Reality Check: Coping with uncertainty
In my profession as a therapist, people often ask why people resist change, even when their behavior or their relationships bring them unhappiness or pain.
The answer is complex, and individual factors vary, but one generalization holds pretty true across most: people find more comfort in the known than the unknown, even when it isn’t particularly pleasant. Or as renowned family therapist Virginia Satir put it: “People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”
Well, these are pretty uncertain times, and I don’t know about you, but I’ll admit I’ve been pretty miserable.
While life is never 100% predictable, our institutions and routines provide a sense of certainty, an expected path. Crises may arise and create bumps in the road, but they tend to be singular events, impact a small group, or affect one or two areas of our lives at once.
The Covid-19 pandemic hit us with uncertainty from every direction and rocked all our foundations at once - physical well-being, work, school, family, leisure. Our health, our wallets, our calendars, and our humanity.
Now, it can feel like we are in the wilderness forging new paths, and we don’t know which way is the safest. Because frankly, each path has hidden dangers, and these dangers may be different for each traveler.
Outside of our home, we don’t really know which spaces are clean and which are contaminated. We are dependent on others taking safety precautions to keep us and our families safe. We don’t know who this virus will affect, the extent of those effects, and how it will spread. We don’t know its long-term consequences, or when we will have a vaccine. We don’t know when we can resume activities, see our loved ones, plan events, travel, stop wearing masks, shake hands, or give hugs.
Despite this vast uncertainty, we are being asked to make a lot of important decisions, especially frontline workers, school administrators, teachers, and parents. None of the choices are without disadvantages, and whichever direction we choose, we will likely have regrets along the way. While missteps are a part of every well-lived life, when the path is new, and so many choices left to us centered around our health and our children, it will be natural to blame ourselves for every stumble this time.
So how to cope with the uncertainty? First, accept it. We will never have all the information needed to make the ultimate, fail-safe decision across all arenas. We cannot predict if schools will close, if we will get sick, or when the world will reopen. We can only help facilitate progress in the moment.
Be patient, understanding, and forgiving. People in leadership positions are faced with unprecedented challenges and are trying to make decisions to satisfy the largest number. There are bound to be some or even many who are unhappy with the resulting compromises. There will be mistakes. There will be information that comes to light after decisions are made that make some ask, “why?” But raging, criticizing, and insulting doesn’t help. Let’s all vow to stay calm, ask questions and share concerns civilly, and work together to find solutions.
Keep perspective. The whole world is going through this together. Everybody is facing challenges to work-life balance, to productivity, to academics. Everyone is experiencing the same losses, shaky remote learning, shortened sports seasons, cancelled tests and competitions. Expectations will shift. Businesses and colleges will adapt. It will be ok.
Be kind - to yourself too. When you start doubting your choices, try to steer your thoughts away from regrets. Keep in mind you can only be certain of what has happened, not what would have happened. Another choice may have led to better results, but it also may have led to worse.
It's easy to type these words here, quote McCartney’s “Let It Be,” tell you not to worry about things you cannot control. But it would be a lie to say I’m not up many nights, nauseous with anxiety, beating myself up about missteps, and worrying about what is to come. It’s natural, humans crave the known, even when it’s not the best for them.
While writing this column, I came across a quote from author Mandy Hale that spins uncertainty on its side. “When nothing is certain,” she writes, “anything is possible.” We all know life before this pandemic wasn’t ideal. How many of us were kind of relieved when our lives slowed down a bit. Maybe there is a lesson there. Maybe we’ll come through this stronger. Maybe the “new normal” will be better. Anything is possible.
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org