My Life and Intolerance to Uncertainty

This is basically my thoughts, per every five minutes of every day that I am not otherwise distracted. I saw this and thought it represents perfectly what I am trying to explain! (Credit: johnhain via Pixabay)

NOTE: What follows is the unsolicited ramblings of an ill-informed psychological hobbyist. If you are experiencing any mental health discomfort, unwanted or intrusive thoughts, or problems dealing with uncertainty or rejection, please speak to your local mental health service for assistance.

Now, on this one your mileage may vary, a lot! Some of you are nothing if not crazy explorers of the unknown, throwing yourselves off bridges attached to little but an over-sized elastic band just to see what it feels like, booking yourselves ‘mystery’ holidays just so you have the excitement of a surprise or just backpacking and disappearing without a plan.

Congratulations to you, you’re probably not autistic. If you are autistic and still do all of that then a round of applause to you because as far as I know processing of unknowns and uncertainty, or rather dysfunction in processing unknowns and uncertainty is one of the single most limiting factors in neurodivergent conditions like autism, with intolerance to uncertainty causing significant stress and anxiety to many autistic individuals.

Why am I writing this article now?  A situation has arisen in my life which is manifesting itself as a great deal of uncertainty.

Considering my responses to uncertainty is a means of helping me deal with that uncertainty.

I should stress, this is not a negative situation in any way. Indeed the uncertain situation is a potential opportunity. Therefore, at worst, my life doesn’t change and at best I have a potential for a positive change.

However that’s useless to my brain! All my brain knows is something is about to happen that it cannot predict. That’s all ‘uncertainty’ is, right? It doesn’t have to be positive or negative, it is merely the state of not knowing an upcoming procession of events or their potential outcomes.

A model demonstrating potential pathways by which intolerance of uncertainty can connect with anxiety in a person on the autistic spectrum. In my case particularly, the atypical sensory function is an unexpected cause of events, leading to emotional disregulation. This is causing repetitive thoughts, as well as repetitive negativities in thoughts (as I process multiple scenarios and outcomes) that cause me anxiety. (Credit: South M and Rodgers J (2017) Sensory, Emotional and Cognitive Contributions to Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 11:20. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00020)

Since this is happening to me right now I figured I’d give it a good old first-person account.

After finishing off tomorrow’s article this morning I checked my emails. Unexpectedly within those emails was the presentation of an opportunity.

Now immediately my mind says “Yea…arghshit!” That’s literally how that goes, disbelief into celebration into immediate anxiety in almost the blink-of-an-eye. Why? I don’t know, but I’m fairly certainty there are two aspects of my autistic behaviour at play here. The first is the uncertainty. I am being asked to participate in an unknown process where I have little to no control over the scenario. I am a ‘participant’ and I like to be the controller, the manager, I like to be the scenario, I do not like to ‘participate’ in scenarios.

Why not? Uncertainty. How will I know what is right or what is wrong? If I am abiding by another’s set of social rules how do I know their schemes and conventions. When people contact me on Twitter via We Lack Discipline, I understand who I am, the tone I can take and how I wish to engage with people. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it falls flat, but at least I control my responses and interactions.

When the scenario is not mine I am at the mercy of a new set of rules and etiquette and when they don’t align with my own I find things difficult. It takes me time, observation, assessment, processing, adaptation and then participation. It is a much longer process than for others who may be better able to improvise and adapt socially or intuitively ‘feel’ how to adjust to a potential audience or situation.

When you’re autistic so you use a rigid capacity for overthinking to overprepare for every eventual scenario so you can never fail! (Credit: KnowYourMeme)

But it’s not just the uncertainty of the scenario, there’s the uncertainty of outcome. It might go tremendously well for me and I get everything I ever wanted and go on to live happily ever after. It might go tremendously well for me until I inevitably collapse six months into the opportunity completely ruining it for myself. It might go horrendously and I end up barely being involved in the process, making a mockery of myself, not giving a good account of myself and buggering up something else I can feel bad about. It might go even worse than that and through some ‘wardrobe malfunction’ I end up flashing a group of people in a zoom call. It might go worse than that!

Every scenario, especially the bad ones, will be run through in my head almost without relent. It’s like a buzz, like the beat of a hummingbird’s wings, this constant hum of thoughts, a lot of them negative, with regards to potential scenarios and outcomes.

Ultimately, as said earlier, the worst that happens is my life doesn’t change. I go through a relatively uncomfortable process, do not succeed and I am in the same position I am now.

Best case scenario, I get what I want.

But then there’s the fear of change. What if I get what I want? Then my life has to change? What do I want to change about my life? There’s a lot about it I am comfortable with at the moment. Is upsetting that, for the potential of an opportunity, too much of a risk? How does one know? Without a seer’s magical abilities, without a crystal ball, how is one supposed to know? You can’t, and that’s the problem.

