Ambiguity – Part I

 Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.

Did I turn the stove off? Can I park here? Is this mole normal? Will my partner and I make it? How will this event go? How do I measure up compared to…?

Anyone who can connect with the familiarity of questions such as these knows that ambiguity is a part of life. And most of us can agree that our minds don’t like it. Have you ever wondered why it is so uncomfortable?

Essentially, we can thank our evolutionary heritage for this. As the caveman analogy goes, if the shadowy figure on the hillside was a blueberry bush, we got lunch, while if it was a bear, we were lunch. Thus, in primitive times, the stakes for survival rested upon our ability to analyze, predict, and determine what was what with certainty. The “evolutionary imperative is that it’s better to miss lunch than to be lunch. We’re capable of missing lunch many, many times, but we can only be lunch once” as Drs. Wilson and DuFrene detail in their book Things Could go Terribly, Horribly Wrong (2010). Furthermore, the genes of those individuals who were the most cautious were the genes that were passed down. Wilson and Dufrene say these individuals “were the ones who assumed what’s bad is bad and what is ambiguous is bad too.” Thus, we tend to experience discomfort when faced with ambiguity. We are inclined to view it as a problem to be solved or an unpleasantness to be avoided even when the avoidance itself perpetuates our suffering.

Avoidance can look like:

  • sinking ourselves into video games or Netflix
  • focusing on others’ problems
  • not attending a social event we were invited to
  • not asking for the promotion we know we deserve or applying for the new position we know we want
  • not asking someone out or saying “I love you” first
  • not going to the doctor when a concerning symptom lingers
  • generally not taking risks

We also avoid in more subtle ways:

  • seeking certainty and solutions (think about the last time you looked up a worrisome symptom on the internet)
  • trying to control things
  • getting busy, cramming as many “productive” tasks into our day as possible
  • rushing or speeding through tasks and life experiences

 Take a brief moment to consider the ways you notice avoidance showing up in your life…

It’s not that being productive or distracting ourselves from negative emotions and distress are bad. In certain cases, these strategies are useful. However, these approaches when overused can become avoidance strategies that actually heighten stress, foster exhaustion, and further diminish our tolerance for ambiguity and coping with life’s uncertainty.

While we can thank our evolutionary wiring, the tendency to assume ambiguity is bad is less helpful to our current day situations. After all, we rarely encounter bears although the threats we do encounter (i.e., deadlines, taxes) can feel just as intense as a lurking predator. Also, there are many ambiguous situations that actually turn out well or surprise us with unforeseen benefits (e.g., having someone say yes to a request, positive feedback from colleagues or loved ones after taking a risk, meeting someone you connect with at a social gathering you dreaded attending, finding out you have a very treatable medical condition). Sometimes the benefits are less obvious, but no less important. For example, think about the last time you endured a painful situation that in some way widened your lens…perhaps helped you cultivate increased compassion or understanding for others in some way.

Our intent this month is both to normalize our human reactions to ambiguity and to crack open our perception of ambiguity. In addition, the intent is to begin to increase mindful awareness of the personal ways you respond to ambiguity. These are the precursors to making way for new, beneficial ways of responding.

Stay tuned! The next blog will delve further into this topic, specifically cultivating adaptive responses.