Living with uncertainty

by | Dec 1, 2022 | Blog posts

When I was in psychiatry residency, one of the consistent teachings we received was that we needed to learn to become comfortable with uncertainty. And that we had to transfer that idea to our patients, because life is uncertain. In later years, I wondered how much of that emphasis on uncertainty, coming from our Freudian teachers, had to do with the shortcoming of their knowledge; I think they misunderstood much of psychiatry. But it’s true; at some point, we reach the end of our knowledge, and the beginning of uncertainty. (My favorite philosopher Karl Jaspers talked a lot about this.)

It’s true that life is uncertain though, in a radical way. Though life is definitely uncertain, one of the things I learned in my psychiatric experience is that we have a lot more control over things than we seem to do. So much of psychiatric work is to get people to move their mindset from low control/low certainty to high control/low certainty. We can’t make life more predictable, but we can manage our reactions to it. This is a basic principle of the cognitive behavior movement, but also of a lot of the high quality self-help movement that is the basis of so-called positive psychology.

Sometimes we think we’re in a comfort zone, but that feeling may not be valid. We may think we have control, but it turns out we don’t. Or it may seem that things are certain, but they turn out not to be. As the cliché goes, the difference between being in a groove and being in a rut may be difficult to detect.

Life can go from being stressful to being exciting just by reorienting our attitude to uncertainty. It can be go from being comfortable but possibly false to being less comfortable but more authentic.