Two shadows fighting over a giant head! I think it’s supposed to represent an internal conflict, a struggle, in this case my negative thoughts, particularly intrusive ones, preventing actual moving forward or working towards my ultimate goal. Or it could just be two shadows fighting over a giant head. (Credit: geralt via Pixabay)

I fear the unknown.

I fear uncertainty.

I fear success, due to change.

I fear failure due to rejection dysphoria.

We haven’t even got to that yet, have we? I will possibly write a full piece on it at some point, for now I will direct you towards this wonderful piece to help you understand this.

Regardless, it always hurts to not get what you want, to be rejected, and feel like you are a failure. People with neurodivergent conditions, or anxiety, may find that they experience Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD).

RSD is effectively rejection blown up like a balloon, it is rejection on steroids. I can only speak as an anxious autistic but it’s the combination of both the troubles with rejection a normal person would feel along with the inability to emotionally regulate that comes with autism. I blame myself, I ideate on what went wrong, I consider all the things I could have done differently or done better, I get angry, I feel insecure, I may lash out, I may withdraw, perhaps just needing some space but perhaps feeling like I don’t deserve company, it tends to make all my autistic symptoms worse, possibly causing meltdowns. It is also not a process that is quick to get over. It takes me a good month of hard work to get my mojo back after experiencing a rejection event.

Obviously the more things, the more certain things, I have to focus on to help me get back into the swing of things, will help determine the duration. Either way, though, uncertainty hurts.

“No!” Two simple letters that can cause so much discomfort to people with Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria. Or it could say “ON” which are two simple letter that cause so much discomfort to non-functioning electronic devices. Either way, be careful what letters you use and where, you may underestimate their impact. (Credit: geralt via Pixabay)

It really is a pain, as well. It is difficult to describe but it’s almost like your lungs and guts are trying to tie themselves in knots, it is not merely a psychological sensation, there are physical and physiological aspects to it.

So what am I going to do?

Well, the only way to reduce uncertainty is to obtain information. Therefore I am going to contact the people who emailed me to determine as much information about the future process that I can. I am sure they will not be able to tell me everything but having a framework in my mind at least reduces uncertainty. Think about it like a dot-to-dot puzzle, I may not know where all of the lines connect, but if I can connect enough to form an outline I can at least make a best guess and set my mind to rest.

I’m not 100% sure, but I think this might be a pigeon. Without even connecting any dots I can use various environmental clues to give myself more information, e.g. noticing the bird shape, the distinct pigeon-like pattern on the wings, or the fact that it says ‘pigeon’ twice. This dot-to-dot causes me no uncertainty discomfort whatsoever. (Credit: Mvolz Public Domain)

I’m also going to work like a bastard! Distraction, especially positive-reinforcing distraction, is a great help and thankfully I have We Lack Discipline to commit to right now. This gives me an outlet for my nervous energy (this post is a fine example) as well as giving me something to focus on outside of the infinite uncertainties.

I will probably be very fidgety for a week or so, increased stimming, pacing, repetition is to be expected from autistic individuals in times of stress – before I would have chastised myself for such behaviours but now I will let them be. It is my way of helping keep my mind focussed and reduce my anxiety so as long as it is not self-injurious I am okay to be a little bit foot-tappy, or nail-picky.

Overall, though, I’m going to do what autistic people have to do with so much of their behaviour. Learn to live with it. It is. There’s no magic cure for a fear of change or uncertainty. I merely have to choose whether I am comfortable where I am or whether or not I invite that uncertainty and remembering I always have that choice, can be helpful. I cannot guarantee I will succeed, but I can always fail, I can always remove myself from the process, any time.

I know it might seem like trite self-help wankery but take it from a perpetual failure. Failure does not necessarily mean you’re not good enough, it merely means you tried and did not succeed in that moment, at that attempt. You can try again. You can try something different. You can change lanes. You can swap paths. You can change your mind. None of these should be considered demonstrations of ‘failure’ as much as they are learning, and adaptations, from ‘failure’. Failure is not a negative state, indeed it is the default state against which we consistently battle. All of our scientific and technological advancements as a species and various cultures are built upon foundations laid by repeated failures. There is no progress without failure, there is no failure without trying. (credit: Nicolas Nova CC-BY-2.0)

Some people have to put themselves under pressure, tell themselves “Failure is not an option!” I am the opposite of that. Failure absolutely is an option, and knowing I have that option is comforting to me. I know, going into any process that causes me discomfort, causes me uncertainty, I can choose the uncertainty – or I can leave everything be. This way I own my discomfort, at least.

In the meantime, with regards to the process of uncertainty I am currently choosing to engage in, I have attempted to gather information to put my mind at rest, I do not have much yet, but the fact that I got a response that didn’t say “I’m sorry there’s been a horrible mix-up!” already makes me feel a lot better!

Fancy reading some more stuff about psychological or neurological phenomena and how they’ve messed my life up! Read more in the ‘My Life and…’ Series;
My Life and Learned Helplessness
My Life and the Halo Effect
My Life and Executive Dysfunction
My Life and Autism

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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