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Safe Uncertainty

Safe Uncertainty

In these blogs I am reflecting on four elements that I believe lead to good guiding and in fact help us to negotiate difficult passages in life. These elements carry a charge that makes for real change. I quoted the great romantic poet William Wordsworth in the first piece when he speaks of ‘spots of time’ that renovate and nourish us and in this blog I want to explore the element of safe uncertainty as a conduit of those ‘spots of time’.


A major lesson I learned during the time I was leading events for men, especially the Rites of Passage which were larger gatherings of anywhere between 40 and 70 men, was that people are only willing to take risks when they feel safe. It would always take the team running the event to display credible and congruent robust vulnerability for the participants to settle into the week and for them to be prepared to trust us. Each year I would have to look the men in the eye, as the main facilitator, and tell them that the fundamental grounds they had to trust me and to trust the team was not our qualifications or credentials (important as they are) rather it was the fact that, I was and we were broken men. I had to find that place inside myself where, at that moment it was true, where I was vulnerable in that robust way I mentioned in the last post. I had many men come up to me during those weeks saying that was the moment when the rubber met the road for them.


My therapist, when I was in the midst of my breakdown said to me that after this experience you will meet people and very quickly you will know they have been through a similar experience. That has proved true and it has helped me greatly in understanding the ways in which we experience safe and sacred space and what we are capable of when we experience it.


What then do I mean by another of these paradoxical statements – safe uncertainty? In so many settings, it is my experience that if you work hard at the beginning of the relationship, whether that is in a one to one arena or a group environment, you create a psychological contract that creates the conditions of safety. That safety allows for a relaxation of the fight/flight instinct that has such a physical effect on us. Our breathing slows and we allow ourselves to settle in. Once these conditions have been established over time and perhaps tested, then we are ready to negotiate uncertainty, to enter the territory of the not known  The unknown in this context is far healthier than certainty.


During this pandemic I have far more trust in the leadership that says we are not sure of this or that recommendation, but we feel it is the best course of action based on what we know now and as soon as something comes along to make us revise that, we will tell you. Certainty in a religious context, in my experience, is a sure fire way to fundamentalism. In politics it is the a quick route to some kind of totalitarianism, a position that cannot admit mistakes. The healthy embrace of uncertainty yields far more helpful information when we are at sea or traversing some transition, which we are so often as individuals, in our organisations and as nations.


This leads me to reflect on something that I picked up in my organisation development studies and my work on chaos theory in regard to the way groups and individuals work. The phrase bounded instability has some of the same resonances as safe uncertainty. It is when the conditions of safety are established that people are more willing to deal with paradox and ambiguity and the unknown. Liminality is another way of describing this phenomenon. All these terms are ways of outlining a territory. That territory as described by chaos theory as applied to organisations draws on the idea that in nature the organisms that are most adaptable are those with porous boundaries, that allow feedback from their environment into their structure and this creates instability. Their reaction to that instability is positive and means that they adapt and stay in harmony with their environment.


Margaret J. Wheatley in her seminal text: Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World shows how many, in leadership, attempt to create stasis, a controlled organisation, and that in nature a completely stable organism is actually dead. So, the most creative are able to allow enough instability in a bounded (safe) environment so that change is facilitated. The bounded part of the sentence is what matters here. It is all about the nature of the holding, the character of the human being or beings that create that bounded environment.


When I first experienced an anxiety breakdown in 2014 I endured a period of deep and abiding uncertainty and all my good words to others about liminal space went out of the window. I was utterly disorientated, I could not right myself. I wrote this poem in the middle of it all.


All at Sea
The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos—
a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this
world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious—Carl Jung

Have you ever been plunged under the surface
of your conscious life and found yourself
all at sea,
not knowing what course to steer?

The bath I ran was full of fear,
its water full of cortisol and adrenalin
just at the prospect
of having to leave the house.

My wife thought getting out would do me good,
just a drive
into the peak district,
familiar and non-threatening roads to soothe me.

It didn’t work—iciness down the spinal cord,
dread like a wasp’s nest inside my guts,
angrily contorted by each turn,
spilling stingers.

“Stop off at a garden centre,” she suggests
Everything in me wants to brutally scream
“Get me home!”
but there is no relief in that.

The cake is like a cloying dust in my mouth;
the tea tasteless—
it furs my tongue with lactose
I endure the leather settee, the Sunday supplement.

Back in the car I feel an abnormal sense of achievement,
but it is not incremental,
not another deposit
in the bank of conquered panic.

It seems every time
I make another attempt at some agoraphobic
summit bid,
I am right back at base camp.

The only thing I can find faith in
is that it is night,
and the stars are a constant.
And when the storm clears,I might find steerage.


As the quote from Jung at the head of the poem states I was on that Night Sea Journey and becoming immersed in the unconscious. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware that this was happening. I had only just begun seeing my therapist and the pain and panic were so acute that I headed to the GP. I came away with Citalopram (an anti-depressant used for anxiety), Diazepam, a short term anti anxiolytic (highly addictive) and Amitriptyline, another antidepressant  (to help me sleep). Then I was in the awful bind that I couldn’t work out what were the symptoms of my condition and what were the side effects of the tablets. Thankfully and fortunately I had just begun Jungian analysis (technical term for therapy in the tradition of Car Jung – paying attention to every layer of the psyche). My therapist Helen offered me that container alluded to in the metaphor of bounded instability, a place to find safe uncertainty. Providentially she had years of experience with patients who had needed to try and come off antidepressants and could guide me carefully through the chemical maze I found myself in.

As her aid helped me face the terrible uncertainty you experience when you have an immersion in the unconscious in the way I did, I at least began to orient myself. I was in a new world. This new world is described powerfully by Jung himself. My therapist understood the dynamics of these night sea journeys in a way I was only dimly aware of. I was, at that time, as the poem states all at sea. But as the last line alludes to I found the constancy of stars and the beginnings of steerage. This was the bounded instability I needed to navigate my way though the dark seas.

Being able to provide this safe uncertainty is a real privilege and a responsibility. I have been fortunate enough to offer this bounded instability to others. It is a delicate thing to do and requires you to be in your own relationship with safe uncertainty so that the inflation that so easily creeps into the these relationships is easily spotted. For me it is a hallmark of a good leader.


Look out for the next in this series – Archetypal Sensitivity 


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