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Anatomy of a Doubt: What a recent film and ACT can teach us about how to cope with uncertainty

Watching uncertainty and doubt

Watching film and television is one of a few ways I enjoy spending my free time. I love how media can transport us into another world, another life, and even another mind. Through characters' experiences - their struggles, decisions, mistakes, and growth - we can also discover things about ourselves.

I was recently taken by a scene from the film Anatomy of a Fall (warning: the film deals with difficult subject matter).

Towards the film's climax, the main character Daniel faces a difficult decision. He has incomplete information on a situation and his choice will have significant consequences. Struggling with the inability to resolve his uncertainty and doubt, he becomes stuck.

Person struggling with doubt and uncertainty

If you struggle with anxiety, worry, or intrusive/obsessive thoughts, this might sound like a familiar experience. Doubt and uncertainty often contribute to problems with repetitive thinking (rumination), indecision, avoidance, checking compulsions, and seeking reassurance.

So, when faced with doubt, what can you do? How do you move past uncertainty?


In the film, Daniel receives some advice:    


Marge:            When we lack an element to judge something, and the lack is unbearable, all we can do is decide. You see? To overcome doubt sometimes we have to decide to sway one way rather than the other. Since you need to believe one thing, but have two choices, you must choose.


Daniel:            So you have to invent your belief?


Marge:            Yes, well … in a sense.


Daniel:            So that means, I’m not sure… and you’re saying I have to pretend I’m sure?


Marge:            No, I’m saying decide. That’s different.

Spirals into doubt and uncertainty

This discussion provides a fantastic illustration of what is required in situations filled with doubt and uncertainty. If we continue trying to resolve these feelings, we’ll stay stuck in a spiral. It is a bottomless pit. We can never reach a final answer and so continuing to seek one keeps us trapped. To escape, we have to make a choice, despite incomplete information.

As the film's discussion illustrates, we do not achieve this by pretending we’re sure or by reassuring ourselves that nothing bad will happen. Instead we must simply choose to move forward without knowing everything.


If you cannot base your choice on complete information, what can you base it on?


how to cope with doubt and uncertainty

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourages us to make a choice based on whether it will bring us closer to the kind of person we want to be and the life we want.



Let’s explore an example. You’re afraid something bad will happen and crave certainty that it won’t. The more you try to find that certainty, the more doubt you seem to uncover. You’ve reached a decision point, but instead of asking “will or won’t this happen,” try asking:


“Will spending more time worrying make my life better or worse?”


“What will staying stuck cost me and what might I gain from moving on?”


“How might someone I respect handle this situation? How can I make a similar choice?”


From here, the only thing left is to follow through on your choice. To willingly accept uncertainty. To take a risk. To test out the situation. While this choice may produce feelings of fear, it also leads to feelings of freedom, control, and purpose. You may not know exactly what will happen, but you’ll know you are acting in a way that is consistent with who you want to be and the life you want for yourself.


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