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The Trouble With Certainty

We need to talk about your need for certainty. And my need for certainty. And everybody else's need for certainty.

It’s simple enough in concept. We all want to feel safe and avoid pain. How could that possibly be a bad thing? Certainty makes us feel secure. It helps us sleep at night. It keeps our lives conflict free. When we’re certain, no one can mess with us and nothing bad can ever happen.

Sounds wonderful.

Except, it’s all an illusion.

The Buddha said that avoiding the unpleasant is what keeps us stuck. Preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain creates an imbalance. And in that imbalance, we are shutting ourselves off from our own amazing potential. Because the opposite of certainty is curiosity. So when you’re certain, you’re condemning yourself to an incurious life.

Ugh. How utterly boring.

And ultimately, how very unfulfilling.

Or as (my favourite nun) Pema Chodron, puts it: “Change is just the way things are. If you’re invested in security and certainty, you’re not going to feel good a lot of the time.”

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes certainty. Some people feel secure living in a one-room apartment with a social security cheque. Others need a few million in the bank. And most of us fall somewhere in between.

Of course, there are positive ways to meet your need for certainty. For example, you can be financially responsible, maybe putting away a portion of your paycheque each month to prepare for retirement. But, there’s also a lot of negative ways. You can stay stuck in a job you hate for years and years because you’re afraid of change and challenge.

You can enjoy loving and supportive relationships, or you can attempt to control your loved ones and bend them to your will.

You can prepare for the emerging future by continuing your education, or you can grasp back into the past, hunker down, grit your teeth and demand that the world around you just. stop. changing.

Certainty is the trickiest of all the needs. It comes from the part of your brain that’s waiting for a cougar to leap out of the forest at any moment. The problem is, because it’s not very advanced, it doesn’t know the difference between the danger of a cougar and a nerve wracking business presentation. It perceives the risk of both with the same intensity. So we end up living a lot of our lives in a state of fear that isn’t real.

Let’s have a closer look. Pictures of brains are gross, so I traced one and made it colourful and stripy rather than grey and slimy. You’re welcome.

The most primitive part of your brain is the Reptilian brain (coloured green). We need it to survive, but mostly, it's concerned with keeping the lights on. It’s busy with things like breathing and elimination.

The part of our brain that gets us in trouble is the Paleomammalian brain, or Limbic System (coloured orange). It’s on the lookout for cougars. It’s all about survival. And, it’s where your emotions reside. So in our brains, emotions are tied to survival. When you’re feeling frozen in fear or blinded by anger, it’s your limbic system that’s in charge.

Then we have the outermost, or Neomammalian part of our brain (coloured black). It was the most recent part to evolve. It’s where our personality develops, it’s where we do our thinking, and it’s responsible for language and movement.

If you’re interested in a deeper understanding of how the brain works, I recommend you go to the website WaitButWhy, where blogger Tim Urban has done a really great job of explaining it. Though I must warn you, WaitButWhy is such a fascinating site, you might fall down a rabbit hole learning about the Fermi Paradox and the dangers of AI, and not surface again for quite some time.

Anyway, back to the brain.

Let’s look at it this way. You’ve got your Reptilian brain. It’s lizard-like. And it has all the personality of a lizard, i.e., none. Your lizard-brain often gets blamed for your fearful emotions, but he's not the primary culprit.

The real trouble maker is the Limbic System or Paleomammalian brain. It's monkey-like. You may have heard people who are into meditation talk about their monkey brain or how they need to tame their monkey brain. The monkey lives in the limbic system. I'll get back to him in a second.

And then we have the outer cortex. It's the part of our brain that makes us human. It likes to think and create and solve problems. So it’s human-like (obvs) and pretty damn cool.

Unfortunately, our trouble-making monkey brain is a powerful thing. It’s very loud. And a lot of the time, it’s very afraid. It likes to tell you over and over again how scared it is, and how terrible the world is, and how if you’re not careful, awful, awful things will befall you. And because of this, it craves certainty. And so do we.

Therefore, we absolutely, positively MUST learn to tame our monkey brains and make friends with uncertainty.


Because when you look at my (crude) diagram, you see that a good chunk of our brains (the lizard and monkey parts) are wired for survival and not for truth.

So here’s some truth.

Your tolerance for uncertainty is directly related to the quality of your life. The less certainty you need, and the more comfortable you are with uncertainty, the less you will listen to your monkey brain, and the more fulfilled you will be.

Or as Eckhart Tolle puts it, "When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life."

How do you get comfortable with uncertainty? I’ll cover that in my next post.

But here's a hint: There’s only one kind of certainty that truly matters – the certainty that you're living in alignment with your true self.

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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