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The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).

According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.

1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  • Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.

  • Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…

  • Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).

  • Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.

  • Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).

  • Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.

  • Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

Beliefs about uncertainty

  • It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

  • Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

  • Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).

  • Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.

2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?

The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?

  • How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?

  • What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?

  • Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?

3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.

  • How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.

  • For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.

4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!


Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.

Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the various ways that people try to avoid their emotions. And it’s understandable. Emotions can feel pretty scary, especially when they get intense. Intense anxiety can elicit a sense of impending doom, the physical symptoms that accompany panic can generate a sense that one is having a heart attack, and individuals overcome with anger can feel like they are going to explode. So it makes sense that we would want to avoid negative emotions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to cite getting rid of an emotion like anxiety as their initial goal for therapy.

Problems with wanting to eliminate negative emotions

Although it’s understandable to want to avoid negative emotions, either by numbing ourselves when they arise, or wishing we could eliminate them altogether, there are several reasons why this isn’t actually a good idea.

1. Our emotions are useful signals. A helpful analogy here is to think of physical pain – although many people wish they could avoid or prevent physical pain, pain signals give us useful information that we need to protect ourselves (indeed, people who do not get these pain signals often develop serious injuries; see link). In a similar way, our emotions are there to tell us something. For example, when we feel threatened in some way, anxiety alerts us to the possibility that we may need to protect or prepare ourselves. Without any anxiety, we might take risks that put us in physical danger, or we might shirk our responsibilities altogether.

2. It’s often not possible. When we suppress an emotion, it doesn’t typically go away.

a. The emotion might actually intensify over time (have you ever tried to push away feelings of frustration about something only to blow up about it later on?). In this way, our emotions are not all that different from children asking their parent for something – what do they do if they don’t feel heard? They raise the volume (sometimes very, very loudly!).

a. Or the emotion might come out in a different form, which can be hard for those around you to understand (e.g. if you become passive aggressive) or in ways that might confuse even you (e.g. you might be unsure of why you feel tense, irritable or drained).

3. The ways that some people try to avoid negative emotions, including drugs or self-harm, can lead to more suffering. Sometimes people avoid thinking about negative emotions by throwing themselves into projects or focusing on the world outside of their inner experiences (e.g. with to-do lists, focusing on other people’s problems); this can be a hard one to detect because we might trick ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when we might also be avoiding (the motivation behind our action is the important distinction here).

So, you want me to just…what? Sit with my emotion?

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Although this might seem crazy at first, allowing ourselves to sit with a negative emotion provides us the opportunity to see that our emotional wave (although very uncomfortable) will decline in intensity over time and will not destroy us. Also, by not trying to “do something” to get rid of the emotion at the peak of its intensity, we might avoid doing something impulsively which we might later regret (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

Rather than telling ourselves that our emotions do not make sense, that we should not be feeling that way, that our emotions are dangerous, or that we should try to get rid of them, we can try to identify what emotions we are experiencing in that moment (e.g. I feel angry), validate for ourselves that our feelings are understandable in light of the situation or context (e.g. it’s understandable that I’m angry because this situation is unfair), provide ourselves with words of compassion (e.g. I know this is really hard right now, and I know I will get through this), and ask ourselves what it is that we might need - not what we need to get rid of the emotion, but what we need to take care of ourselves (e.g. restorative activities like a nap, working toward boundary setting)…and if we’re really up for challenging ourselves, we can even thank our emotion for drawing our attention to this need and for giving us the opportunity to take care of ourselves in a more compassionate and present way (Neff & Germer, 2018).


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

1. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/congenital-insensitivity-to-pain

2. McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

3. Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Less What, More Why

Less What, More Why

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In sessions, clients often contemplate important decisions, such as whether to quit a job or whether to end a friendship. We sometimes go into problem-solving mode and consider practical factors, like the pros and cons of their different options. But over time, I have found myself focusing less on the ‘what’ and more on the ‘why’. That is, why they would be making that decision. So often, I don’t think that either of the options they are contemplating is inherently right or wrong, good or bad; but the reasoning behind it can vary in how healthy or constructive it is for them.

Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean:

1. Imagine that you want to stay home and cancel plans to go out with friends over the week end. Again, there is nothing inherently right or wrong about this decision. But the reasoning is important.

a. You might be doing this because you have had a busy week and you find alone-time nourishing, especially when you spend it resting and engaging in hobbies that you enjoy.

b. However, you might also be making this decision because social situations make you nervous and you’d rather not put yourself through that. Indeed, anxiety often elicits the urge to avoid. People struggling with social anxiety often find themselves avoiding social situations which make them anxious (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Importantly, avoiding something that makes us nervous can lead us to feel relieved in the short-term, but may actually serve to reinforce our fear over time (see Barlow & Craske, 2007).

