top of page

57. The Difference Between Safety and Certainty

In Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, safety lies at the foundation. Until you know with some confidence that you're not, at any moment, going to be eaten by a lion, attacked by a fellow human or die of starvation, you can't focus on any other needs. Self esteem, for example, is of minimal importance when your life is at risk. Belonging is important, but only insofar as the group that you belong to may afford you some protection. So we all need safety. The problem is when we confuse safety with certainty. This week's tip is about just that. "The only certainty is that life is uncertain" Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and do it Anyway In Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, among the cast of British immigrants there is a Bangladeshi family - husband, wife and twin sons. The mother is an anglophile, but the father is not. Appalled by what he sees as the depraved society his children are growing up in, and anxious that they will stray from the Islamic principles that are so important to him, he determines to send his sons back to Bangladesh for their education. The problem is that he only has the money to send one. Without telling his wife, knowing how opposed she would be, he arranges for his favourite son to travel to Bangladesh. When the wife finds out she is devastated. In a heart-rending diatribe to her husband she explains that the reason she so wanted to bring up her sons in England was because she remembered too well what it was like to live in their home country, where floods and famine swept the land with predictable frequency but totally unpredictable timing and ferocity. A place where you never knew what terrible catastrophe would hit you next, how long you could expect to have your current home before it was swept away, how long you could expect to live. For her, a compromise of values was a very small price to pay for safety. Compare this with someone who is going through organisational change, as so many of us are at the moment. A major source of anxiety is uncertainty. What job will we have when it all settles down, who will we work for, will our income be affected, what will we be doing, will we have a job at all? If we lose our job, will we get another one, and will it be as good? How will we support our family, pay our mortgage, run our car? This uncertainty puts us into a state of vigilance and fear which provides yet more nourishment for our 'what if' brains, which may well move on then to entertaining images of nobody ever employing us again, being out on the street, our children taken into care. Because we have these frightening images, and we don't know which, if any, are going to come true, we confuse our need to know what is going to happen with our need for safety. When this happens, our creativity and energy, the things that help us to navigate uncertainty productively and safely, are hijacked by our fear and are channelled towards taking control. This would be fine if there was any control to be had, but at these times there often isn't, at least not over the things we are focussed on. Jonathan Keeley, a UK change management consultant, talks about this confusion in his paper: Moving Towards Safe Uncertainty: The Development of Resilience and Excitement in the Future. In it he points out that certainty is quite simply not a feature of change, and that managers are unlikely to be able to provide it. Because uncertainty frightens us, we strive towards safe certainty, but because this doesn't actually exist we find ourselves 'blocking, defending, denying and controlling'. Thus what energy we have disappears into futile attempts to control the uncontrollable which could otherwise be used to address areas that we do actually control. "It's not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change." Charles Darwin We react to uncertainty like this because our brains are designed this way. They are wired to expect the worst, so that, theoretically, we will be better prepared. Unfortunately the part of our brain that does this, the amygdala, has two unhelpful features when it comes to coping with change. First, the feelings it generates are very compelling, in other words if we feel fear then we assume we are in danger; second, it has no fine discriminating powers at all. For that you need to engage your cerebral cortex. Here are some ways that the more logical part of your brain can help you to cope with change or threat: * Be clear what is important to you, what is negotiable and what isn't. People who have strongly held values are remarkably resilient because as long as their values are upheld they remain calm, and if they are challenged they have an internal compass that helps them to navigate. * Be flexible in your thinking. Fear comes from seeing a changing situation as threatening, but what if you saw it as an opportunity for something new and better, to learn and develop, or to take stock of your life? * Be accepting of uncertainty and focus instead on what you control in terms of your safety. If your job is at risk, review your skills, look at the job market, think through your options, network, find a special role. * Focus on the present instead of the past and the future. Much energy can be gobbled up by ruminating over what's happened or decisions that have been made, and worrying about what's coming. Try this 1. What are you anxious about at the moment? What exactly is uncertain in your current situation? In what way is your safety threatened? How is this situation affecting you and your life? 2. Remind yourself that life is inherently uncertain, and that there are many uncertainties in your life that you routinely cope with. For example, we are all going to die, but we don't know when. How difficult would it be to live life effectively and happily if we were constantly consumed with the fear of death? 3. In terms of your safety, what is the situation, really? Money is usually a major source of worry when jobs are threatened and yet, when asked, most people have the resources to survive six months or more without a job. Are you safe today, tomorrow, next week? What resources are available to you in terms of assets, advice, financial and emotional support? 4. What practical things can you do about the areas of threat to your safety? Is this the right time to review your finances, your outgoings, your assets? If you are at risk of losing something in your life, what practical steps could you take to find a replacement, or to manage without? 5. What good things in life have you been neglecting because of your focus on uncertainty? Start doing them again. Have a productive and worry-free week.

bottom of page