Doubt And Certainty: How Contrasting Perspectives Can Empower You

Doubt and certainty are feelings on opposite poles of an axis, each having a significant role to play as you progress down your path of personal development. While certainty can make your actions more effective, you must allow enough doubt in order to see other perspectives and challenges.

Because they are opposites, the relationship between doubt and certainty is not as clear as the relationship between other contrasting, but similar feelings. But related they are, and the way they interact is not only fascinating but also extremely useful as fuel for personal development. We need them both, although in different measures at different times — one of the biggest hurdles is knowing which one to emphasize and which one to minimize. Fortunately, we have a valuable tool to help: emotional intelligence. First, let’s examine doubt and certainty as separate entities.

The Power Of Certainty

People who express a high degree of certainty tend to exude self-confidence and can make inspiring leaders. Like self-belief, certainty can provide you with motivation and the power to get things done. Imagine, for example, that your future self reliably tells you that you will achieve your goals so long as you put in a sufficient amount of effort. This assurance would remove doubt and eliminate obstacles, specifically the ones we impose on ourselves. If you were certain you were going to succeed, you would have little reason not to put in a maximum amount of effort. Unfortunately, none of us have such a reliable future self to provide such guarantees, but we would do well to act as if we do and to heed its promises as we progress along our path to success. 

The Benefits Of Doubting

Too much doubt can make people seem powerless and indecisive. Those who doubt their ideas and abilities can start to overthink their actions and this can make them seem weak and erode their ability to achieve their objectives. On the other hand, doubt keeps people in check and modulates their behavior so they don’t take inappropriate risks. Doubts can keep you flexible and open your mind to other possibilities. Allowing room for doubt is healthy.

You must not only cultivate healthy skepticism with regard to presented facts, but it is also imperative that you doubt your disempowering inner critic. When you hear your internal voice saying you are not good enough or not smart enough, it is doubt that can help you find the truth. Recognize this doubt for what it is, unreliable and quite possibly false opinion, and look for actual evidence that will either confirm your doubt or cause you to disregard it.

The correct amount of doubt is an amount which will eliminate rashness and risk-taking, but will not be overly restrictive. And, of course, each situation is different, requiring its own fact-finding and unique analysis.

Achieving Balance Between Doubt And Certainty

Whether you’re leaning toward the pole with too much doubt or the one with too much certainty, your search for the correct balance will be enhanced by asking incisive questions, both of others and of yourself. Don’t assume. Don’t take “yes” or “no” for an answer. Probe deeper. You need information and enlightenment, not glib denials and affirmations.

Artists are instructive examples. Throughout history, it is artists who have been endowed with such a generous amount of doubt that they have questioned custom and tradition. The pioneers and iconoclasts among them have sometimes done their best work and even started entirely new genres by questioning the status quo. Without them, art would be limited, stale and redundant. Great discoveries and progress are all achieved by people who were prepared to reject received dogma in order to create something different and better. Just as doubt motivated these artists, as well as movers and shakers in other fields, it is also a healthy dose of doubt that will temper certainty so that the best results can be obtained. 

A few years ago, the expression “think outside the box” was popular. It eventually became overused, but the thought remains as valid as ever. Now, it can be improved upon. I argue that, with the use of emotional intelligence, there is no box. The only obstacles are those that you create for yourself by defaulting to your comfort zones of either doubt or certainty without taking the time to conduct a thorough examination of all available facts.

The examination I am suggesting involves the use of emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness, impulse control, reality testing and rigorous problem analysis. It incorporates extensive use of probing questions to eliminate unjustified doubt and move you toward warranted certainty. 

In any particular situation, ask yourself the following five questions:

1. What options would I have if I were not afraid right now?

2. What positives would be forfeited with each option?

3. What negatives would accompany each option?

4. Which options are most aligned with my main values?

5. After adoption, how would each option make me feel?

The goal is to gather as much relevant information as possible, but also consider the emotions behind your decisions. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, all of our decisions are influenced by our emotions. Knowing this link exists, it behooves each of us to make decisions with an appreciation of the fact that the very basis for believing or not believing something is related to things that are often outside the consciousness and are embedded in emotions. You may not be able to eliminate the emotional component of your decisions, but you can at least learn to recognize it. 

Doubt and certainty working in tandem through the use of emotional intelligence allow you to combine and balance two opposite feelings so as to achieve the best possible decision. It is emotional intelligence that will allow you to balance doubt and certainty and make decisions from a place of curiosity and appreciation of tolerable risk, all of which will move you further along the path toward justifiable certainty.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

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