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Tolerating Uncertainty

November 3, 2017

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Dealing with uncertainty, for most of us, can be quite challenging. We can tolerate uncertainty quite easily for things that do not matter very much to us. It is very difficult to tolerate uncertainty for things that matter very much to us. 


In his book Freedom from OCD, Jonathon Grayson talks about the nature of OCD being the desire to make the uncertain, certain.  This is not exclusive to OCD, but the intensity and frequency is enhanced for individuals struggling with anxiety and OCD. Distress caused by uncertainty can become omnipresent in their day to day, and can impede ability to function.  Often times, certainty is an illusion we chase, when we think we have it, it disappears again.


Due the the constant doubt that comes with OCD, most certainty obtained is usually short-lived. For example, after leaving my house, I wonder to myself "Did I turn off the stove?" This question, almost immediately gives a spike of anxiety. I then must decide to keep going, despite my doubt or to turn around and check the stove, to be certain. If I decide to keep going, my anxiety will either go down or persist as my thoughts persist. If I decide to turn around and check, my anxiety will be instantly relieved upon the certainty that all is fine.  Until, that thought enters again...."What if I missed something? What if I didn't check good enough? What if I knocked the knob as I was walking away?" The relief from anxiety received from checking is only temporary, as the thoughts and anxiety will return, in this scenario or another one. 


A behavior of OCD, that is not exclusive to people with OCD, if to try to "fix" the thing that makes us anxious. A moment of uncertainty and subsequent anxiety is resolved if I can find a way to fix the situation. I am able to fix my uncertainty about the stove by checking the stove. I am able to fix my uncertainty about avoiding illness by washing my hands. I am able to fix my uncertainty about a medical issue by seeking reassurance from a physician, etc. etc. The problem with this pattern, is the more we do this pattern, the more we will do this pattern. It becomes a learned behavior to fix our anxiety instead of tolerating it. The process of constantly fixing our anxiety will likely cause more distress over time than sitting with the discomfort that comes with tolerating our anxiety until it goes down on its own.


So what is wrong with fixing things? Nothing. But not all things can be fixed. If our repeated pattern when faced with a difficult emotion is to try and fix it, we never learn how to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. Sometimes life can be really hard. Things happen that cause us great pain, that are not fixable. If our wheelhouse of coping only includes fixing, those times can be even harder. 


Additionally, painful emotions are just that - painful. They are not intolerable. Anxiety, while uncomfortable, will not harm you. In fact, the process of trying to block, fix, or solve painful emotions will frequently cause them to last longer, intensify or return. 


For many of us, in the presence of painful emotions, fear pops up. Fear about the presence of pain. Fear motivates us to continue our well reinforced patterns of avoiding, pushing away, solving or fixing whatever is prompting the painful emotion. My call here, is in the face of fear and pain, try to take a deep breath and ride it out. See if you can tolerate the experience of the painful emotion on its own. The process of doing this will not only help create new patterns in response to anxiety and emotions, but also avoid future suffering that comes with unhelpful patterns cited above. Over time we learn that our emotions are not something to fear, and their presence becomes a more tolerable experience.




A favorite podcast of mine, Dear Sugars, with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, feature letters about difficult situations people face, writing to the authors for advice. Often the subjects are troubling situations that aren't easily fixed or solved. No matter the subject, the writers response often feature some variation of: "Wow, that is really, really, really difficult. We are thinking of you. Sounds like you need to dig deep with yourself and determine the best way to proceed. You can handle this. Be brave, and do let us know how it goes. We are cheering for you."  Funny enough, the simple nature of their response is very comforting. They know that saying "Everything will work out" would be unhelpful, as they don't actually know that to be true. Instead they encourage their audience to weather the storm, sit with the discomfort instead of getting stuck within it, and plow forward in their life. It is the best any of us can do any day.





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