is the central ingredient. In the face of uncertainty many survival or even coping strategies can take us away from the ones we love and from self-love. They can distract us from what's most important. I can be guilty of this, my answer to uncertainty is work-hard, and if that doesn't work, work-harder. It's a good strategy, but it has its time and place. I have learned that I have to plan time in to show love to those I care about. I am getting a lot better at this. I have also learned that I need a 'You First' approach to life, where I intentionally take personal responsibility to make sure I am thriving so I can help others do the same. No one achieves the joy of love in life without intentionally planning for both forms; love with others and self-love. Anyone that coasts by in their relationships with their loved ones or themselves will sadly suffer in some way or another.
The best cure to self-depreciation in the face of uncertainty, in my view, is to serve others. To see others needs which have resulted from their experience with uncertainty and then meet those needs. Something magical happens to our fear of uncertainty, when we focus on meeting the demands of uncertainty for others. The fear begins to dissipate and we begin to increase in hope and optimism. Whether the need of others is worse or less than ours, by serving others, we become more grateful and more humble. This places us in the best possible state to be helped and to recognise opportunities of our own. We also change our experience with our emotions and intentionally create positive emotions, which literally build and broadens the mind, making it healthier as well as more flexible in its thinking. Serving others makes us feel good, but it also makes us mentally healthy and emotionally well. When facing uncertainty, doing things to intentionally optimise our mental health and emotional wellbeing is the best long-term strategy we can have, serving others is a great option for this strategy.
The truth for all of us, is that we are more powerful than we can ever know. We are truly incredible creatures, who some times lose their way. Current negative experiences with uncertainty are not down to unclear messages from others, although this absolutely doesn't help, but they are down to our perspective and beliefs about uncertainty. We can stabilise uncertainty by shifting our perception of uncertainty to one more realistic. A key certainty in life is that uncertainty is certain. As we start to do this and then; stand on solid ground, define our end-game, love and serve, we can truly empower our experience with uncertainty to a healthy one filled with hope, optimism and personal growth.
In the words of JRR Tolkien;
"Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me, I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times but that is not for them to decide, All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you."
We all wish we didn't have to live through such times, so much sorrow and sadness for so many, but it is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given. You can stabilise your experience with uncertainty, it would help if circumstances were different and messages were clearer, but the reality is uncertainty is certain, its how we choose to interact with it that determines our experience. To stabilise uncertainty, you need to embrace it and intentionally focus on the things you can control. As you do this one step at a time, you will begin to fill your life with hope, optimism and personal growth.
Performance Psychologist | Emotional Intelligence Specialist | Co-Founder EPIC 4LIFE