What do we do with our “what ifs”, worries & fears of regret?
Unpacking the unsettling impacts of uncertainty.
We all have that feeling these days.
Maybe it comes and goes. Maybe it lingers on some days. Other days, if we’re lucky, it might not show up…for a few moments.
We know it when we feel it.
We try to avoid it.
But we all have to live with it for however long it lasts.
Because uncertainty breeds worry, fear and anxiety.
This really struck home in March 2020.
I still remember the day the COVID-19 stay home orders were issued here in Alberta. I had appointments booked with several clients that day. The first client of the day arrived asking me, “Did you do your shopping”?
I looked puzzled. It was not what I expected to hear from my clients. They could tell I had clearly not been following the news that week.
They went on to explain that the line ups at Costco and everywhere else were out the door with people stocking up for the stay home orders.
I simply shrugged and replied, “I think I’m good. I went shopping last weekend.” They gave me a look of disbelief. It clearly doubted that those efforts would have been adequate under the circumstances.
Little did I know (until I got home at the end of the day and checked the news reports), this was not a “stock up for a potential snow storm” kind of warning. By the time I hit the stores the next day, many of the shelves had been stripped bare. Fortunately, I actually didn’t need much. More by luck than good management, I really had done my shopping for staples the previous weekend. My only need was bleach or disinfectant wipes so I could clean my office more thoroughly given that I was going to be closing it for at least the next two weeks.
You can probably guess the rest of the story. Those two weeks turned in to several months and I have since packed up and closed my office, shifted my practice to a strictly online service, and learned more than I care to about a multitude of software-as-a-service (SAAS!) platforms to optimize my ability to work remotely, do quality work, and still earn enough to cover my expenses.
Much to my dismay, even my social, volunteer and networking worlds have become primarily virtual.
Somewhere in there I also had a COVID-19 test (to make sure that I could, in fact, leave my home without risking other people’s health when my allergies kicked into high gear). I tested negative.
The real problem is that there is no clear end in sight.
Yes, if and when they find an effective vaccine. And if and when they roll it out so that the whole world is able to access it. And if the virus doesn’t mutate. And if there aren’t other virulent outbreaks of other viruses that infectious disease specialists are constantly tracking around the globe. Then we’re all in the clear and can go back to “normal”.
Whatever that means.
For most of us — myself included — there is no “return” to normal.
My office is closed (I was fortunate to be near the end of my lease when COVID hit) and I don’t fancy taking on another lease only to find that I am unable to provide face-to-face services for months on end. And yet, I had worked for two years to set up that space and build that in-person practice to what it had become.
It was difficult to choose to dismantle it. In hindsight, all that effort felt futile. It’s a potential source of regrets.
And that is it— this not knowing whether efforts will be futile — that is the most anxiety provoking of all.
And it has always been this way.
I just perhaps didn’t notice that I never really knew how things would turn out.
While I knew it on some leve, perhaps didn’t fully accept that life had no guarantees. Not even when promises are made by people I came to trust. Because they didn’t really know either.
In truth, we just don’t want to notice because that would mean making friends accepting uncertainty and it’s offspring, anxiety.
And who would want to befriend anxiety?
Anxiety makes us indecisive. It makes us feel a desperate need to know if the choice we make will be the right one for us, for others, for now, or in the future. We want to not be wondering, “What if I make the wrong decision?”
Anxiety makes us seek out reassurances and certainty to ease our worries. We look to “gurus”, mentors, tarot cards and psychics — even our own Gods and other cultures’ myths. We want to know that things can be predictable. That inalienable rules will apply. That things will work out if we put in the right effort, at the right time, in the right way. That the karmic wheel is always at play and will always favour us.
Our quest for reassurances and certainty can even lead us to take up rituals to appease the Gods (who truly must think we’re crazy). We become controlling to create certainty. We want to know that there is a potential for bargaining and hard work to pay off.
