Optimising our Potential by reducing our obsession for Certainty

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Optimising our Potential by reducing our obsession for Certainty

When optimising our potential, having the courage to delve deep into our behaviours is an important past-time. Yet where do we start? As I reflect back, although I don’t think I realised it at the time, I had a really unhealthy obsession for certainty, especially when making decisions. Today, free of that obsession, I can see how it kept me trapped in my cycle of insecurity and fear. I feel passionate about helping us find freedom from our need for certainty and thereby optimising our potential. In this blog I explore why we have a strong reliance on certainty and what we can do to reduce our need for it.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

Voltaire, French Writer

Optimising our Potential – let’s first understand Certainty

As human beings, our behaviours and the decisions we make, are driven by a set of 6 basic needs; certainty being one of them. It keeps us safe and secure. In today’s modern world of pressure, chaos and stress, we have a strong desire to create an environment of positive assurance that abates our fear of failure, loss and inadequacy.

I remember back to my insecure days and my need for certainty; that is achieving an outcome that would be known, unshakeable and rock-solid. The fear of a decision or an event being anything short of certain would fill me with terror. Why is that and what is certainty anyway?

Certainty’s definition is, ‘The quality of something being reliably true.’ This gives us two factors to understand. One is reliability and the other is truth. We develop a need for certainty from a young age which we are not in control off, and our unconscious search for reliability and truth ensures that we either avoid pain or move towards pleasure.

In a world where a uncertainty often rules, we tread upon a foundation that shakes with doubt, fear of the unknown and ambiguity. Yet each step we take, we yearn for surety that our feet will remain on solid ground and that we will not fall. Yet in reality how much of life is reliable and true? How much stress do we create for ourselves formulating certainty, when in a heartbeat, that truth and reliability could crumble in the chaos that governs the world?

Let’s take an example; Walking into a dark room.

My need for certainty was so strong, that until such time as I could find the light switch my mind and body was filled with fear and dread. The not knowing what was in the dark room that might harm me was strong. The fear of the unfamiliar and the rising doubt in my ability to deal with that event, enormous. And in the moment of filling that room with light, all that fear and uncertainty disappeared. I would breathe a sigh of relief. I was safe and had familiarity around me. Now I was able to function with confidence.

In that dark room there is no truth or reliability because of the cessation of my senses. The only certainty I can create is in my own self – and there’s the rub! So my mind is left to wonder, create tales that keeps me in high alert. When my eyes can see, then my body is able to function. Fear is removed and my fight and flight reactions can return to a normal level.

When I think back to 2015, I was so anchored in certainty that it almost prevented me from going travelling; a decision that has enriched my life beyond measure. The thought of relinquishing my home, the post code, my car, all things that gave my life certainty, was too great to bear. And so for three months I lurked from child-like excitement to fear of the ‘what if’.

What was it that drove my obsessional need for certainty in my life? Well the bottom-line is insecurity, low self-esteem and fear. When I experienced a world where my job was safe, my income regular and I knew moment to moment what tasks I had, then I would feel safe and people would like me. In the corporate world, the virus of certainty infects us so deeply that our creativity is stiffled. Yet the diary that records our meetings, our ‘to-do’ list and appointments, rule our schedules and ensures that spontaneity is kept in its cage.

So why did I have such a high need for certainty – why does anyone?

The bottom line is our self-worth. When we feel insecure we create familiar surroundings that give us security and safety that removes doubt. In that established set of parameters, reliability gives us strength in which we can behave confidently as we understand the rules of the game. The minute those surroundings change or shift in character, we loose our comfort zone of familiarity and suddenly what we knew has altered. The walls that kept our fears of the unknown at bay reveal, a more uncertain set of circumstances that leaves us asking questions and feeling doubtful.

Certainty offers knowledge, clarity, safety and removal of that doubt. Certainty gives us routine, habits and methodical results. Certainty gives us a validity that leaves us free of questions and anxiety. Yet to believe that our decisions, based on certainty will give us sustained surety, as Voltaire suggests, is absurd. Nothing is certain, except for death and taxes. And whilst certainty might lure us into a momentary sense of comfort, in a heart beat that could change. That is the nature of the world we live in.

Certainty is the Mother of fools

Patrick Jane, from US series, The Mentalist

When it comes to making decisions based on certainty, the fear of the unfamiliar is so great that we will allow events and opportunities to perhaps by-pass us to give us the surety we crave. We take the safe option and potentially we may even sit in indecision rather than make a decision where doubt sits on the fringes. We make choices based on the hope for a reliable outcome, where we will not be taken out of our comfort zone, ensuring that the element of risk is eliminated. Risk to us is dangerous. Risk triggers our fear of failure. Risk creates doubt and reduces reliability. Yet the reality is, there is very little certainty. Well at least, not for very long.