In this example, the same behavior can be performed in the service of self-care in the former instance, and as an act of avoidance in the latter.

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2. Imagine that you often find yourself doing more than your fair share in a relationship. Over time, you might find yourself feeling hurt or resentful. You may be tempted to dial back how much effort you’re putting in for a while. There is no clear good or bad choice here, and this is where I would suggest that you pause and ask yourself why; what would be your goal in reducing your efforts?

a. You might be driven by a desire to make things more equitable in order to avoid feeling resentful toward your partner in the future. Indeed, some research suggests that relationship partners are more satisfied when they view the relationship as equitable (Stafford & Canary, 2006).

b. However, you might also be doing this to test your partner, that is, hoping that they’ll notice the change in your behavior, detect your underlying dissatisfaction, and adjust their behavior accordingly (e.g. by expressing more appreciation or doing their fair share). This can be risky for multiple reasons, including that your partner may not recognize the message you are trying to send and/or that they might not appreciate being tested in this way.

As you can see, the same behavior can aim to prevent resentment in one case, or to test the relationship in another case.

The practice of pausing and asking ourselves why may help us to get in touch with our underlying motivations, so that we can make more informed decisions. In so doing, it brings us one step closer to purposeful and thoughtful responding - rather than simply reacting.


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References and Resources

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Barlow, D.H. & Craske, M.G. (2007). Treatments that work: Mastery of your anxiety and panic (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Stafford, L. & Canary, D.J. (2006). Equity and interdependence as predictors of relational maintenance strategies. The Journal of Family Communication, 6, 227-254.

Purposeful Parenting: Rethinking Discipline

Purposeful Parenting: Rethinking Discipline

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Parenting behaviors are strong predictors of socioemotional, behavioural, and cognitive child outcomes (Altschul, Lee & Gertshoff, 2016; Scaramella & Leve, 2004; Shaw et al., 2003; Treyvaud et al., 2015). This means that, from the moment of conception, as parents we hold a significant influence over our children’s development; not only are we among the most important individuals in our child’s life, but what we do within this role is crucial for our child’s development. How’s that for sitting in the hot seat?

This idea can become quite overwhelming, as there are definitely moments in the day when we find ourselves reacting in ways we do not deem best (e.g. yelling over spilled milk), and we then spend time backtracking, feeling guilty, wondering if we were too lenient or too harsh, and ultimately feeling like we’ve failed. Parenting can feel like this sometimes… like rocket science… like an ever-changing abstract problem that continues to transform the moment we feel we are starting to figure it all out.

https://ubisafe.org/explore/disciplining-clipart-teaching/

https://ubisafe.org/explore/disciplining-clipart-teaching/

Can you think of a time when you know you could have better handled a situation?

Well, here is the news: there is no such thing as the Perfect Parent. All parents make mistakes… parents are human, after all (despite superhuman talents in multitasking). The significant point here is, however, how we respond to our mistakes. If we model how to take responsibility for our shortcomings and take the time to repair relationships afterward, even our little slip-ups can become valuable lessons, and provide children with the opportunity to deal with difficult situations and develop new skills.

In this way, the impact and significance of parenting on children’s development becomes the gateway through which we can provide our children with continuous opportunities to learn to make good choices, instill positive self-regulation strategies, and teach them skills that they will carry forward throughout their life in order to become kind and successful individuals.Thus, it is clear that when navigating through our daily routines, our parenting must be both purposeful and intentional.

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One important way to engage in a more informed and intentional parenting style, as opposed to reactive behaviours, is by beginning to reflect on the purpose of our parenting practices. A particular aspect of parenting that holds a great impact on development and achievement is discipline.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the concept of discipline. What does discipline in your home look like? Oftentimes, when our children are misbehaving and doing things they know they should not be doing, we sometimes result to the following: we raise our voices, we yell, we wave our finger back and forth, we take an item or activity away, we send our children to their rooms or to time-out… we provide consequences.

This is completely understandable. At times, we cannot help but feel frustrated, angry, and exhausted when we walk in on our child jumping up and down on the new couch in our living room while holding his crumb-filled (or no longer filled) plate. And after all, these immediate actions or consequences do tend to put an end to the misbehavior in that moment. And then that’s it… we’ve laid down the law, the behaviour stops and we have a moment of (what we can attempt to call) peace.

In the short term, we have succeeded. However, what was our long-term goal in this strategy? What has our child taken away from this experience? Is the goal of our discipline practice to meet each misbehaviour with a consequence?

As explained by Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson in “No-Drama Discipline” (2016), the goal of discipline is to teach. Thus, when disciplining, it becomes important to think about what lesson it is we want to teach in that particular moment.We use these discipline moments to build skills so that our children can handle themselves better both in the moment and in the future. When disciplining, there are often better ways to teach than providing consequences.We want our short-term goal to include cooperation and doing the right thing. We want our long-term goal to involve the development of new skills in order to make better decisions and develop self-control.

