Conviction and Uncertainty
Develop the former and embrace the latter
Posted Feb 05, 2014
In my long career I have had hundreds of clients who had been diagnosed with personality disorders, because they presented with self-obsession, arrogance, low tolerance of ambiguity, lack of empathy, and, perhaps most significantly, their former therapists didn’t like them.
Invariably these folks had developed bad habits of choosing power over value whenever their self-image was diminished, i.e., when feeling devalued, they would exert power—devalue others—instead of behaving in ways that would make them feel more valuable. The lack of empathy was not neurological but a result of desensitization to the feelings of others to justify devaluing them. (In fairness to those hundreds of therapists, it can be difficult to distinguish habituated behavior from personality traits, especially when we want to perceive the latter and don't want to bother with psychological testing and taking thorough developmental histories.)
My misdiagnosed clients were extreme examples of what plagues us all—the conflation of conviction with certainty. To compensate for lack of conviction—strong beliefs about the morality of their behavior—they develop an artificial certainty about other people, which comes off as arrogance and intolerance.
Many of the mistakes we make when we experience emotions are due to the illusion of certainty they create. High adrenalin and cortisol emotions, particularly anger, create the profoundest illusions of certainty, due to their amphetamine effects. Amphetamines create a temporary sense of confidence by increasing metabolic energy production, while narrowing mental focus and ignoring or discounting most variables that might invoke self-doubt. That's why you feel more confident after a cup of coffee than before it. It's why feel convinced that you’re right and everyone else is wrong when you're angry.
Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes, which, of course, greatly increases its already high error rate during emotional arousal. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.
Mental focus, the foundation of feelings of certainty, distorts reality by magnifying and amplifying one or two aspects of it while filtering out everything else. You might discover more detail about the one or two aspects you focus on, but what you discover will have no contextual meaning, because you have isolated those aspects from their dynamic interaction with the rest of the reality in which they exist. In other words, focus magnifies things out of proportion and blows them out of context.
Coping with Uncertainty
How we cope with uncertainty determines how well we do in life. Uncertainty, if we can tolerate it, drives us to learn more and connect to one another. It can make us smarter and more compassionate. All of us, at one time or another, cope with uncertainty through an implicit recognition that it gives value and meaning to life by driving us to understand and connect, which, in the long run, makes us feel less vulnerable.
But we're also prone to react to uncertainty, not by learning and connecting, but by trying to pretend that it doesn't exist. Instead of seeing it as a friend, we vainly try to defeat it—or cover it up—with dogma, superstition, delusions, drugs, ego, attempts to control the environment and other people, perfectionism, depression, and anger.
Life is hard for the certain whenever reality crashes upon them. But it's abundantly exciting and filled with value and meaning for those who embrace its inherent uncertainty.
Conviction is the strong belief that a behavior is right, moral, and consistent with your deeper values. It offers a kind of certainty, not about the world, but about the morality of your own behavior.
The best way to know that you’re acting out of conviction and not resentment or arrogance (based on a feeling of certainty), is to state why your behavior is right and moral. If your answer has conviction, it will embody your deeper values. If it's resentful or arrogant, it will devalue someone else.
“For” vs. “Against”
An important feature of conviction is that it’s for something, e.g., the wellbeing of loved ones, justice, fair treatment, or equality, while resentment (derived from feelings of certainty) is against something - mistreatment of loved ones, injustice, or unfairness. The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s crucial. Those who hate injustice want retribution and triumph, not fairness. They fantasize about punishment of their unjust opponents, who stir “justifiable” contempt.
Being for something creates positive feelings of interest, passion, or joy, which tend to improve health and relationships. Being against something foments feelings of anger, contempt, envy, or disgust, which have deleterious effects on health and relationships and create the appearance, however incorrect, that you have a personality disorder.