Katy, a friend of mine, lives in the middle of London and wants to move 300 miles away to live in the country.
Katy has wanted to do this for years.
But she still lives in London. Every time she gets a step further than wishing, she’s pulled back into the safety she knows. She may not like where she lives, but the unknown is too scary to leap into.
But how can she fear what she doesn’t don’t know, you might ask? But, hand on heart, how often do you get shaky-legged at the thought of stepping into the void?
When you can’t comprehend the absence of something, you have to fill the empty space, the unknown, with something and, sadly, most people fill it with what they don’t want to happen in this imagined future.
Why do we fear the unknown?
Is it because the unknown is unpredictable?
People like to know what will happen, everyone wants a crystal ball, and the lack of knowing can cause anxiety. And, then, when you’re in the grip of anxiety, the unknown looks scary and fearful.
It may be an evolutionary throwback from when predators hunted us, and our brain is constantly trying to predict what might happen next so that we can plan to stay safe.
Research tells us that any element of unpredictability increases our discomfort. Volunteers are more stressed if there is a 50% chance of receiving a shock than if there is a 100% guarantee.
Strangely, we’re less anxious about an event, however challenging, when we know it’s coming than when there’s an element of uncertainty.
But what is certain?
You might make plans for later today, tomorrow or next week, but even as you make plans, you know that plans don’t always happen.
And that’s because you can only plan for what you know, and the future is unknown. But you don’t fear the next second even though the next second is unknown.
That’s because you assume you know what will happen in the next second, day, or even week, even though that’s not true. You unconsciously believe you have a full picture and can relax. You rest in the illusion that nothing will change.
But do you have to fear change?
I had a young client who was terrified of going anywhere new to eat in case she didn’t like anything on the menu. And she didn’t want to go on holiday anywhere other than where she’d been before, despite the holiday resort being unknown before the first time she went there. When her parents brought her to me, the fearful unknowns were growing.
But as we know, change is the only constant, and when you’re young, there are lots of changes to deal with. There are new schools, new friends, new homework, and even changes in body shape.
But when she saw that she was making up scary stories about the unknown, she stopped seeing change as something to fear.
She even sent me a photo in her uniform on the first day of secondary school. And she had the biggest smile.
Look at what you’re projecting into the unknown
If someone worries about money, they might project homelessness into the unknown; if someone worries about illness, they might project pain, suffering, or even death into this empty space.
When a couple breaks up, often the person that has been left projects a lifetime of loneliness into that empty future space. They imagine no one will ever love them and feel the pain of that imagined future.
They feel the pain of their imagination. But none of the things that you imagine might happen are happening right now.
If someone is diagnosed with an illness, the fear they experience is rarely about what is happening today or even what will happen in the following days, weeks, or months. They often aren’t frightened of operations or treatment but of what might happen in the future.
They worry about the imagined future. The unknown.
Or if someone has come out the other side of the illness, they might fear the disease will return. They project these fears into the unknown. But they’re feeling fear at this moment about what might happen in the future.
And if the unknown is just that, unknown, why wouldn’t you imagine that the unknown tomorrow is going to be the best day you’ve ever had? If you’re going to feel your imagined unknown now, why not make it amazingly good?
Embracing the unknown
How does it feel to change your imagined uncertainty for imagined certainty? To imagine that you will achieve everything you want, to look forward to the unknown?
Thinking like this might not influence what might happen in a year, but as you’re constantly experiencing thought at the moment, it will certainly help you to feel whatever you want to feel in this second.
Notice when you’re feeling uncomfortable and make peace with the feeling. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and stop making the feeling mean anything. When you do this, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll become comfortable.
And if the fear stems from feeling out of control, control what you can and add as much certainty into your life as you’re able. Steve Jobs had an endless supply of black turtlenecks.
If you worry about the unknown, ask yourself why? And notice how many fearful scenarios you’re creating, and then, once you’ve noticed them, change the picture.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
— Nelson Mandela
The unknown is just that, unknown. It’s an empty future where anything can happen, and as you have no control over whatever might happen, why worry about it now? Look around and remind yourself of where you are right now. This second is all you have.
The rest is unknown.