The Uncertainty Principle

In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is the principle that there is a fundamental limit to our ability to know things about a particle. If you know precisely where it is, you can’t know how fast it is moving, and if you know how fast it is moving you can’t know exactly where it is, and so on. The original argument that such a limit should exist was given by Werner Heisenberg in 1927.

The application of this principle to human psychology is obviously quite a leap. What do sub-atomic particles and the human mind have in common? However, I have never been afraid of making big leaps, so here goes…

I think the principle has relevance for the lives of people with various kinds of anxiety disorders as well as real life problems (for instance, health problems) that lead them to pursue a quest for controlling the various parts of their lives. This quest is, obviously, an extremely difficult one. Even those who succeed remarkably well at controlling the details of their lives and the lives of people around them, pay significant costs for their efforts.

The more you try to control the specifics and the details of your life, the less able you are to manage the big picture and the overall direction your life.

I can illustrate this with the stories of two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum of big picture versus details.

One is a very successful businessman who is president of a large company. At his last visit he was in the best mental health that I’ve seen him in, ever. He was very relaxed and yet also confident and focused on shaping the overall direction of his life. He described the secret of his success this way:

‘Figure out what your big picture goals are, and then decide what the things are that really don’t matter. Give up on trying to change those things altogether and focus on doing with determination the things that are tied to your big picture goals. Don’t be discouraged by how hard some of those things might be in the short term, commit to making a difference in the long run.”

Another person that we met with is a young woman who has, over the years, wrestled with many problems, including a very severe health problem. She has noticed recently that her tendency in life is to focus on trying to control all of the details. The example of this that we were most focused on was her anxiety about flying.

In essence, she wants to be able to control all the aspects of an airplane’s flight, she wants to ensure the quality of the pilots and airplane mechanics, and the control tower and, etc. etc.. The result is that she is consumed by these impossible tasks, and finds it hard to devote any time to some of the really important issues that she’s facing, for instance the question of what she wants to do professionally, how she wants to develop her personal relationships, etc.

The challenge is balancing effort to change your life with acceptance of uncertainty.

A bit like trying to surf – life is about having a long term view but also accepting that we cannot control the details so we have to be prepared to constantly shift our efforts to stay on the board.