The Gift of Uncertainty
Clients come to therapy looking for answers to their misery and confusion. They want to know why they’re depressed, for example, and then they want to know what to do about it. This expectation often leads me to feel a pressure to solve their conundrum as quickly as possible. I am aware of transferential feelings of anxiety and impatience. The magnetic call to come up with revelatory insights about my client’s issues is difficult to resist.
Yet it is my job to withstand this drive for certainty. Therapy, as it is conceived of within the humanistic framework, is exploratory. It aims to break open and examine the client’s experience, not close it down. As human beings we resist this, because we prefer the notion of certainty, even while knowing, on a deeper level, how illusory this notion is. There is also a societal attitude that implicitly assumes that uncertainty is stressful and upsetting; avoid it if you can. Listen to a mindfulness podcast, go for a swim, get some CBT, but don’t, whatever you do, wallow in your own anxiety and unknowing!
Yet ambiguity is the space where, to paraphrase Emi van Deurzen, you can consider your anxiety as a valid starting point for the work that has to be done. It is only by plumbing the depths of our own unique histories and ways of being in the world that our awareness of ourselves increases to such an extent that we are able to unearth the resources for growth and decision making that we already possess. I’m not criticizing mindfulness or swimming or CBT – they each offer useful ways of managing mental health – but the resolutions that we reach ourselves, through hard-won, experiential learning are always more long-lasting. In the end, the ability to tolerate our anxiety and uncertainty will stand us in better stead than strategies handed down to us by a so-called expert.
It is a relief, sometimes, just to be told what to do. The trouble is, life requires us, if we are to live it fully, to take responsibility for ourselves. A good therapist will be a source of stability and cohesion in the face of your uncertainty, until you know, in body and mind, that the uncertainty is life, and life is uncertainty, and you can stand both humble and resolute in the face of this enduring challenge.