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Let’s talk about certainty and uncertainty. Some of you have probably have an idea about what that means in your life, but which path would you pick given the choice?
Sunny skies: certainty and comfort lie ahead.
Or the dark cloudy skies of uncertainty? Who would pick the cloudy skies? Oh, all right. A couple of brave souls, maybe. But not many of us.
How many of us would choose certainty – the comfort zone?
There’s so much interesting research when it comes to certainty and why we have this desire for certainty and some of it’s really heartbreaking.
In many cases, people would rather stay in bad situations that they know they need to get out of as opposed to going through the uncertainty of change. I’m sure you can think of some examples of that.
Where does this come from?
What is this need?
And it really is an actual need. Tony Robbins talks about certainty and uncertainty as part of the six human needs. So, why do we need certainty so much? Well, it’s actually related to fear. How many of you believe that sometimes we’re motivated by fear as opposed to being motivated by hope? How many of you have ever felt the power of that fear being so much stronger even when you have a glimmer of hope for something different? What usually happens in that moment?
So often, we allow the fear to take over. I want to look at the dissonance between these two forces of fear and hope. If we agree that we actually need certainty, we need to consider that we also have a need for variety. Some people might call variety spontaneity or uncertainty. So really, this need for certainty is on a spectrum, and this is a key point. Needing certainty is not always a bad thing. Needing certainty allows us to be stable. It allows us to stick to our commitments. It allows us to stay in our jobs or our marriages or follow through with an important project. We need certainty, and we need to have a healthy relationship with being able to meet that need for certainty.
It’s when our need for certainty tips the scales that it becomes an issue in terms of the role it can play in our life story. Sometimes our need for certainty becomes so strong that we miss out on opportunities that uncertainty can provide in our life. Think about the stories that inspire you most. Think about the people you know who have done incredible things in their lives. Almost always, it is in a moment (or in many moments) of uncertainty that a person’s story is transformed into one of incredible courage and inspiration.
To be very fair, my early life was pretty much filled with certainty. Having grown up with an unfair amount of uncertainty in his own young life, my father made it his life’s purpose to provide something different for his children. And he did. We grew up on the same street, at the same house, in the same bed for most of our lives. We knew where our parents were every night. We had the kind of safety and security that all children should have.
That changed during spring break of 1994, just a few days after I turned 16 years old. My little brother was invited to go out with some friends who had just started driving. They were headed out to explore some farm land about 30 miles outside of town. We’d just come home from a spring break trip, and I don’t really remember how long he was gone before our phone rang. The phone call came in and my mom looked at me and said, “there’s been an accident. Your Dad and I need to go to the hospital and I don’t know when we’ll be back.”
In that moment, my very certain, very safe world was flipped upside down, and it was suddenly filled with uncertainty. My little brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury and he was in a deep coma, where he would stay for weeks. I can still remember the machines buzzing when I went in to visit him. I remember that feeling – and it’s a feeling right there in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps you’ve read about the mind-body connection and how we actually feel our feelings first in our gut. For me, the manifestation of fear and anxiety definitely starts in the gut. Nothing can stop the queasiness of that memory – even now.
Was my brother going to live?
How in the world was I supposed to keep my little sister alive while my parents kept vigil at the hospital?
For me the need for certainty became such a driving force in my life that I would do anything to regain a sense of control. And what that looked like for me was a 12 year battle with anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, and obsessive perfectionism. You see, when we don’t understand how to harness uncertainty – when we don’t have the tools and the skills to leverage and take ourselves through moments of incredible uncertainty – something will grip us because it makes us feel like we’ve got something under control.
As a 41 year old adult, I can look back now and say, “oh gosh, what was I thinking? How could I let that happen?” But as a 16 year old little girl, my body and the food I did or didn’t put in it were literally the only things that were in my own control in that moment.
This is the danger of not learning how to harness the power of uncertainty. Does this ring true for any of you? For me it was food and my body. For other people, it’s alcohol; it’s drugs or sex; it’s shopping or gambling. It can be any number of things that we use to give us a false hope of control. The terrifying irony is that what ends up happening is the thing ends up controlling us.
Well, the good news is my story isn’t all bad. My little brother eventually came out of his coma, and over many long months, he learned to walk and talk again. He has a wife and two beautiful girls. And I’m here today, and I’ve learned to harness the power of uncertainty and transform it into purpose and meaning in my life. I learned some really, really powerful lessons through this journey. For twelve years I was battling a ferocious eating disorder, but also seeking recovery for more than half of those years.
You guys, I’m a recovering serial perfectionist, that’s like my trademarked nickname – it should be on my business card. Recovering Serial Perfectionist at Your Service. That lesson was the hardest to learn. I had defined everything in my life by my ability to perform perfectly or not.
And when you talk about handling uncertainty, there’s no perfect way to handle it, right? I think it looks something like this – when we can get really still and quiet and ask ourselves, “what’s the next best thing I can do in this moment?” It’s not about figuring out the perfect answer, or even the right answer. It’s about trusting ourselves to know what is the next best thing we can do to keep moving forward.
In Rising Strong, Brene Brown says that “if we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.” Sometimes life is scary. Through the uncertainty of my eating disorder journey, and the story of my brother’s traumatic accident and ultimately miraculous healing, I found that my tendency was to flee a big, scary, unknown moment.
Brene goes on to say that “rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.” So now, I find that I’ve been purposely sitting in the unsettled, sometimes scary, sometimes angry space of the unknown. And you know what? Most of the time I surprise myself with courage, grace, and inquiry. And other times I still choose to hide away.
What I have realized is the power of that choice.
That it is mine to make.
That fear is no longer my keeper.
I now know how to harness uncertainty.
Be Brave! Be Bold! Be You!