We fear the unknown. Which is why we stay in bad relationships, in jobs we hate and in other situations that are not good for us. Because what if the alternative — the nebulous, nameless alternative — is worse?
We find comfort in the familiar — even if that comfort isn’t very comfortable. It’s the known, and the known feels as cozy as an old, tattered and torn sweater, even if it keeps us cold.
But the unknown is packed with potential for possibility and personal growth. “As a lifelong student of Jewish mysticism, a practicing psychotherapist and a spiritual director, I have learned that being receptive to the unknown in all its many facets, allows us to become more open, curious, flexible, and expansive in our personal and professional lives,” writes Estelle Frankel in The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty.
Below are three exercises for embracing or at least becoming a bit more comfortable with uncertainty from Frankel’s powerful, thoughtful book.
Ask one life question a day.
Besides our fear of the unknown, there’s also the shame that’s attached to it. That is, maybe you grew up in a household or attended a school where asking questions was forbidden, where not knowing was a sign of stupidity or weakness, or horribly humiliating. As a result, you stayed quiet and squashed your curiosity.
Frankel suggests devoting a journal to jotting down your life questions. Every day, ask at least one good question. You might ponder everything from “Where is this experience taking me?” to “Who might I become if I follow this path?”
According to Frankel, “Good questions open us up to unknown possibilities, to the future, while nonproductive questions tend to be ruminative, rehashing things from the past that cannot be undone.”
Explore your fear.
This begins with meditating (which you can do for 5 to 30 minutes). That is, find a quiet place, and sit upright. Pay attention to your breath and body. Notice if there is any tension or tightness. If there is, try to release it. When you get distracted by your thoughts, label them as “thinking,” and bring your attention back to your breath.
As you’re meditating, focus on how fear affects you. “Notice how fear lives in your body and how it plays tricks with your mind, causing you to imagine catastrophic outcomes that may or may not ever take place,” Frankel writes. Noticing the presence of your fear helps you to release it.
Pay attention, too, to how your mind tries to fill in the blanks of the unknown by imagining catastrophes. Instead of viewing these thoughts as gospel, as ultimate truths, label them “fearful thoughts.” Practice letting them go and relaxing into the unknown. Practice letting go of the physical tension that fear creates in your body.
According to Frankel, “With mindfulness we are better equipped to wait and see how life actually unfolds rather than try to predict a future that may or may not ever come to pass.”
Keep a record of your catastrophic, worst-case scenario thoughts. Obviously, this interview won’t go well, and I’ll be unemployed forever. I’ll never find another partner. Eventually, she’s going to leave me. If I bomb the presentation, my life is over.
Instead of trying to think rationally and realistically, exaggerate your fears. Amplify them. Blow them out of proportion—so much so that they become ludicrous. Try to find the humor in them. Frankel shares this example: You’re in a good place financially, but you’re worried about spending money. You create a cartoon of yourself as a bag lady. When you get needlessly anxious about buying something, you think of the image and the absurdity of your concerns.
Frankel also suggests creating a list of all sorts of possibilities, which not only includes the worst-case scenario but also the best situation.
We often dread the unknown, because as one of Frankel’s clients said, “I prefer the familiar snake inside my tent to the one outside it.” But who says there has to be any snake at all? Maybe there won’t be a single snake, and you’ll find something extraordinary. Or maybe you won’t. But, when you embrace the unknown, when you face it, what you will likely find is wisdom.