“If you want to be successful in this field, you’d better learn to love ambiguity.” A professor said this to her class 12 years ago. As a student in that class, I can almost hear these words today as clearly as they were spoken over a decade ago. This has stuck with me because it has proven to be true.
In my job I work closely with people, come to care for them deeply, watch them struggle and triumph. And then, in the majority of cases, we stop seeing each-other. This is the natural progression of therapy. In the cold clinical sense it is meet, assess, treatment plan, intervene and then terminate. I usually invite (if not outright plea for) follow-up calls, periodic check-ins. Perhaps naturally, seldom is this invitation accepted. Here is the ambiguity that my professor identified. Did this person maintain their progress? Did that issue ever resolve? What happened with their spouse? These questions rarely receive an answer.
But this post is not about me or the ambiguity that therapists encounter. It is about how we all come to terms with the ambiguities and uncertainties in our own lives.
We Seek Answers
One important thing to understand about the way that our psyches operate is that we seek answers. Uncertainty and ambiguity are uncomfortable for us. We strive to be in a world that we know and understand. We actively seek this knowledge and most of the time we are able to find and achieve it. However, there are some circumstances where this knowledge is simply not possible. When we find ourselves in these circumstances, we have a choice to either continue to search, in vein, for the certainty we crave or to learn to come to terms with not knowing, even though it is uncomfortable for us.
The Allure of On-Again Off-Again Relationships
Understanding how ambiguity affects our minds, we are able to more fully understand the allure of relationships that do not get a firm and clear ending. These are the types of relationships that we refer to as on-again off-again. These couples get together and then break up only to reunite to give it another go. This cycle may repeat countless times until one or both partners are willing to give an unambiguous ending to the relationship.
Knowing how stagnating this pattern can be, taking a page from Taylor Swift can really help. She wrote the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” That is a direct, unambiguous signal that this relationship is ending and not going to enter the on-again off-again dynamic. While it may be more painful to do so, we really do ourselves and others a favor by being direct and clear when a relationship is over.
There are two “flavors” of ambiguity. First up is future oriented ambiguity. This is when we are uncertain about how something will turn out in the future. This is fertile ground for worry to take seed and grow. This often takes the form of “what if” thinking. (This will be addressed below, but see the earlier blog about worry for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.) The second flavor is past oriented. This is where we are unsure about something that already happened. If there is a situation that leaves you pondering why someone treated you the way they did, then you are dealing with this type of ambiguity. There is a 4-step protocol for dealing with this that I will describe in a later section.
“What If” Thinking
As mentioned above, this is worry. We may wonder what if… and then create all sorts of scenarios in our head. These tend to be worst-case scenarios. The missing ingredient here usually is our ability to cope. We tend to over-estimate the likelihood of some terrible fate befalling us and under-estimate our strength and capacity to overcome hardships. I find myself frequently reminding my clients that they are far more resilient than they give themselves credit for. You would do well to remind yourself of the same thing.
Four Step Protocol to Handle Past Oriented Ambiguity
It can be difficult to stop rehashing troubling things that have happened in our past. We may find ourselves constantly playing over situations from the past and wondering why it happened the way that it did. If you find yourself doing this, give the following protocol a try:
- Express your wished for outcome. This is your opportunity to define what you wanted to have happen in an ideal world.
- Acknowledge the reality of what did happen. You then define how things actually turned out. This will often highlight the discrepancy between what you wanted and what you got.
- Acknowledge your feelings about the situation. Are you angry about the way you were treated? Perhaps sad about the outcome? If you have a hard time identifying emotions, remember that emotions fall into the four main categories of mad, glad, sad and scared. Consulting a “feelings chart” may also be helpful. By expressing these emotions openly and directly, you can begin the process of mourning, if needed, and then move on to the fourth and final step.
- Let it go. This is not just a song that Elsa sings. It is the culmination of the work you have done through the first three steps. Now that you have acknowledged the gap between what you wanted and what you got and how this makes you feel, you can begin to put it to rest. Accepting that things cannot be different and you cannot change the past are the main tasks of this final step.
Let’s Be Clear About Our Conclusions…
I hope that you are now certain in your understanding of why ambiguity is difficult for us and how you can go about working through it. Oftentimes, simply understanding the nature of what you are struggling with helps you to deal with it better. In this way, clearing up the ambiguity about ambiguity makes things less ambiguous. I hope that’s clear.