The lights are out, it’s dark, and suddenly there is a bump on the stairs. Your alerted mind immediately jumps to conclusions, swinging through all the possibilities that reads like a Stephen King novel – it’s a thief, a clown, or twin ghosts! But it could just as easily be your family walking to the bathroom, or the cat chasing its own shadow, or maybe something even more benign like the house just talking to itself. Any of these options are just as likely – probably even more so than the chance of a crazy clown hiding in the shadows waiting to pounce – yet in the dark, in that sweet unknown, our minds are always apt to think the worst.
But it’s not just in the dark when the boogeyman creeps out of the shadows and into our thoughts, oh no, the most frightening monsters of our imaginations thrive just as easily in the sunshine. For fear of the boogeyman comes not from the boogeyman himself, but rather from the not knowing of whether or not the boogeyman exists. It is the not knowing that makes any and all of the possibilities possible. Yet for many of us, all of the possibilities automatically boils down to actually just one: the Worst Case Scenario. We allow for no other options, even in the broad daylight, so the boogeyman follows us wherever we go because the unknown exists everywhere.
You experience the unknown as the pit in your stomach when you think you might have parked in a tow zone, or when you are looking for a new job, or that person you like isn’t texting you back. The unknown exists mostly as something to be feared, but nothing can be further from the truth. The unknown is neutral, it is nothing but blank canvas, just the word itself gives a clue to its impartiality: The unknown (adj.) not known or familiar. There is no indication of a bias towards the negative, no caveat that what is not known or familiar must be undesirable or have ill-effect. In fact, the odds are pretty good; with all things being equal when in a situation dealing with the unknown you are just as likely to result in a good outcome, a bad outcome, or a neutral outcome. Given those odds, the cards are in your favour to end up with a good or at least neutral outcome. Sure, there will be those times when it turns out you did receive a parking ticket, or the silence on the other end of the phone really is indicative of a relationship ending, but that is not going to be the majority of the case.
So where did our epidemic of anxiety come from? Why are so many of us lost in the vice-like grasp of the unknown, fearing it with all our might because we can only see the negative outcomes? It is not our fault; we are hardwired that way since ancient days in order to help us survive. How else but by avoiding anything suspicious and unknown could we guarantee nothing surprising took us out of the gene pool? And this survival mechanism is still hard at work for us now. Call it your Ego, your Little Prince, or the angel/devil on your shoulders, all this instinct wants to do is to protect you from the ways of the world, to keep you locked up and sheltered against any injuries to your ego, any pushes to your boundaries, or any step outside of your comfort zone. It is not doing so maliciously; it is just trying to help you.
However trying to help is not the equivalent to actually being helpful. We don’t live in such a dog eat dog world anymore (literally, at least). There is no need to believe that anything of which is unknown will result in a negative (or Worst) case scenario. It does not mean you should strive to block these thoughts altogether – that would be a useless endeavor as they will always arise – but you can choose to acknowledge they are there without choosing to delegate a reaction to them. Be an audience member rather than the star of the show, choosing to sit out not act out the drama of What Ifs that beckons to you.
By changing the framework on how we look towards the unknown, we can change the perceptions we have towards our lives in the future. Answers we don’t presently have now need not be topped with a layer of worry; things coming up that are still uncertain don’t need to come with a pinch of dread. Such instincts of dread and worry may come up but we can notice them, observe that we are having such thoughts, then not react as if those thoughts have already happened. In that case we allow for the natural flow of life to occur, where with the right passage of time all that is unknown now will become revealed.
There is no one cure to anxiety; to be completely anxiety free is to know what will happen in the future already (and to be happy with what it brings). But there is relief – because you cannot know the future therefore you also cannot know if what it brings will be utter disaster or something wonderful, or maybe a little something in between.
The odds are in your favour; give a little chance to the thought that maybe everything will work out in the end. The negative thoughts will still come – there’s no need to strain yourself trying to prevent them from doing so – instead put that energy into recognizing that for every Worst Case Scenario, there is just as likely (or better) chance that the Best Case Scenario is waiting just in the wings, ready to invite you onstage to have the dance of your life.
You can become comfortable in the unknown. You can teach yourself to think of it as something not to be feared but to be embraced, that the butterflies in your stomach are not a sign of nerves but excitement. You can let go of the fear and let in the belief, believing in the unknown of possibilities. You can live and enjoy life with all its infinite mysteries, so put down your magical eight ball and accept the one irrefutable truth it has to tell. Fortune for the future: Outlook hazy.
Author’s Note: This week’s post comes from a place of high anxiety myself, having moved to a new place and quit my job, now looking for a new one. I am trying to take my own advice and would love to hear how any of you are dealing with the big black void – that is also full of light and just as many possibilities! – thing called the unknown future. Leave your comments below, and please SHARE the article with your family, friend, colleagues who you think this could help lift out of the fog of the unknown. I will be gone for two weeks for a meditation retreat and will be back with new material on Wednesday December 13. Take care until then, see you dear reader soon!