PARENT TOOLKIT: MANAGING YOUR OWN UNCERTAINTY
Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.
The mathematician John Allen Paulos summed up in one sentence what many great philosophers and thinkers have expressed throughout history – that uncertainty is an essential and unavoidable aspect of the human experience.
Although uncertainty can be accepted as a “given”, the fallout of this uncertainty can be difficult for each of us to deal with. Humans are always trying to find ways to make sense of the world and control it. We rely on self-constructed identities, beliefs, and assumptions as a way of managing the uncertainty of being in the world.
These worldviews can be challenged and disrupted in many ways, through change or loss (i.e., the loss of a relationship, a job, an identity, a sense of independence, meaning or purpose, or death). As we grapple with uncertainty, feelings of confusion, anxiety, fear, or anger are common. We will usually attempt to deal with this by regaining control of our environment to reduce the unknowns and ambiguities.
If you are interested, the following videos explore the relationship between uncertainty and human nature in greater detail:
If uncertainty is indeed an inevitable part of life, then how do we live with it? The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva suggested:
If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
Epictetus, the Greek stoic philosopher, wrote:
Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr created the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking the world as it is,
not as I would have it.
STRATEGIES TO MANAGE UNCERTAINTY
While it is not possible to avoid uncertainty altogether, here are some strategies you can try to help manage the impact or negative emotions that may come with it.
- Examine your thinking
When faced with uncertainty, you may find yourself stuck in anxious thought spirals, imagining all the ways that things could go wrong. This is completely normal, as humans have a natural tendency to overestimate risks and plan for negative outcomes. However, it’s likely that this ruminating will only exacerbate your suffering and feelings of helplessness. When you notice that you’re in one of these spirals, try to examine your thinking in a curious and non-judgemental way…
What does this situation say about me and my beliefs? What other perspectives am I missing here? To counter our natural tendency to predict the worst, you might find it helpful to actively imagine the best-case scenario, or to write a list of all the other times you have made it through uncertain times.
Explore more tips to challenge negative thoughts.
- Focus on the things you can control
When we feel overwhelmed with uncertainty, it’s easy to fixate on the problem and all the things we have no power over. A key part of reducing this anxiety is to identify aspects of the situation that are within your control. It can be helpful to write a list or discuss this with someone else, who might be able to provide a new perspective. Once you have determined what you have control over, you can focus your energy on making changes in those areas, while attempting to let go of the rest.
These tips may help you focus on what you can control.
- Be mindful
In times of uncertainty, it doesn’t do us much good to worry about the future and everything that is out of our control. Mindfulness if a useful tool that can help bring our attention back to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness can help us to cultivate a sense of calm and open-mindedness, where we are better able to tolerate uncertainty and manage our emotional responses. While we may not be able to control the situation, we can control of what we pay attention to.
You can incorporate mindfulness into your life by engaging in formal practice such as meditation (e.g., five meditations to calm your anxious mind) or using mindfulness apps (e.g., Smiling Mind). You can also engage in informal mindfulness by bringing your awareness to the present moment while engaging in everyday activities (browse here for some ideas).
- Keep up a good routine
Establishing a healthy routine is always good for mental and physical wellbeing, but never more so than when other aspects of our lives feel unpredictable or out of control. Changes to sleep or mealtimes, or other disruptions to our regular routines, only add to the feelings of chaos and overwhelm that arise with uncertainty. During times of stress, people often dedicate less time to activities like exercise, socialising, hobbies and relaxation, which are often the things that bring meaning and connection into our lives.
To maintain some sense of stability or control through uncertainty, keeping up healthy habits and routines is vital. Browse here for some routine-building tips.
- Be kind to yourself
Above all, remember that everyone struggles with uncertainty. Your feelings and responses are likely very normal, so try not to be too hard on yourself. Give yourself a break and treat yourself as if you would a good friend – with patience and compassion. Find healthy ways to comfort yourself, rest when you are tired, move in ways that feel good, and set aside some time to pursue things that bring you pleasure or joy.
If you have been struggling with uncertainty and think you may need some extra support, follow these links to explore mental health services or to find information on getting a mental health care plan.
OTHER RESOURCES YOU MAY FIND USEFUL
- Webinar for parents: Managing uncertainty (psychologist Dr Geoff Newbegin explores ways to manage uncertainty in adults from 7:55min–18:00min)
- Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
- Discourses and Selected Writings – Epictetus
- The Art of Living – Epictetus
- Hardship & Happiness – Seneca
- How to Be a Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci
- How to Think Like a Roman Emperor – Donald Robertson
- Advice Not Given – Mark Epstein