I think our modern world is so unpredictable that our obsession with certainty leaves us in a vulnerable position. There are very few aspects on the life we lead today that has the surety we desire and so our obsession with creating certainty, can create a perception of weakness.

Optimising potential in a world of chaos

Why is certainty not always a good thing

In understanding how to optimise our potential, we must look at the way our need for certainty holds us back. Here’s my perspective;

  • Certainty narrows our field of vision to a set of parameters that make us feel safe thus missing the full picture of opportunity
  • It reduces our ability to be spontaneous, take calculated risks and step us out of our comfort zones, where growth sits waiting for us
  • It prohibits us from enrichment as we get stuck in routine
  • It prevents us from exploring new territory which could offer us something better
  • Certainty shapes our life around predictability rather than variety and curiosity
  • It can lead to conflict in a situation where two people collide with their own version of certainty. If they don’t match then compromise and negotiation is unlikely
  • The reality of the world is how to manage chaos; certainty is not a friend of chaos and indirectly creates the stress we are trying to avoid
  • It can result in a pattern of closed-mindedness as we endeavour to keep ourselves from harm’s way. Knowing chaos exists keeps us far more open to alternatives
  • It actually shields us from the reality of the world and therefore can cause more pain when reality hits us and we have no choice than to change
  • Certainty prohibits our ability to change, which in itself creates stagnancy and pain – the very thing we are trying to avoid
  • We miss the beauty out of the window by only looking at the walls we have formed
  • It creates an illusion of control, which so rarely is the truth.

10 Tips for reducing our reliance on Certainty

Inevitably, as we begin to open up our awareness of our habits, we start to ask questions. The first of which must be, ‘So how do I become less reliant on Certainty, when I’ve done it for so long?’ Let me see if I can offer some thoughts that will give us a new frame of reference.

  1. Understand that certainty is a behaviour, a need that we have developed. It is not about knowledge or rules. It is about how we think not what we think.
  2. Start to ask more questions so that it opens up curiosity, options and possibility.
  3. Practise relinquishing control. In small steps, experiment with not having a map, a ‘to-do list’ or an itinerary. It might feel, initially uncomfortable, although when we practise going with the flow, we experience so much more than we can imagine.
  4. Focus on all of our strengths and talents, not on what we fear and doubt. If certainty is dressed in our insecurity and feeds our need for approval, then we must start to look within. When we build a strong relationship with us, based on our strengths and capabilities, our need for certainty begins to wane.
  5. Look within and develop great trust in our ability to make good choices.
  6. Listen to our fears and rationalise their truth and reliability. All too often, fear is False Expectations Appearing Real. So when we challenge the fears that run our show, then the need for certainty is released.
  7. Develop a more positive mind-set that focuses on our capabilities rather than our failings. The more we value ourselves the more we set ourselves free from the need for certainty.
  8. Accept that ambiguity exists everywhere and learn to embrace it each and every day.
  9. Do one thing each day that is not the norm. The more we begin to step outside of our habitual patterns, the less certainty rules our choices.
  10. Find a balance between certainty and uncertainty that brings comfort. This is not about ‘all or nothing.’ It is about reducing our obsession with one or another. Practise moving out of the comfort zone of certainty and regularly dip a toe into the water of uncertainty to build confidence.

Certainty is neither a friend nor foe. All things in life are about balance. And when we come to optimising our potential, awareness, the inner journey, courage and growth all help us find the freedom that enriches our lives. Let’s choose to not be fools and rely on certainty to rule our lives. Choose freedom and feel alive.

Please leave your comments about this outpouring of certainty. I would love to know what you think. For more thought-provoking articles, check out this link on my Coaching Page. Until then, I wish for you happiness, freedom and choice in a world of chaos. Kx

Published: February 11, 2024


  1. Anna i Portugal

    Interesting post, which I need to read again 🙂 I love to be certain within important relationships and to be uncertain about the future.

    • Karen

      Hi Anna. It’s amazing how a TV show can stimulate self-reflection and prose. And this is what I thank The Mentalist for, as it has inspired this blog. Certainty is the Mother of Fools. It’s interesting the reflections that you have had on first read. The more Myles and I talk about this topic, the more I can see how certainty has affected my past life and how it shades it from time to time now. It’s all about awareness and balance; and where it has a negative impact on how we do things, then that gives us a chance to grow. With loving support as you re-read. Kx


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