Written by Milla Zeltzer Psy.D., supervised by Cindy Speich, Psy.D.
Therefore, if you praise doubt
Do not praise
The doubt which is a form of despair.
What use is the ability to doubt to a man
Who can’t make up his mind?
He who is content with too few reasons
May act wrongly
But he who needs too many
Remains inactive under danger.
In Praise of Doubt, Brecht (1976)
translated by Taylor Stoehr
There is one thing that we all can be certain about: uncertainty and doubt will always be a part of the human experience. We have made tremendous progress in the way knowledge and “facts” are disseminated – we now learn about events mere moments after they occur anywhere in the world. We can go online and look up something as simple as “mayonnaise” and find recipes, nutritional values, promotions, code of federal regulations, studies on the effects and danger of what we thought was just a simple craving. With all of this information, how can we ever be certain we are making the right decisions in life?
We are uncertain about our world, our future as a species living on planet Earth, our financial stability, security, national currency, weather, climate, price of oil, our health… and the list goes on and on. Yesterday we were looking forward to a romantic vacation in Europe, but today we shy away from that long awaited dream by seeing Paris crippled by terror. Many unanswered questions float in our minds. What is the latest health fad? Should our children be reading at the age of five or is it ok to let them enjoy childhood a bit longer? Is high achievement necessary for our survival or should we live mindfully enjoying the simple pleasures of life? We are terrified of making the wrong decision, and taking the wrong step.
And nowhere else do our feelings of anxiety, fear and resentment get uncovered more than in the process of psychotherapy. The more these uncertainties are invited into the therapy session, the more collaborative the process, and the more powerful the work.
Both patient and therapist are confronted with uncertainty, and both navigate their relationship by seeing each other through the prism of preconceptions based on past experiences. Hoffman (1987) argued that a therapist’s judgment would inevitably include “experience with past patients, unconscious bias, self-deception, and wishful thinking.”
As a mother of two little girls, I am burdened with the importance of decision-making responsibility and bombarded with a multitude of choices, which at times can be overwhelming and consuming. Although, the thoughts about my personal reality swarm in my head day in and day out, I have to be mindful of what it means to be helpful to my patients, striving to remain open and connected in the therapy room. Disengaging from my life and who I am is humanly impossible. Instead, I remember that experiencing uncertainty about my personal choices can help me to relate to how unsure my patients are in their lives.
The misconception that a therapist, as a professional, must have all the answers is detrimental to the entire therapeutic process. The therapeutic relationship is in danger of being compromised by the therapist’s fear of embarrassment and jeopardized professional reputation. Instead of offering a raw and honest perspective, we transform our work by subscribing to a limited framework of predictable and controllable schemas. This fear of uncertainty and doubt stifles much wanted growth and invites impotence.
Self-awareness is required for the therapist to remain humble in the relationship with patients. Leading by example, the therapist will invite bravery and honesty about working through their own feelings of anxiety, fear and resentment provoked by experience of uncertainty in their lives. This openness could be helpful in offering patients an opportunity to resist compliancy in therapy that stifles self-inquiry and impedes on therapeutic process.
Inviting uncertainty in therapy creates the space for curiosity and collaborative exploration between the patient and the therapist. This in turn will be more productive in facilitating growth. We hope that through the process of achieving self-awareness we will embrace uncertainty, and with it our life journey will become more creative and fulfilling.
Hoffman, I.Z. (1987) The value of uncertainty in psychoanalytic practice. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 23 (2), 205-214.