This one’s a really tough one I have to admit.

I am pretty sure there are lots of scholarly articles and research that has looked into the evolutionary psychology of why human beings have a need for certainty and predictability. There is a certain threshold for risk that we can tolerate. Knowing what’s ahead gives us a feeling of safety and control. 

This week I had to reflect on certainty and control, and as an HDR student, there are plenty of things I’m in control of, such as how I structure my daily routine. In a Ph.D. program, I don’t have classes and exams to attend to. Although that gives me quite a bit of control, it can also feel pretty threatening. The hours seem long and the day can very easily be filled with unproductive and even irrelevant activities. Producing a document of 80,000 words that makes a contribution to my field is unnerving to think of at times. I want to know that it will all be okay, that I will make it. I want adventure, but I also want a sure thing. I can stomach a risk, but I want to know what the end of the story is before I do. 

This led me to ask my other HDR friends - What are the sure things in life? What drives us to persevere when the outcome isn’t certain? How do we bounce back from something we thought was already in the bag, but we’ve lost? Most of the answers revolved around having a solid support network but also, surprisingly, quite a few talked about holding space for the uncertain, the unknown, and somehow trusting the ‘universe’ that things would turn out just fine. 

This reminded me of the Stockdale Paradox. Have you heard of it? James Stockdale was a U.S. leader who was held captive during the Vietnam War. Here’s a link to a diagram that summarises the value of striking a balance between optimism and pessimism. My main takeaway from it was that there is an overarching trust and faith that things will work out that will help carry us through uncertain times, but it is equally important to be realistic, pragmatic and grounded in reality. 

When faced with uncertainty, what things do you do to regain balance?

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”Jim Collins

Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty. *This is part of a blog series from my reflections during Mental Health Awareness Month and integrating the guideposts from Brene Brown’s book, the Gifts of Imperfections in my HDR experience.

Tagged in What messes with your head, phd, resilience, stress, exam stress