Embracing Uncertainty

By Jamie Edwards, LCSW

In researching for this blog embracing uncertainty, I came across something called the uncertainty principle, developed by a German physicist Werner Heisenberg. This principle makes sense of the unexplainable in science and math, such as the functions of atoms, space, and the sun. In basic terms, the more we know about the positioning of a particle, the less we will know about its momentum. This paradox illustrates very well the frustration we experience with uncertainty in our lives: the more we know it’s there, the less we seem to know about anything else. But why is uncertainty such an issue for us humans? And how can it actually be a good thing?

Beginning from the time of the cavemen, we have always sought certainty; in fact, we are wired for it. This is because it has been essential for our survival. If we know what we can eat that won’t hurt us, if we know where to go that will be safe, if we know who to trust, these will all allow us to continue living and ensure the species the same benefit.  This desire for uncertainty is so strong that it can go unnoticed. We can rush in an intimate relationship to feel our partner won’t leave us, we can seek more and more wealth, we can avoid dealing with death at all cost. However, we have come far from the days of cavemen, and as such seeking certainty and avoiding uncertainty can actually cause us more pain than pleasure. The reality is, uncertainty will always be a part of our lives, and we can learn to embrace it.  Here’s why:

Uncertainty is where we grow

Often, we can learn more when we venture somewhere new than somewhere we have already been; we cannot grow alone from familiar spaces. There are many stories of great success, and they started from trying something new.  Often, we must “fail” and make “mistakes” along the way, and it is in that process and what we learn from it that then leads us to reaching our goals.

Embracing Uncertainty motivates us and encourages curiosity:

If we were certain of everything, it would be pretty hard for us to live our daily lives. Uncertainty motivates us to work, play, explore. It encourages us to be curious about what we see, think, feel. Great inventions have been discovered due to simply wondering, “what would happen if…?” Put simply, life would be pretty boring!

Uncertainty keeps us present.

Uncertainty allows us to settle in the unknown, even though it can be uncomfortable. We often feel that knowing will make us feel better, however this is an assumption. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the pursuit of certainty, we can often do something I like to call disaster planning, thinking of every possible future scenario and how we would tackle it if it came our way. Knowing that uncertainty exists, we can recognize that disaster planning doesn’t serve us, and when we find ourselves there we can compassionately bring ourselves back to enjoying the present moment.

Uncertainty allows for grey:

Uncertainty creates more possibilities for us in understanding ourselves, others, and how the world works. We can often be troubled by thinking a situation or person has to be one thing or the other; this is called black and white thinking. Uncertainty allows for the grey to exist, that both can be true. For example, we can often have conflicting emotions, where we both are mad at someone but still love them, or dislike certain parts of them but like other parts.  Another example brings us back to the uncertainty principle, in acknowledging there is uncertainty, this principle helps explain phenomena that would otherwise remain a mystery.

So the next time you find yourself seeking certainty, take some time – even a second – to lean in, and be curious about what you’re experiencing. You might be surprised what you find!