Anxiety makes us hold on to some things — like relationships, careers, and life paths longer than we ought to as we fear the uncertain unknown more than the discomfort of what we’re in.
Some of us also want to feel like we can look back on life from a far distant vantage point and have the certainty of knowing we had no regrets. How completely impossible a longing!
We do all of these things to avoid, appease, and soothe anxiety.
But if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we know life doesn’t work that way.
Life is uncertain and comes with no guarantees.
We can make the best decisions possible at the time we need to make them. We can make the best effort to work through problems and create effective solutions in our relationships, careers and lives. We can shift our focus to optimistic hopeful mindsets. We can pay our dues to the Gods. And still we are highly likely to experience failure, grief, loss and regret.
This lack of certainty is the ultimate source of anxiety for all of us.
The fear of uncertainty is where anxiety thrives. But it doesn’t have to.
Accepting reality as it is — uncertain, unpredictable, without hard and fast rules and with no guarantees — is all we can count on.
The unfairness. The injustice. The utter lack of order to the universe. The inability to know, predict and choose most wisely all of the time. The lack of universally predictable responses to our choices and efforts.
Acceptance is the only way forward. It’s the only way through anxiety. It’s the only way to live with boldness and bravery and courageous mindful choices. It’s the only way to “be all in” in living your life.
It’s the only way to take a chance on a new relationship when an old one has been too painful.
It’s the only way to try out a new career path when the current one has been too disappointing.
It’s the only way to take a risk pivoting your business to make it “better suited” to the current circumstances.
It’s the only way to have and live with hope.
Not the naive kind where we have a bargain in play in the hopes of dispelling anxious worries that keep us frozen in indecision until we can have certainty.
No. The adult kind where we know that there will be hard things yet to come. There will be roadblocks. There will be crises. There will be losses. There will be failures. There will be grief. But through all of these, we can learn to grieve. We can learn to respond. We can learn to choose. We can learn to adapt. We can learn to grow. We can learn to show up and be the adults in our own lives.
We can still seek help from gurus, experts and our Gods to offer us moments of peace of mind. And we can enjoy that peace of mind thoroughly, but without expectation of guaranteed outcomes.
Holding the tension in this space — peace of mind in the midst of guaranteed uncertainty and unpredictability — this is the essence of managing our “what ifs”, worries and fears of regrets.
But how do we hold this space?
- First we begin by accepting that this space — one of uncertainty and unpredictability — is the only reality and essence of life.
For me, that means my basement full of my office supplies is the reality of today. It is neither a reflection of me as a failure, just as the thriving office I had created was not a reflection of me as a success. It just was one way, and now is another.
2. Then we offer gratitude for the opportunity to experience the joys, struggles, blessings, and sorrows that come with the reality that nothing is certain or predictable. All of it.
For me, I am grateful for the experiences, the memories and the struggles of setting up my office. I learned a lot in the process and worked out a lot of “kinks” and how I could do it better, should I choose to do that again.
3. And finally, we do the best we can from this place of gratitude.
When I look at where I am from a place of gratitude, I realize that the best I can do is organize my belongings in the basement so that it has the feel of a tidy office. I know this will decrease the distress I feel from looking at the mess of boxes, books, furniture and toys. And it opens up the opportunity to create a much more functional “home based” office space than the make-shift one I have been using.
In this way, we learn to hold two truths. That life is not fair. And, that this life, exactly as it played out for us, led us to who we are today — and who and where we are today is fraught with adventurous potential.
So I invite you to consider leaning into uncertainty with gratitude and see what happens.
And if you’re a parent, your choosing to live this will teach your children how to live this way too. You don’t need to preach. You just need to do it.
And, isn’t peace of mind through adversity something we all want our children to know?
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Thanks for reading! I will be posting new articles focused on natural, lifestyle approaches for living and parenting to overcome anxiety — your child’s and yours. If you’re interested in a free online training to help tame your school-aged children’s anxiety laden outbursts, sign up at this link! Be well. Be happy. Be at peace.