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"What do you want out of life, and what is holding you back from that?" 

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November 13, 2023

Clarity vs. Certainty

Can we turn the reality of uncertainty into a possibility for mystery and wonder, rather than something to be dreaded and feared?

person in kayak on the water

I have been thinking about the difference between clarity and certainty.  

We are all looking for clarity in our lives. And often we try to find it through an attempt at certainty.

People come into therapy looking for clarity - why did this happen to me? Why am I stuck? What should I do? What’s wrong with me? Why did my abuser do it? When will my life get better?

Making meaning and gaining clarity are part of the ways we seek healing. 

And it is one of the predominant ones found in our post-Enlightenment, logic-exalting society. “I need to figure this out. I need to make sense of it.”  Essentially, we are saying: If my mind can understand it, then I can figure out how to overcome it or live with it.

Logic will help some. But it’s not enough on its own.

This is why people with trauma come into therapy wondering why the formula they were given to get through life isn’t working. It can be really disillusioning to realize that understanding and willpower can’t solve all of life’s problems. That’s the only way we’re taught to do things. 

As Tibetan spiritual teacher Sogyal Rinpoche says, “We often assume that simply because we understand something intellectually…we have actually realized it. This is a great delusion.”

And science is backing that up. Dualistic, logic-centric ways of seeing ourselves and the world are insufficient.

In the realm of psychology, this is showing up in a more holistic understanding of our struggles and ways of healing. We need all of us to heal - mind, body, feelings, soul. And they are all intricately connected. 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a top-down strategy: change your thoughts to change your behaviors.
  • Somatic Experiencing Therapy is a bottom-up strategy: if my body can release it, I can heal. 
  • My favorite modalities, Internal Family Systems (IFS) and EMDR incorporate all of them together.

Back to the matter at hand: clarity versus certainty. 

Clarity is actually one of the qualities identified as part of our Core Self, which I think is analogous to the Soul/Spirit, and can also be called our Highest, Wisest Self.

And what I have witnessed and experienced is that clarity is accompanied by wonder. 

The moment of enlightenment that leaves you feeling inspired, energized, and at peace. 

The dawning insight that gives you perspective, clarity, and hope. 

These are all infused by awe.

Now let’s look at what accompanies certainty. 

In my experience, and what I’ve witnessed, is the following: 

Certainty can bring relief from uncertainty. 

It can increase your sense of security. 

AND it leads to rigidity.

It breeds fragility.

And it leads to intolerance.

(My Consent/Closeness Matrix is one way of visualizing this. Certainty is a part of an authoritarian mindset - I have to know. And clarity is part of a radical acceptance mindset - I can embrace the mystery.)

I recently watched the movie Stutz by Jonah Hill and I was struck by psychiatrist Phil Stutz’s insight that one of the main things we are reacting to in life is uncertainty because it is an unavoidable part of life.

Can we turn the reality of uncertainty into a possibility for mystery and wonder, rather than something to be dreaded and feared?

What would need to happen personally and collectively for that to be possible?

On a large scale:

  • Marginalized groups would need to be given self-determination and full acceptance. 
  • Oppressive systems that lead to the higher possibility of danger and disaster for marginalized groups need to be dismantled.
  • Toxic pollution that leads to a higher possibility of cancer and other illnesses needs to be curtailed.
  • Extractionist ways of treating the world that lead to more natural disasters and food/water scarcity need to be shifted to earth-honoring ways. (Listen to ecofeminist Vandana Shiva talk about food communities here as one way to accomplish this.)

On a personal scale, we can give ourselves compassion around how difficult uncertainty can feel. And we can befriend ourselves in that place of uncertainty. We can embrace mystery and look for clarity. And we can listen to more than our minds and embrace all of us, which helps us live with uncertainty.