Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.
In the last blog we explored how ambiguity and uncertainty inevitably arise in the course of our lives and our tendency as humans to view this negatively and often seek ways to avoid it. However, we also discussed how avoiding uncertainty can actually create more suffering in certain circumstances.
So what can we do in these painful moments? What other options are available to us? Since we are limited in the level of predictability and controllability we can yield over the world and life, learning to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty is of huge benefit to our well-being and resilience. It means we can respond adaptively even in the midst of discomfort. This is where mindfulness comes in…which involves shifting your attention to your physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and urges.
The first step is awareness and learning to ask “What is happening for me?”. This means recognizing that reactivity is occurring (i.e., these are the alarm bells that go off in our brain, often referred to as the fight-flight-freeze system) by noticing what is happening in the body. People often notice things like: racing heart, tightness in throat or chest, sweaty or clammy skin.
Then, reflecting: “What am I telling myself about this situation?”. “What story is my mind coming up with?”. “Am I telling myself it might or will go wrong and how realistic/helpful is that? “What effect does that have on my nervous system, emotions, anxiety?”
Finally, inquiring “Is it possible for me to hold that story lightly?” If I did, “What would that free me up to do and choose?” “How do I want to live in this moment?”
These steps help us to be with our discomfort in a way that rather than amplify it, encourages us toward healthy actions.
In my life, my miniature Australian Shepherd Rey is on my top ten hit list of worries. I can find myself obsessing about her health and safety (i.e., “Was that a poisonous plant she ate?” “Is that dog at the dog park going to attack her?” “Is that sound she’s making normal?”). Now sometimes we do need to take action, but for the most part this looping pulls me unnecessary out of the moment – the moments that could be providing comedy, love, or richness. If something dangerous truly happened it would be very painful and upsetting for me. But most of the time she is okay. When I can hold the stories about her in my head lightly, I am free to notice the warmth in her eyes, the joy she displays when fetching, and the comedic things she does daily.
In the movie Finding Nemo, Nemo’s father (Marlin) endures a painful search for his lost son. At one point in the story, Marlin and his comrade Dori end up in the vacuous mouth of a Humpback whale. Marlin becomes enraged as Dori attempts to “speak whale” and communicate their predicament to the whale. Dori claims the whale understands and has a plan…to send them to the back of his throat. Marlin interprets this as “He wants us for lunch” and given this interpretation is rightly scared they will be rushed into the depths of the whale’s stomach never to be seen again. Barely holding on by one fin to the whale’s bumpy tongue as it tips backward, Marlin desperately asks “How do you know everything is going to be okay????” to which Dori replies “I dooooon’t………. You just have to let go….!” As Marlin releases his hold, they swish down, down, down and suddenly are shot out of the whale’s spout to glorious freedom.
The truth is we don’t know. And things might go poorly. But if we want to live a full life, we can ask ourselves in those trepidatious moments what matters most to us. Would the fear of being swallowed be a good enough reason not to let go? Not if your goal is to get out of the whale’s mouth. In fact, the only way to ensure the unwanted outcome (getting swallowed by the whale) is to not act. So, asking “How do I want to live in this moment?” can direct us to what matters most and encourage us to take the step or risk in spite of what our mind and the butterflies in our stomach are telling us.