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Embracing Uncertainty

By Lindsey O’Brennan, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, Morningstar Wellness

It’s 10:56 a.m. and I’m fidgeting with my makeshift desk for my first telehealth session in my new home “office” (more accurately described as our upstairs storage closet). I’m trying to get my laptop at just the right angle so the client can’t see the cardboard boxes and bins of holiday decor, old clothes, art supplies, and stuffed animals that surround me. My “desk” is a framed beach print teetering atop a small cart. 

Ah, the exact ambiance of calmness I was hoping for. 

It’s 11 a.m. and I take a deep breath while I am staring at my laptop waiting for my client’s face to fill my screen. About 5 minutes later, she appears with a warm smile and a friendly, awkward wave. This is new for both of us. After some brief check-ins, we settle into our typical therapist-client dialogue. That is until my two dogs start feverishly barking downstairs. Then comes the faint sound of pounding feet and whining from the dining room. My boyfriend is coaching his 1st grade son through telling time and I imagine it’s not going well, for either of them.


I redirect my thoughts and we start getting to the meat of the session. Just as my client starts to share her vulnerable thoughts and emotions, her face freezes on my screen. “I’m sorry, can you say that again? Oh shoot, my screen is frozen and I can’t hear you. Oh wait, you’re back! Never mind, it’s frozen again.” I can feel my heart racing faster as I move my laptop around the room hoping to get a better signal.

We disconnect and try again in the hopes of salvaging the session. We wrap up, and, miraculously, my client decides to schedule again in 2 weeks. Clearly, her experience wasn’t as painful as it was for me. 

I leave the session feeling hopeless, frustrated, and bitter. This is not how I imagined doing therapy. I’m reminded of a quote from Thomas Fuller: “All things are difficult before they are easy.” I think to myself, But when will this become easy? How long will this “new normal” last? Can someone please direct me on how to successfully navigate this terrain?

Embracing change and uncertainty is something I address with all clients, yet here I am resisting it in my own life. According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), “People suffer unnecessarily when their own psychological rigidity prevents them from adapting to internal and external contexts” (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson, 2012). According to the ACT model, by being open to new experiences, centered in the here-and-now, and actively engaged in their life choices, individuals are more likely to free themselves from suffering and feel more satisfied with their life. 

In line with this approach, here are some activities that individuals (psychologists and clients alike) can try in order to increase their tolerance for uncertainty.

  1. Listen to your thoughts and feel your emotions without judgment. A majority of us are experiencing waves of different emotions throughout the day or week. We may feel hopeful, irritated, and tearful all within a short span of time. This is the normal human experience when massive change occurs. Simply take note of how you’re feeling as well as the thoughts swirling through your head and know that this too shall pass. As a mental health provider, it may be helpful to share your experience with your client to help normalize the experience.
  2. Savor moments of joy during this unprecedented time of change. Many of my clients have shared positive experiences they’ve had as a result of the pandemic. “I know there is suffering and horrible things happening out in the world, but honestly, I’ve enjoyed not having to rush around as much. Is that a bad thing?” reported one client apologetically. There are plenty of positives that people have reported, such as having more time with family, no more rush hour commutes, spending more time outdoors, finding a new TV show, or trying out a new hobby. Savor these moments, as they may not be regular occurrences when life returns to “normal.”
  3. Try something new. During chaotic times, we may find ourselves gravitating to predictable routines, safe choices, and old habits. Take this time to try something new—walk a different route around the neighborhood, sit in a different chair in your house, sleep on a different side of the bed, or make something different for breakfast. Even the smallest changes to our daily routine can help us see things from a fresh perspective.
  4. Find humor in the absurdity of life. As I recounted my disastrous first home telehealth session to my boyfriend, I found myself giggling as I shared each misstep. He then reenacted the temper tantrum that occurred downstairs with his 7-year-old son during the session. By the end of the conversation, we were belly laughing at how absurdly strange this experience is, yet we’re surviving. Finding ways to connect with others through humor can be the bright spot in a very challenging day.

Uncertainty is one of the few things we can be certain of, perhaps now more than ever before. As we help our clients (and ourselves) navigate the new, the different, the good, the bad, and the uncertain…let’s find ways to embrace it, to learn from it, to savor it, and when all else fails, to laugh at it.