As a therapist who specializes in anxiety and OCD, I am always interested in the nuanced ways different anxiety symptoms manifest within different people.

Anxiety, according to societal norms, is often associated with traits such as insecurity, indecisiveness, or a pervasive sense of uncertainty. However, on the opposite end of my theoretical spectrum of anxiety lies a cluster of symptoms characterized by stringent adherence to rules, exhaustive research, and an insatiable drive for perfectionism. At the heart of anxiety lies the relentless discomfort of uncertainty, the recurring thought that “I can’t be sure of X.” However, how this uncertainty manifests and shapes behavior can vary drastically depending on a person’s unique personality traits and specific settings.

Take, for instance, Person A, who may internalize the thought process of, “I can’t be sure of X, therefore I can not make a decision until I am absolutely certain. I should just wait.” When faced with stress or pressure, their instinct is to freeze out of fear of making the “wrong” decision. In contrast, Person B might adopt the mindset of, “I can’t be sure of X, so it’s imperative that I do extensive research to find the correct answer. Once I have thought through every potential option, then I can confidently make a decision.” In times of stress, their coping mechanism is to spend copious amounts of time thinking through scenarios to find a sense of control. Which may result in a tendency towards rigidity or becoming ensnared in a cycle of overthinking and analysis paralysis.

Thus, one end of the anxiety spectrum is marked by a response characterized by “waiting it out,” while the opposing end is characterized by a pursuit of “control” through research. However, despite these seemingly divergent behavioral responses, both ultimately fall prey to the same fallacy: the erroneous belief that certainty is an attainable goal. Individuals on either end of this spectrum often find themselves investing considerable time, energy, and mental resources in a futile quest to predict the future, decipher the private thoughts and motivations of others, or find what option is the most “correct.” While these behaviors may not inherently be detrimental, they can swiftly escalate into problematic territory when they begin to impede one’s ability to sleep soundly, engage emotionally in meaningful relationships, or complete tasks effectively and on time.

In my therapy office, a fundamental tenet of anxiety therapy lies in knocking certainty off of it’s pedestal and replacing it with authenticity. This involves encouraging individuals to challenge the notion of “the correct thing to do” with “what I truly want to do” and prompting them to interrogate whether their actions stem from a genuine desire or are merely a product of their fear of making mistakes. And trusting that what they truly want to do will be “correct” because they can trust themselves and their gut instincts.

However, initiating this transition from certainty to authenticity requires a second step. Merely knowing something cognitively does not necessarily translate into a different emotional experience – knowing something factually does not make the discomfort go away (despite what anxiety may tell you). The second step in this process entails a willingness to tolerate the emotional discomfort of uncertainty. That feeling scared does not necessitate failure. Pursuing authentic connection with another person comes with risk, and risk comes with uncertainty, but that is okay. Summoning the courage to engage despite the uncertainty, will increase one’s resilience. So even if something goes “wrong”, they will be able proceed effectively. We can learn to sit with the emotional discomfort without allowing it to paralyze or dictate our actions.

In essence, the path to a more peaceful life does not require certainty but instead authenticity. The willingness to navigate life’s complexities with resilience when things inevitably go wrong, instead of avoiding any possible scenario where it could. It is through non-judgmental self discovery and authentic connection with others where we can find fulfillment. Not in a google search bar.