Uncertainty, Vulnerability & Tectonic Plates



It is fair to say that we have been through a period of extreme uncertainty in the last year. It may also be fair to expect that we may be used to living with uncertainty now. The numbers, however, of people taking our free How I Deal With Uncertainty report suggests different. The conversations we are having with our business and organisational clients also suggests different. The phrase “I am looking forward to going back to normal” is common.

As an aside, that phrase feels strange when you dissect it. Looking forward to going backwards….an interesting concept.

When we went into lockdown in March 2020, because of the messaging we were getting, we all expected it to be a short term hit. Later in the year we went into Lockdown V 2.0 and now, at time of writing we are slowly starting the gradual lifting of restrictions from Lockdown V 3.0. Because of the way the two previous lockdowns were dealt with and because of our need for certainty the government has carefully documented a plan, criteria and measurements that will help us all work with our own expectations. Despite the timetables and the clarity around tests that need to be satisfied we are getting excited. We are already witnessing conversations where people think that each lifting of a restriction is going to happen because it is written down…“it’s in the calendar!” Despite what we have learnt in the last year that the world is nothing if not full of uncertainty, we still crave certainty.


Uncertainty makes us feel vulnerable and generally we have an uncomfortable relationship with vulnerability. Those vulnerable feelings we have of fear, hurt, sadness and shame are really difficult to process and truly processing them takes the effort to spend time with those feelings. Because culturally, we are not good with feeling vulnerable, instead of allowing those feelings to exist and processing them, we push them away. We hope that by doing that we will not really have to deal with them.

That does not mean they go away. It just means they lurk in the background building up pressure until they can have enough strength to overwhelm you. Of course, none of us like that feeling of overwhelm to the point where we will avoid it at all costs.

The truth of the matter is that if we are not going to deal with our feelings, and we are going to push them to the back of our minds, we will at some point feel overwhelmed. That is not necessarily a bad thing since that becomes an intense expression of our vulnerability at that time and is a form, in itself, of processing these feelings.

A great example of this is funerals. A funeral is a collective act of sadness and many of us feel overwhelmed with sadness at funerals. As such it can become a collective act of feeling overwhelmed. I am well aware that the extreme sadness and tears that I experience at a funeral are not completely about the person who I am there to remember. It is more about me having stepped into a place and time where it is accepted that I will and can feel vulnerable, and thus the floodgates open and all my feelings of vulnerability visit me. It is a cathartic experience.

When this happens I can be found overwhelmed, tearful and smiling as I know that despite the discomfort there is a form of processing my feelings of vulnerability going on. It’s helpful and healthy.

Often the act of gathering together in a place where it is acknowledged we will be sad allows us to connect with all of those feelings of vulnerability that we have been pushing away and thus it is so easy to feel overwhelmed. Our vulnerability visits us all at once because we have not been dealing with it as it comes.

Tectonic Plates

Many many years ago in geography lessons at school I learnt about tectonic plates with particular reference to the San Andreas fault which, when it moves, causes earthquakes that impact a lot of California and especially Los Angeles. What I learnt at school , many years ago, is that the fault is part of the North Pacific plate and the North American plate moving together. To be precise the North Pacific plate is moving past the North American plate, very very slowly. As they bump up against each other pressure for the movement to happen builds. The longer it takes for the movement to happen the larger the build up of pressure is and the bigger the earthquake that accompanies it will be. 

It is the perfect metaphor for change and the perfect metaphor for the way we avoid uncertainty.

The longer we take to deal with change the bigger the issue is. How do we deal with uncertainty? By seeking to create certainty and slow down change. 

Back to the funeral (or any other time when we become overwhelmed)…most of us do not feel overwhelmed and smile and tell ourselves we clearly needed it. Most of us have an internal feedback mechanism that compounds the issue. We feel overwhelmed, we feel out of control of our feelings and a little voice in our head sends us the message “see, that is why you should not allow yourself to feel vulnerable. This is the result.” Subsequently we continue our journey of avoiding feeling vulnerable which also involves avoiding change.

My point is…

The longer we put off dealing with change, the opposite of certainty, the more traumatic it is to deal with it. The longer we put off acknowledging and allowing ourselves to feel our vulnerable feelings the worse it is to deal with them when they overwhelm us. Uncertainty is about fear, fear is about vulnerability and, in our experience, there is a lot of pressure building in a lot of people at the moment.

Maybe there is another way. Maybe we can, each moment we feel vulnerable acknowledge, maybe even name the feeling, accept that this happens and work with it. To put it another way maybe we can become comfortable feeling uncomfortable. That way we are continually dealing with uncertainty and vulnerability in small bite sized chunks rather than waiting to be overwhelmed and feel helpless and powerless.

That way when change heads our way and we are powerless to stop it, we are better able to work with it and look for the opportunities rather than work against it and resist until it overwhelms us.