812th Week: Managing Uncertainty

One of the things that most of us find challenging is to manage uncertainty. It’s a natural response to be uncomfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen next or where we are headed, individually and collectively. For some people, finding conspiracy theories offers an experience of “knowing what’s going on” that calms the discomfort most of us feel around uncertainly. For others, anxiety becomes a constant companion and they have difficulty truly soothing themselves. For yet others, becoming numb and shutting down is their natural response to constant and mounting uncertainty.

Also, I want to affirm that having a response to uncertainty is certainly normal and not necessarily something that needs the kind of process I’ll describe below, so please be gentle with yourself when circumstances elicit discomfort and anxiety about the future.

As I’ve been thinking about how we can expand our capacity to be uncomfortable and find some degree of equanimity, I found myself thinking about a concept I have taught for many years—a process of uncoupling trauma-based associations, called over-couplings in the Somatic Experiencing® world. Let me define these terms as I did when teaching SE.

Trauma over-couplings are associations that become “glued together” during times of overwhelm or distress. These are individual elements of experience or learnings that actually don’t belong together. One common trauma-based, attachment-oriented over-coupling is: If I do what I want, they (whoever “they” might be) won’t love me. Those two things don’t really belong together and especially so in adult life. Another common trauma-based over-coupling is: Unless I know what’s going on, I won’t be safe. The problem with trauma-based over-couplings is that they predict something that may not, or probably won’t, happen. They often arise from childhood experiences where we were not only ill equipped to have options available to us but when we also weren’t mature enough to understand what was happening. 

I’d like to offer one way to deal with these trauma-based over-couplings. I called it “therapeutic dissociation” in my book, Getting Through the Day, but it’s actually a form of uncoupling adult awareness and options from those arising from earlier overwhelming experience.

The key element in doing this uncoupling process is to strengthen your ability to stay focused in your present-day, adult observer—your ability to notice without becoming overly activated, so that you engage the process with what’s thought of as an “integrated brain”. This is when you can feel distress but you don’t get lost in it, where you maintain your observer awareness even in the presence of upset without being swept away by it. Your benevolent observer allows you to notice and feel and still have access to options as to how to deal with what you experience.

  • So, perhaps step one needs always to be to nurture the ability to access your present-day observer. One way to do this that is fairly reliable is to orient to your immediate environment. 
    • Notice the colors, shapes, and textures that are around you. 
    • Locate those things that your eyes enjoy seeing. 
    • Listen to the far-away and close by sounds that may be going on in your environment.
    • Feel the surface under you and notice the quality support it offers your body.
  • Another way to strengthen your ability to access your benevolent present-day observer is to bring awareness to your body, if that’s an option for you.
    • Begin by noticing how your body settles on the surface under you. Support is a reciprocal process—it is offered and then it is received. Notice how your body receives the support that’s available right now.
  • Bring your attention to your spine and notice how it supports your back all the way from the base of your skull down to your tailbone.
  • Now notice your whole skeleton. It’s your internal infrastructure of support and offers shape to your body.
  • If it’s okay for you to do so, now bring your awareness to your pelvic floor, which is shaped something like a bowl. Some people like to imagine a wide and open bowl resting on their pelvic floor and invite themselves to settle there for a bit. Notice if this feels settling to you.
  • When you’ve done whichever of these approaches helps you to be right here, present in this moment, and aware of the environment around you, touch into how you feel in the presence of uncertainty.
    • Be gentle with yourself and remember to bring along curiosity as a constant companion in this journey. Curiosity supports your present-day awareness and can offer real support along the way.
  • Notice your associations to the presence of uncertainty—how does it feel in your body? What images, thoughts, or emotions come with touching into uncertainty?
  • Once you’ve identified the experience that arises in you when you touch into not knowing what’s going to happen, whatever emotional response you have to that, whatever happens in your body, allow yourself to imagine that your response is energy and allow that energy to flow from your present-day body out in front of you a little distance away from your body.
    • This begins a process of uncoupling a younger, more vulnerable state from your present-day adult state and offers you an opportunity to be more oriented to your adult body-mind being and your more mature capacities.
  • If imagery works for you, allow an image of whatever child part of you was overwhelmed by not knowing, by uncertainty. It doesn’t matter what age. The key here is to notice the difference between your present-day adult self and that younger, more vulnerable you. And, especially, to begin to get a felt-sense of the difference between your adult experience and that of this younger part.
  • Keep letting the activation you felt flow out of you into that younger part. Many people feel guilty filling a child part with their distress but I point out that the feelings actually already live in the younger part of you and if you keep it inside your adult self you won’t be able to help soothe that younger nervous system.
  • Once you’ve allowed the activation in you to flow out into that younger part, notice the quality and tone of the experience in your present-day adult body. Pay particular attention to anything that has shifted as you allowed the distress to move “over there”.
  • Now, notice what the younger part of you needs that would help soothe them in any way. Don’t think a lot about this. Instead, tune into that younger part and notice what you sense is needed.
    • There’s no right answer here. It’s a matter of what’s going to help now, in this moment, to ease some of the distress. That may be reassurance. It may be as simple as the younger part feeling acknowledged and no longer alone with the distress. It may mean offering some protection or imagined action on behalf of that younger, distressed part.
  • If you feel a shift in the younger part of you, notice what’s happening in their body. Notice whatever sensations may have shifted, hopefully toward something like relief, softening, ease—along those lines. 
  • Take a few moments to soak in that shift, as it is a gift to your own body and an update to the information you carry in you around coping with uncertainty.
  • Now, spend a few minutes simply resonating with this update and notice the places in your adult body-mind being where you feel some ease from the distress you were having.
  • If this process has worked for you, you now know something you can do when this younger part of you becomes activated and you feel activated because of uncertainty. By uncoupling the younger state from your adult self, you can not only have a breather from the activation but you can engage an active healing process around whatever it was in your younger life that created the original distress.
  • When you’ve spent some time with whatever shifts you experienced, take a moment to again orient to the environment around you. Notice what your eyes enjoy seeing and take a moment to soak in anything that touches you in a positive way—any sound, color, texture, quality, etc.

As with all these practices, make this one your own in any way that works for you. The key is to become increasingly aware of the relationship between becoming activated and possible over-couplings with younger parts of you that hold unprocessed experiences from your past. Each time you are able to allow your feelings to “flow over there”, you offer yourself an opportunity to update the file and, at the same time, to offer comfort to a part of you that needs soothing and reassurance.

Also, please remember to always bring along curiosity as your constant companion, as I mentioned above, and to pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise, allowing them to move on through without your having to do anything about them.

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