Please take a moment to review Hachette Book Group's updated Privacy Policy: read the updated policy here.

How to Deal With Uncertainty

Dealing with uncertainty

A lot of people have been talking about ‘these uncertain times’ lately. But let’s remember that times are always uncertain. Us twenty-first-century humans tend to construct our lives to give a sense of permanence, forgetting how fragile everything really is. I can’t help feeling it would be a whole lot better for our collective mental health if we took a moment to remember that everything is changing all the time.

The impermanence of things is a fundamental law of nature. Things come and they go. Whatever things are like at the moment, they won’t always be like that. They won’t ‘always’ be like anything. There is ebb and flow in the river of life.

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the much misunderstood Japanese concept of wabi sabi. For years, people in the West had been using it to describe the beauty of objects that were imperfect in some way, as an adjective, as in ‘a wabi sabi bowl’. But in doing so they were missing the point of this way of seeing the world, which is more relevant than ever at a time like this.

As I shared in the book of the same name, one of the core teachings of wabi sabi is the acceptance of the true nature of life: everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete.

Our lives, relationships, careers, health, finances, attitudes, interests, capabilities, responsibilities and opportunities are changing all the time. Sometimes the change is significant or fast, and you feel it as clearly as a rushing wind. At other times the change will be minor or slow, like a daffodil raising its head to the sun, and you have to pay close attention to see it.

Stability can make us feel safe, but it is a precarious stability that is built on the misguided assumption that things won’t change, because everything does. When a sudden change comes from an external source the shock is considerable. Rigidity actually makes us vulnerable to that. If it hits us when we are desperately trying to hang on to what we know, it can knock us flat. But if we are accepting of what is happening (not necessarily happy about it, or condoning it, but realistic about the fact that it is going on), we might be blown about but not completely knocked off balance, and we can recover sooner. Flexibility is strength. Be like bamboo.

You can do this

This is the time to use your tools. You have been preparing for this all your life in ways that you didn’t realise. Those yoga classes you went to. Those times you sang with your children when hard stuff was going on. Those recipes you tried out. The ideas you’ve had. The skills you’ve learned. The friends you’ve made. The business you built – even if it’s crumbling, you can do it, or do it again if you have to at some point in the future.

We cannot take the uncertainty away right now. The truth is we never can, but we put up walls and tie things down and schedule things and pay for things and tell ourselves things to make us feel as if we are in control.

Instead, if we can allow the uncertainty, and accept it to be a part of life, we can let go of the effort it takes to want it to be anything else.

Here are things that you can try when uncertainty is playing heavily on your heart:

  • Make sure you are balanced in your imagination. For every dreadful scenario that you dream up, make yourself dream up, in the same level of detail, an equally wonderful scenario. This puts both possibilities in your mind, and then shows you that neither is more of a fact than watching a film.
  • For every hope you have, consider a possible challenge, and how you would deal with that if it came. This can help to build confidence in your capacity to cope and resilience when those things come towards you. And then return to the hope, and think about how you will feel if that comes to pass.
  • Every time you get a wave of anxiety about an uncertain future, take a moment to breathe, and make a note of something positive you can do to help yourself right now. If you are struggling to decide what to do, simply ask, ‘What is the best action in this moment that will also aid my future self?’ It might be supporting your immune system with the things you choose to eat. It might be waiting for the fog to clear, and talking to a friend in the meantime. It might be resting. It might be flying into action with a passion you haven’t seen in years. There is no one right answer. But there is a best answer in this moment with the information you have and the words in your heart.

Allowing it all

This is a time for giving ourselves permission to loosen the reins, and to allow whatever wants to happen, to happen.

A time for allowing yourself to not feel OK, if you don’t feel OK. Not judging that, or pushing past it to productivity, but noticing it, and taking care of it. We might fluctuate between tough and tender, heart open and heart hurting. The feelings won’t last, just like the situation. We have to be prepared for waves of emotion and ideas, of adrenalin and lethargy, joy and grief, because we are not used to this.

If you are catastrophising, allow yourself to focus on the facts, and if the facts are worrying in themselves, focus on the facts of now, this present moment, what you can identify with your senses. And breathe. Journal if it helps. Talk to someone if it helps. Get professional support if you need it. Many counsellors are offering their services remotely, so the support is still there.

Allow yourself to take a break from being the one holding it all together.

Allow yourself to surrender to whatever is happening, in whatever way you must.

Allow yourself to ask for help.

Allow yourself to bring all your reserves to fight if you need too.

Allow yourself to rest, if you need to.

Allow tension to seep out from your bones and drift away from you. Allow the push and the struggle to go, too.

Allow true friendships to flourish, and those that aren’t as strong as you thought they were, to drift.

Allow creativity to flow forth if it wants to, for the sake of itself, or for your work. It doesn’t matter.

Allow your mind to wander, and your heart to open, and for hope to enter in.