Plan to live with uncertainty

"Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his research and insights into decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. His more recent comments on the topic of uncertainty claim that, under such conditions, we are generally focused on ‘the wrong things.’ In our declining and troubled world, that must be the case. Our common preoccupation with the Internet — with tweeting, gaming, and consuming at all hours — indicates diversion and distraction. This suggests that our suffering is twofold: we suffer from being focused on ‘the wrong things’ and from being without much focus. And…we cannot see our comforting distractions and difficult realities simultaneously. But like the turning of a phrase, we may slide from one view to the next. It is a behavioural choice."- Peter H. Kahn Jr


Exponential energy bills and a looming winter of discontent. Collapsing currency and a casino cost of living. Venal politicians and mad dictators, slavering over dying democracy. There’s enough to be uncertain about ‘out there’. But what about ‘in here’? It doesn’t have to be all mulligrubs. Here’s a call to unpack that question, understand what it might mean and embrace the endless prospect of ‘not knowing.’ Fortunately, this is the essence of therapeutic work. Bear with me awhile…

If I could have given my 21 year-old self a piece of invaluable advice, this is it: Plan to live with uncertainty. Decades on, it sounds so obvious, even banal. Yet my work with counselling clients informs me it’s a key component if they want to live a life of less misery.

Psychologically, freedom ‘from’ something seems to carry less of a charge than freedom ‘for’ a possibility in life. We are seeking beings. Yet, how many people do you know who seem to prefer staying in a position of some difficulty, rather than face up to the pain of change? This is a human paradox we often meet in the counselling room.

There is not enough security, therefore not enough ability to tolerate anxiety, and therefore not enough risk of something startlingly new.

- Paul Goodman

In person-centred terms, it requires great patience on the part of the counsellor, who, often with thoughts and intuitions about what change may be needed, must hold back and await the client, while they work it out for themselves, however long that may take. As a counsellor, it can be too easy to wonder: How much pain are you prepared to take in this old situation, before you accept the pain you anticipate in the new situation?

It can feel like an impasse, stasis, inertia, even a refusal to move in that direction, for now. Yet this is where the most fruitful work of therapy takes place. The client has come to counselling to respond to a change that has already taken place, or a change they hope to see happen. This makes the whole therapeutic encounter a necessary living with uncertainty for both the client and counsellor.

Our ‘silent presence’ is crucial to our work as therapists. It’s a great relief for the patient when we can stay with their pain, quietly accompanying them on their very difficult and sometimes painful journey into self.

- Dr Linda Berman

Coming through training, however, the hardest thing to learn (as a person-centred counsellor has to) is to ‘do nothing’. But, silence is truly golden. And, for the client, everything that happens will happen in silence. The language that comes, the words that follow, well, they’re all decorations on the Christmas tree. The tree was beautiful in the first place. So, the longer I sit with a client, the less I talk and the more the uncertainty is explored.

The capacity to tolerate uncertainty is a prerequisite for the profession. Though the public may believe that therapists guide patients systematically and sure-handedly through predictable stages of therapy to a foreknown goal, such is rarely the case: instead, as these stories bear witness, therapists frequently wobble, improvise, and grope for direction. The powerful temptation to achieve certainty through embracing an ideological school and a tight therapeutic system is treacherous: such belief may block the uncertain and spontaneous encounter necessary for effective therapy.

- Irvin D. Yalom

If my 21 year-old self could turn the tables and ask this much older man how he comes to be wise enough to offer such advice as ‘plan to live with uncertainty’, I’d probably reply, ‘Because you know everything, whereas I know nothing.’ And there’s my definition of uncertainty: everything and nothing. I think I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks for being with me.

To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it.

- Alan W Watts

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, CV37 6TY
Written by Mark Griffiths, MNCS (Accred)
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, CV37 6TY

LOOK INSIDE a blog series written by Mark Griffiths, Person-Centred Counsellor

Mark wishes he'd known a bit more about counselling before he first became a client himself. He hopes that readers considering counselling will be interested in some thoughtful and occasionally entertaining pieces opening up this mystifying therapeutic world.

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