A few weeks ago, during a cognitive behavior therapy session, my therapist and I talked about the consequences of following through with an exposure, the one where I would get rid of my pile of unopened mail and other papers.
I could see only a positive outcome from making the paper pile disappear into files and trash bags: I wouldn’t have that task hanging over my head, causing me to feel anxious.
So when my therapist asked me what the consequences would be, I replied, “The anxiety about it will be gone.”
He then brought up a point that I had failed to fully consider: “But won’t you keep on getting mail?”
His point was that as long as I received mail, I would face potential anxiety. I would continue to worry that I had somehow missed something, an unpaid bill, the discovery of something legally important that I had failed to do, etc.
“You’ll never be able to be certain that everything is taken care of,” he said.
He was right. Getting rid of one pile of paper would not take care of any uncertainty I would ever have in my lifetime about my efforts to take care of all my business.
What I had to do, he said, was to learn to live with the anxiety, to feel the anxiety but then refocus my attention and actions and move on.
* * *
This week, a couple of my fellow bloggers wrote about uncertainty and living in the “gray” area. Sunny, of 71 degrees & Sunny, wrote about uncertainty surrounding the health of her cat and her husband’s battle with IBD. Janet at ocdtalk wrote about getting out of the black and white thinking into the gray.
Their posts prompted me to think more about uncertainty and how to handle it.
Those of us with OCD often struggle with uncertainty. One of the reasons we perform compulsive rituals like cleaning and checking is to try to be certain that, for example, there are no germs lingering on the surfaces, that nothing has been left undone that could cause a fire or some other danger.
Compulsive rituals cannot bring certainty, though. OCD thoughts are not rational. They are not rooted in reality. They cannot be tamed with some short-term assurance of certainty. Giving into the rituals doesn’t keep the doubts from returning.
Everyone, not just people with OCD, has uncertainty. There’s just no way for any of us to be certain about many things.
* * *
I made up a list of things that I am uncertain about for myself and for my loved ones:
Will we develop cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s or some other serious disease?
Will we have a wreck during any of the many times we travel by car from one place to another?
Where will the next terrorist attack occur?
Will fire, a tornado, a flood or some other natural disaster destroy our home?
Are the decisions we make about our finances the right ones?
Will we always have the benefits of health insurance and access to care?
Will I have a job tomorrow?
* * *
If uncertainty is a given, then how can I live with it in a healthy way?
The only way I know is to embrace the here and now and remind myself that I will handle whatever comes the best I can.
If the only thing I have for certain is the present moment, then I need to fully live in the present moment.
I need to make sure that what I’m doing in the present moment is something good and meaningful and helpful to the world.
I need to say what I need to say now, and do what I need to do now.
I need to be grateful for what I have right now.
Living in the now doesn’t preclude planning for and preparing for the future. What it precludes is worrying about the future.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. But I have hope and faith. They are key for me.
The easiest area of my life to live with uncertainty is my spiritual life. But that is for another blog post, which I will write soon.
* * *What is your relationship with uncertainty? How have you made peace with uncertainty?