Melissa Shepard, MD
The Discomfort of Uncertainty
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
Uncertainty is tough. Our brains conjure up the worst-case scenarios, wondering how we would cope and what the outcome would be in each situation. In part, this is what makes this pandemic so painful. On top of the uncertainty many of us face daily, we now have to wonder when we will be safe again, when we can see our families again, whether we would be OK if we did become ill, and how we can best mitigate risk while we wait for life to get back to a new normal.
Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun who has written extensively about uncertainty and its relationship to the Buddhist concept of shenpa. Shenpa refers to becoming “hooked,” or grasping for something to hold on to when we start to feel discomfort. If you’ve ever tripped, you know the physical manifestation of shenpa: the frantic effort to grab onto something stable as the ground rushes towards you. This shenpa, she argues, is the root of suffering.
When we fall into uncertainty, shenpa can manifest in many ways as we frantically grab onto anything that feels familiar. It may be arguing with family, isolating ourselves, losing our temper, overeating, watching TV, turning to drugs or alcohol, sleeping, or otherwise blocking out our feelings. Getting “hooked” in these ways only exacerbates the discomfort that comes with uncertainty. The antidote to this suffering involves embracing uncertainty. With practice, we can notice when we are fighting against uncertainty and instead use curiosity and kindness to embrace it.
Curiosity involves becoming a scientist: getting interested in your experiences, your emotions, and any physical sensations that may arise. You might even label them as you notice them, for example, “I’m having the feeling of chest tightness” or “I’m feeling angry with my spouse.” Noticing and labeling our thoughts allows us to step back from the stories we spin up in our heads in response to those thoughts. Stepping back also allows us to return to the present moment where we are safe.
Kindness is equally essential. We tend to judge ourselves when we experience intense emotions. Again, this self-flagellation only worsens our suffering. Instead, remind yourself that you are human and that you are not alone in your pain, mistakes, or struggles. You can even draw up an image of a friend or family member who has been a source of unconditional love or support for you. Imagine that person is with you in that moment, and consider what they would say to you. What would compassion sound like in that moment?
So the next time you notice this discomfort, instead of running from it, stuffing it down, or distracting yourself, simply make space for it. Allow the uncertainty to be there. Approach your fear and discomfort with curiosity and compassion, and notice that with time the uncertainty becomes easier to bear.
Chödrön, P. (2003). Comfortable with Uncertainty. Shambhala Publications, Inc.