Dealing with Uncertainty in 2021

As we say goodbye to the year 2020, we look into the upcoming year with a bag of mixed emotions. On one hand, many of us are ready to say goodbye and farewell and good riddance to the year that was 2020 and the idea of the calendar turning is an exciting and optimistic one. On the other hand, many of us are also feeling more hopeless as the future still seems unclear, it is not likely that the drop of the ball will wash away all the problems we met this year, leaving us feeling more hopeless than we were in March! 

The truth is we just don’t know what 2021 has to bring. We don’t know if we will see our lives return to normal and if so when or how or what it will even feel like to be normal again. Many of us will likely be dealing with the emotional baggage of this year for years and years to come. This uncertainty can feel overwhelming suffocating but it doesn’t have to. Here is how psychological flexibility may just be the key to your sanity in the new year! 

What is psychological flexibility?

The technical, official definition of psychological flexibility is “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).

In a practical sense it means being present, and open to what’s occurring right now letting it be what it is. Psychological flexibility is the core tenet of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and may just be the key to dealing with uncertainty. 

How does psychological flexibility help with uncertainty?

The biggest problem with uncertainty, the biggest reason why it causes so many of us distress, is because it is UNcertain. No matter how much you think about a potential event you can NEVER be sure how it is going to turn out. Many of us will still experience anxiety around a near-certain occurrence just because there is an element of possibility – no matter how small – that we fear. 

If there is no certainty then there can be no relief from uncertainty. The only other way to approach the problem is to get okay with uncertainty so that there is no anxiety to be felt in the first place. 

Easier said than done, I hear ya! But the goal isn’t to be okay with not knowing or to accept the potential consequences or to become all zen about your future and past. That’s unattainable. The goal is to see what’s happening now, experience your now, and make decisions based on your values and intentions NOT based on the past or the future. 

An example of psychological flexibility

Melissa has a baby girl named Lilly. Lilly was born on Valentines’ Day in 2020. Because of the timing of her birth and the emergence of the coronavirus, none of Melissa’s or Melissa’s partner’s family have been able to see Lilly. 

Melissa and her partner were optimistic all year though that by her first birthday they would be able to throw Lilly a big party and surround her with all the love and attention she wasn’t able to enjoy her first year. But now that it’s getting closer Melissa is feeling anxiety about the uncertainty of the party. 

A typical reaction to this might look like Melissa and her partner becoming overwhelmed. A party is a lot to plan for, they need to know if they can have the party, if it’s safe for people to come, if they have to cancel, what venue to use, etc etc etc. This can turn Lilly’s first birthday into an unhappy and altogether disappointing event. 

However, if Melissa is practicing psychological flexibility she is living in the now, not the anxieties of the future. She is also keeping the intention behind her plans at the front of her mind. Is it peaceful to plan the first birthday now still not knowing if it is even safe? Of course not. The stress is not gone. 

However, Melissa now knows that she is doing the best she can, the vaccines are being approved and administered every day and while she does not know if she will be able to gather with her friends and family on the exact day of Lilly’s birth in person; she does know that she will be able to do so soon and Lilly can get to know her family via video conferencing now. 

It is not perfect and it is not fair.  Lilly deserves to be held by her grandmother. Lilly deserves a huge party with everyone there. But we do not get what we deserve. We get what we get and how we react matters. 

Being psychologically flexible can make it easier to roll with the punches without feeling like you’re giving up control. 

The limits to psychological flexibility

As with any practice, there are limits to its usefulness. Even naturally psychologically flexible people have bad days. Sometimes things just suck and you need to cry into a pillow. That’s perfectly normal! Cry. If you’re doing well even just 60% of the time you’re doing better than most of us right now. 

There are also times where despite our best efforts and practices we are not enough to find relief from anxiety or other psychological conditions. When this happens you need to reach out. This approach can help most but will NOT replace the expertise and treatment of a qualified mental health professional. There is no shame in treatment and you deserve to be well. 


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