We are often trapped more by what we think about how things should be, or “have to be,” than by the reality of the challenges we face.
This week I have been noticing how often the phrase “I can’t stand.XX” precedes a statement that is quite obviously not true.
Someone who has been living with the uncertainty of multiple sclerosis for 10 years says “I can’t stand it if my friend is saying mean things about me.” Of course she can stand it. Not only can she stand it, but the problem that she has with what’s going on and her emotional upset is mostly generated by the thoughts and feelings behind that statement, rather than the real situation of a friend who is catty.
Another example of the same phenomenon. A young man embarking on a career as an architect, who I have known all through undergraduate and graduate school, and who has been plagued by anxiety about whether he’s making the right choice of career and whether the he chose the right classes to take, etc., etc. was working himself to a pretty significant depression with worry about the possibility that has made wrong choices.
Then he went in to see his long-time therapist, who started to talk to him about account accepting uncertainty. The therapist pointed out that everything in our lives is ultimately uncertain, and that we must accept uncertainty if we are to live in the world. This patient suddenly felt a great sense of relief that he didn’t have to struggle to achieve some impossible certainty.
On a larger scale, this is a significant problem in our society as a whole. We become seduced by the thought that we might be able to create a society that is safe, or where people’s health is taken care of, and as we get closer to achieving this, our anxiety goes up rather than going down.
I was struck by this when I was trying to understand the incredible level of anxiety that many parents have about their children being abducted, despite the fact that the evidence suggests that this is one of the very rarest of all possible crimes.
The risk to their children is about 200 time greater that they will die in a car accident, a presidential commission on the subject found almost not cases in a year of true stranger abduction. And yet our anxiety seems to go up in inverse proportion to the risk.
Conversely, radical acceptance of uncertainty can, paradoxically, bring relief from anxiety.
There is an “aha” moment when we realize that it is really ridiculous to strive for absolute certainty about anything… and often a sudden reduction in anxiety.