Courage in the Face of Uncertainty

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At times the unknown pushes us way out of our comfort zone.

Studies indicate that some people would prefer intense physical pain to the state of uncertainty. “I don’t know” provokes an unbearable panic and a desire for resolution. For others, the more adventurous types with a higher threshold for ambiguity, they encounter the unknown with a raised fist and a resounding “YES”.

No matter what our typical response to uncertainty may be, remember this

Fear is normal but courage is a better option.

The choice is ours. Raise our defenses and stay stuck. Or, courageously exercise healthier options and move forward.

Erecting Defenses

When we are desperate for answers we can throw up all sorts of defenses. When the ground shakes under us it is normal to seek solid ground. The problem is when we discover that what we thought was a foundation is after all really shaky ground. This leads to a state where we,

  1. Deny the facts. We all have that mental frontier where reason ends and blind faith begins. And this does not even have to include religion. For instance, some accept the scientific facts of global warming but choose to believe the opposite view of what their political position espouses. “Don’t confuse me with the facts” is the fallback position of a seemingly rational person. The reason is that it is not always truth that we seek but security.
  1. Get busy. When we run into a wall of uncertainty we hit the gas pedal. We speed up our lives and frantically run from one activity (addiction?) to another. I find that when I’m compulsively checking my email that I am compensating for some underlying anxiety. I saw a bumper sticker in the South “Jesus is coming. Look busy” In the face of the unknown we turn into the Roadrunner.
  1. Veg out. When we become frightened by the unknown we can surrender to laziness and procrastination. We drug ourselves with lethargy and this numbs the terror of the unknown. But veging out backfires on us. It makes us feel even more helpless and induces self-loathing.

No matter how hard we try life will still be filled with unknowns. How do we turn uncertainty to our advantage?  Rather, one key is to allow uncertainty be our teacher that helps us taps into deep inner and universal resources.

 Exercising Options

When we find ourselves fearful of uncertainty we can make the following choices.

  1. Face the fear and do it anyway is the title of a book I once read. It takes courage to be open to not being/feeling Okay. Why can we not see these moments of our lives the way we do a season like winter? Ranting against the cold and snow is no way to survive the cold season. As Pema Chodron writes, “If you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness, vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness”.
  1. Come out of our self-protecting bubble by realizing that we are not alone with this feeling. Millions of others face the fear of uncertainty every day. And let’s face it, try this for perspective, my uncertainty as I sit in my armchair pondering the uncertainty of my next work assignment pales in significance to the terrified child or parent in the Middle East wondering if they will live through the next salvo of bombs. So instead of becoming rigid and angry we have the choice of becoming empathic and merciful towards others in a similar but even bigger boat.
  1. Focus on the storyline we construct in response to uncertainty. Physiologically the shelf life of any emotion is but a few seconds. Mentally we continue to scare ourselves with hypothetical “what if’s” based in part on the way things played out in the past. Realize that you are on the path of genuineness as you live with these scary parts. And this is not accomplished by catastrophizing the event but treating it as a “just is”.
  1. Search for the answers you can find. The quest for answers when we are confused, lost, and in pain can be a life saving strategy. I’m glad I searched for better solutions when I found out that I had prostrate cancer. If I had done what my first physician told me to do “Don’t worry about your rising PSA numbers” I would not be alive today. I found another physician who took my condition more seriously and intervened on my behalf by arranging a biopsy.

The best outcome in dealing with our fears is to become what Pema Chodron calls “spiritual warriors”. This is based on the classic Buddhism idea of the bodhisattva ideal, which means,

working on ourselves, developing courage and fearlessness and cultivating our capacity to love and care about other people. It involves taking good care of ourselves, but whatever we do, it’s all in the bigger context of helping” (Chodron)

You may want to also read

“Courage” written with Kris MacKain, Ph.D


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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