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  • lkmerton

Uncertainty - it's stressing you out more than you think!

The management of uncertainty is the goal of successful therapy. When I was studying for my Masters, doing a course on CBT, that textbook idea struck me as so self-evident and so important that I couldn't believe it had never occurred to me before. Looking back at my own life, it was always the "what ifs", all those fears of the future that threw me. What if X happens? What if I make a mistake? What if so-and-so doesn't act the way I need? What if I can't handle it?

We humans are good at defending ourselves against uncertainty, but not all our defense mechanisms are helpful. When Freud identified the principle and gave defense mechanisms names - denial, justification, rationalisation, repression, projection and delusion among them - his point was really to help his patients see their patterns, stop avoiding them, and get real. Sublimation - the process of overcoming problems in order to turn them into something good and meaningful - was always the goal.

Some of us catastrophise our uncertainties, perhaps in the mistaken belief that emotional suffering is some kind of bulwark against bad things happening. Or maybe we think someone will swoop in and fix it for us if we lose it. On the other hand, we may feel stability in imagining and accepting the worst. "Despair I can handle. It's the hope that's killing me," said Woody Allen in better days.

Many more of us become fatalists, believing that we have no say in what happens to us, and "people don't change", so we need to stop being stupid and just give up. We may settle for bad treatment in relationships, martyr ourselves to And the New Age belief in the law of attraction has always struck me as the opposite side of this defense mechanism coin - that everything that happens is because we bring it on ourselves, so if we don't think the right thoughts we deserve what we get as a result. (What a terrible burden this belief is. It also cuts us off from empathy, because we can blame the misfortune of others on them, too.)

Still more of us become fundamentalists of one sort or another, clinging to rigid, black and white thinking that provides a firm ground under our emotional feet. We don't see the cage we're in, from inside. Bigotry, cults, political polarisation and broken relationships are the result, too often, of people or groups of people who just can't handle the simple process of changing their minds. Not just changing their minds - learning things that open them. And they don't want the people in their tribe to change, either. That would inflame their uncertainty.

Why are people so unreasonable? Why can't they cope with change? Fear. Fear is the reason we react in such difficult ways to uncertainty, and fear is the reason that we adopt beliefs that keep us in fear. Studies have shown that there are higher rates of depression and anxiety in fundamentalist groups, because the beliefs people cling to are trapping them in a vicious circle of fear. Will they go to hell, be shunned, be abandoned, be alone, be open to danger, go crazy if they change their minds?!

These days, it often feels like we're less equipped to manage uncertainty at the same time as experiencing more of it. Developed countries have thankfully been able to provide security to their citizens in time of need, and medicine has managed to cure if not prevent many illnesses. Yet mental health problems are on the rise. Prescriptions for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications are at an all-time high.

All our 'what if' fears, if they prevent us from moving forward in our lives, can so easily turn into 'coulda, shoulda, woulda's' in time. Fear begets regret.

The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty. The opposite of uncertainty is safety. Safety begets calm, which leads to better decisions, better relationships, and better lives.

So the goal of therapy is to bring us to safety. Life is full of uncertainty and that may often be uncomfortable, but it doesn't have to cage us, or lie to us. How do we 'face fear and do it anyway?' By cultivating safety and security within ourselves. Be becoming familiar with the actual physical feelings of self-awareness, self-confidence, self-acceptance, and self-love. By learning to communicate, and hear, with grace and honesty, our emotional needs and those of those we care about. To know in our hearts that we're not alone.

And the best thing of all is that changing our minds, and releasing our fears, is not that hard. I have seen deep-seated patterns of behaviour across generations, discarded in one moment, no longer useful and no longer there. Beliefs, roles, hurts and fears - the same. I haven't just seen it, I've felt it for myself in TAT sessions. The ground did not swallow me up; I lost nothing that mattered. Just beliefs that weighed me down, just guilt, just unworthiness, just fear. I felt the ground become firmer under my feet.

That sounds pretty dramatic, and it can be. But most of us are on a journey on no pre-ordained road and no certain destination. We don't want to walk in circles, or backwards, though, because that feels bad! And we don't want to walk alone.

Learning to manage uncertainty is the goal of therapy, and the goal of the therapeutic relationship. And what a beautiful, fascinating, inspiring, life-affirming goal that can be.

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