I’m a reformed perfectionist. It’s still a daily effort for me to back off my perfectionistic tendencies and welcome (gasp!) errors into my life. But, when I am able to open the door to imperfection, I feel more human and free.
Even harder than welcoming imperfection has been coming to terms with uncertainty and doubt. Perfectionists live with the illusion of control and the false belief that if everything is ‘just so’ they can ward off unpleasant or negative experiences. The trap here, of course, is that perfectionism is, itself, an unpleasant experience.
Uncertainty and doubt are part of being human. There is literally nothing we can do to shield against the inevitable — or to know — with 100% certainty — what is coming next. I don’t know if I will finish this blog post. A meteor might fall. I’m 99% sure I will finish this blog post. But, I don’t know for sure. I have to find a way to live with that.
Years ago, my struggle with uncertainty and doubt revolved around the stomach-churning realization that my mother might die. She wasn’t unwell or elderly. But, suddenly, it popped into my brain that ‘oh my gosh there’s going to come a day when my mother won’t be here!”
My mom is this amazing person — she’s one of the smartest people I know and she also has a gigantic heart. She loves the world around her and the people in it. I watched in awe throughout my childhood as she ushered troubled children into our home, giving them shelter and guidance. More importantly, love. She’s the kind of person who notices the woman in line at the grocery store struggling to afford her groceries and gives her not only $50 to get what she needs but also a list of resources. My mom is active in local and national politics, has a rich spiritual life, makes changes in the world both big and small. So, why would the universe take this amazing woman away from me and everyone else?!
I hated this thought. Every time it popped into my head I pushed it away, tears welling in my eyes. But, it would pop back in again. What if she dies? When will she die? How will she die? Will I be okay when she dies? The uncertainty chewed away at me. The not-knowing stabbed like a knife every time.
Then, a lightbulb went off. This was earlier in my career and I was just starting to learn about exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). I decided to try some exposure and acceptance with those thoughts. Instead of pushing them away, I sent them an invitation: She’s going to die. That’s part of the human experience. By acknowledging that reality, I can shift my focus to treasuring our mortal relationship while I have it rather than wasting time and energy trying to ward off the inevitable. I felt more free.
I still don’t like the idea that, one day, my mom will pass away. But, importantly, I can think about it now, talk about it, write about it, and move on with my day. I’m no longer in battle with that thought. When we accept that uncertainty is just part of this package of living the human experience, it is no longer an intolerable phenomenon. It just is.
Doubt is similar. We can never be sure if we did something just right. We can never be sure we didn’t mess up. We’ll never know. It just is.
Doubt and uncertainty are what OCD is made of. They’re like the building blocks for the prison that is OCD. Without the struggle against doubt and uncertainty, OCD would crumble and fall. OCD preys on this. It knows the weak link in your chain. Are you sure you locked the door? Are you certain? Are your hands really clean? Do you know with 100% certainty? Try what I did. Try sending the OCD an invitation instead. You know what? I don’t know. I’ll never know with 100% certainty. Doubt and uncertainty are just two things I have to find a way to live in symbiosis with. I’m moving on with my day now.
Tips For Managing Doubt & Uncertainty
- Accept the reality that doubt and uncertainty are inevitable
- Accept that struggling against doubt and uncertainty makes their presence loom larger and creates discomfort
- Allow yourself to think about that which is uncertain or that which you doubt. Send it an invitation. Open the door.
- Move your behavior toward that which you value. I value my relationship with my mother. I put my energy into that.
- Focus on what you can control. Maybe you’ll never know with 100% certainty if you’ll get fired. But you can continue being a good employee with a strong work ethic.
- Incorporate moments of mindfulness into your daily practice. Be here. Right now.
- Live your life as if uncertainty and doubt do not exist. If uncertainty weren’t a factor, would you take that trip? Would you book that flight? If doubt didn’t exist, would you move on to the next task?
- Trust that you are a capable person. Whatever comes your way, you’ll figure it out. You always do. (My momma taught me that.)