In the field of mental health, there is a concept relating to tolerance for uncertainty, most specifically relating to treatment of anxiety disorders; People with high anxiety have a low tolerance for uncertainty, whereas people with low anxiety have a high tolerance for uncertainty.
An extreme example is someone who suffers with agoraphobia, an anxiety-based panic disorder whereby they may remain “shut-ins,” refusing to leave their homes. They do not want to leave their homes because of the uncertainty that something bad, no matter how slight the chance, might happen to them should they venture outside.
A recovering agoraphobic once described it in this way: He feared that if he went outside, a pterodactyl might swoop down and grab him. After treatment, he learned to smile at this. But this was a good analogy to describe his low tolerance for uncertainty. His fear overtook reason. In his mind, there was at least some chance, no matter how infinitesimal, that there was one such flying dinosaur left, secretly hiding out, surviving all these years, and it was going to get him if he walked outside. So he didn’t leave his home.
To a lesser degree, other anxiety issues will cause the fear of uncertainty to manifest itself in some fashion. Those suffering with Obsessive-Compulsive issues may repeatedly wash their hands in order to avoid the slightest chance of contracting some type of germ. Those with General or Social Anxiety Disorders may engage in what’s called catastrophic thinking and avoid certain situations and activities as, again, there is a chance something will go wrong. Fears of flying or public speaking are common examples.
The generally accepted treatment for such issues is called exposure therapy. It is basically a carefully planned and incremental form of the old adage that you have to face your fears—that you have to build your tolerance and learn to embrace uncertainty.
This concept of embracing uncertainty has connotations for all of us, and there is a spiritual angle as well. How many of us have experienced (or knew someone) staying in a bad job or an unhealthy relationship because the uncertainty of leaving those situations created more anxiety than the certainty of staying in those unhappy situations? How many people do not end up following their true life’s path because it is impractical, because there is a large degree of perceived uncertainty associated with following that path? The fear speaks out: “Watch out! If you do follow that dream, a pterodactyl might just swoop down and gobble you up!”
In the spiritual realm, there is the not-so-secret concept, put forth in one form or another by many teachers, that the universe or a higher power will conspire to give you what you want or need, if you allow it to do so. So how do we allow the universe to unfold to grant our heart’s desires and help us manifest our true selves without embracing uncertainty? In order to let the universe unfold for us, we have to hand over the controls to this greater force. It takes courage, faith, and trust that we will in fact be taken care of, that we won’t be harmed and we will end up right where we are supposed to be, even if that is different from our original intent.
We then discover that when we trust, let go, and embrace the uncertainty, the mental chatter in our own minds which expressed the fear of uncertainty, subsides. The quietness created then allows the unfolding universe to interact with our own intuition. We get clearer direction from within our own hearts. We become steadfast on a new path which may be riddled with uncertainty and perceived as impractical by others. Ironically, we feel more certain about our direction. We aren’t practicing embracing uncertainty in a careless manner, however. We don’t jump out into a busy street, thinking, “Oh the universe will take care of me.” We use discernment. We set intentions and we take careful, mindful steps in the context of proceeding onto a new path. With fearful mental chatter gone, this skill is enhanced.
We also practice non-attachment. We can’t embrace a new uncertain future when we are fully attached to our old lives. We also do not attach ourselves to specific outcomes after we have set our intentions. That attachment will also just create mental chatter trying to control the situation, blocking you from aligning with how the universe is unfolding. Simply put, not knowing exactly what will happen next in our lives is okay. In fact, it is actually liberating. The ability to let go, not know and not try to totally control what will happen next is a key skill and a sign of mental health. We need to learn to embrace uncertainty. We set our intentions without tying ourselves to outcomes, and we then trust in the divine forces which are certainly present.
As for the gentleman with agoraphobia mentioned earlier, he eventually ventured out his front door, at first, for just brief moments. A pterodactyl did not swoop down and get him. The mental chatter expressing fear of uncertainty gradually subsided. He learned to listen to his heart which told him he was safe to go outside despite uncertainties, and that life is full of uncertainties which we can’t let imprison us or stop us from being who we are. He left his old life inside, and each time he went outside, he went farther and farther.
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Barry John Johnson is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego, California. His practice is mindfulness informed specializing in helping people with anxiety, life transitions and enhancing personal happiness. Barry is credentialed in conflict resolution and is a former CEO/City Manager of local governments. His great joys are meditation, intuitive arts and independent spiritual studies.