Identifying Uncertainty

Note: This post has been automatically imported from my old blog. Formatting may be incorrect.

Uncertainty is often extraordinarily difficult to grapple with. Is your crush requited? Are you going to get the job? Will you catch the bus? Not having answers to these questions can be utterly terrifying, paralyzing you against taking action and undermining your self confidence. In fact, not knowing is usually much worse than being sure of the worst outcome. He doesn't like me back? OK, you can move on. Not getting the job? Alright, time to shift your attention to your other applications. Going to miss the bus? Well, maybe shoot a quick email to your boss and try to get some work done from home before the next one.

I find this to be especially apparent in certain kinds of scary movies and TV shows. A mysterious, unseen big evil is often much more chilling than a really big scary monster. The impact of The First in Buffy was significantly lessened when the red-eyed horned form was revealed. The Beast in Doctor Who had my blood pumping until his big red demon form was finally shown. And I think the general conceit of the bad guy hiding in the shadows is popular in part because it leaves us uncertain of just what he's about.

In my experience, the difficulty seems to stem from lack of causal factors to leverage your choices around. When I know how something actually is/works, even if that actual nature is detrimental, I can use those specifics in how I act. When I don't, though, I don't know how to plan, how to react, because I don't know what I'm reacting to, so I get all of the fear/anxiety/whatever without any of the confidence or acceptance of knowing what I will do. And my current general comfort with uncertainty stems in large part from my response to it, which is to identify it, not just in the sense of noting "I am uncertain" but in the sense of giving my uncertainty a specific identity, a specific shape.

One way I do this is to imagine the possible outcomes. Don't know if I should go to a party when I'm overwhelmed with things I need to get done? Well, if I stay home, I'll miss out on the fun things that happen and be less socially fulfilled than I'd like, but I can get some work done and get good sleep. If I go, I might feel guilty and have a lot to do over the weekend, but I'll see all the people I like and have a blast. Faced with those specific alternatives, it's easy for me to see what I might do in each situation and what I might do to mitigate some of the problems and a lot easier to figure out what it is I want.

Sometimes, though, the uncertainty is at a level where envisioning the outcomes is difficult or impossible (known unknown unknowns, if you will). In these cases, I find it really helpful to focus on the fact that at some point the uncertainty will become resolved. I may not know what specifically to plan for, but I do know that I have good skills for dealing with a wide variety of situations and have reason to consider myself adaptable. I may be uncertain about X, but I'm not uncertain about uncertainty: I know what causes it, how it affects me, and how it can change. And knowing that, I can feel confident that I will be able to make good choices when it becomes important to (especially since uncertain things tend to become clearer just when they become important!).

These approaches have been extraordinarily helpful to me in dealing with not knowing what I might want to know. What has worked for you?