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As we hold such an important role in the life of our children, and as our actions have a longstanding impact, it is imperative that we take the time to start reflecting about the purpose of our parenting approach and about the lessons we want to teach through discipline.

Below are a number of questions outlined by Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson (2016) that can help guide your discipline approach and help you reflect on engaging in more purposeful parenting:

  • Do I have a consistent discipline philosophy that I implement when my child misbehaves?

  • Is what I’m doing working? Am I able to teach the lessons I want to teach?

  • Do I feel good about what I’m doing? Am I enjoying the way I am engaging with my children?

  • Do my kids feel good about it? Do my children feel love through my approach?

  • Do I feel good about the messages I’m communicating to my children?

  • How much does my approach resemble that of my parents? Am I repeating old patterns?

  • Does my approach ever lead to my children apologizing in a sincere manner?

  • Does it allow me to take responsibility and apologize for my own actions? Am I a model for my children?


Margarita Miseros is a PhD Student in the School/Applied Child Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Altschul, I., Lee, S. J., & Gershoff, E. T. (2016). Hugs, Not Hits: Warmth and Spanking as Predictors of Child Social Competence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78(3), 695-714. doi:10.1111/jomf.12306

Scaramella, L. V., & Leve, L. D. (2004). Clarifying parent-child reciprocities during early childhood: the early childhood coercion model. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 7, 89–107.

Shaw, D. S., Gilliom, M., Ingoldsby, E. M., & Nagin, D. S. (2003). Trajectories leading to school-age conduct problems. Developmental Psychology, 39, 189–200.

Siegel, D., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-Drama Discipline Exercises, Activities, and Practical Strategies to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Developing Minds. Ashland: PESI Publishing & Media.

Treyvaud, K., Doyle, L. W., Lee, K. J., Ure, A., Inder, T. E., Hunt, R. W., & Anderson, P. J. (2015). Parenting behavior at 2 years predicts school-age performance at 7 years in very preterm children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(7), 814-821. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12489

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Photo by  Jen Loong  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jen Loong on Unsplash

Whether it’s our to-do lists, a frustrating conversation we had earlier in the day, the constant nagging temptation to check our phones, the guilt over not exercising enough, worries about our loved ones, etc., our thoughts and feelings may be pulling us in various directions all day long. I find it’s easy to get lost among all this chatter, and when I say lost, I mean lose myself and lose sight of what is important to me. Instead of acting based on what I really want and what’s healthy for me, I feel like I have no solid centre and am stuck in reacting mode.

I try to counter this reactive, uncentred way of being by “getting grounded”. I hear the term “getting grounded” often, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing to everyone. I’m defining here what it means to me, and hopefully it’s helpful to you too. I think of getting grounded as getting out of the ruminating/worrying/spinning/not constructive thinking that is happening in my head, pausing, and paying attention to what is happening in my body, without judgment. By getting out of my head and dropping into my body, and noticing the sensations that are there, not only do I have more of sense of a centre, of being grounded, but I am more likely to be in touch with what is going on with me, the emotions I’m feeling, the motivations that are driving me, etc. By paying attention to myself in this way, I’m able to get unstuck from distractions and negative thought patterns and show up for myself in a mindful, and maybe even loving manner.

There are plenty of tips out there for “getting grounded” or what clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach might call “the sacred pause”. For example, you might meditate, go for a walk in the forest, or do some yoga. I’ve outlined a simple “getting grounded” technique here that you can do in your every day life, during your busy day.

Pause and Pay Attention

  1. Pause

  2. Drop into your body and notice what is happening there. Notice the sensations in your body (e.g., muscle tension, tingling, heaviness, pressure).

  3. If you have trouble getting in touch with your body, simply try noticing your breath as it travels in through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs.

  4. Keep breathing and noticing, without judgment and with curiousity.

  5. Proceed

This is a pretty “bare-bones” technique, but I’ve kept it that way intentionally. The purpose of this technique is to simply get us to pause and notice, to check in with ourselves. It may take some practice, but from this place of groundedness and attentiveness, we will likely be better able to recognize what we need to move forward in a way that is healthy and nourishing for us and for those around us.


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 3–27). San Diego, CA: Elsevier

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Resources

3 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Coping with Difficult Experiences and Emotions in Day-to-Day Life by Dr. Natsumi Sawada

A Shout Out to Simply Noticing by Dr. Danit Nitka

Be Here Now… But How? 3 Steps Towards Experiencing Life More Fully by Dr. Maryann Joseph  

Stressing Out? S.T.O.P. by Dr. Elisha Goldstein