The only certainty in life is change. But it is the only certainty that we refuse to accept. We feel excessively comfortable with the known. The familiar makes us feel safe, protected from adversity.
That's why we create bubbles that we live in. These "security" bubbles are founded on our habits, ways of thinking, beliefs and values. They validate our view of the world and of ourselves. They give us a feeling of permanence and stability.
The problem is, those bubbles are no more solid than a soap bubble. And the mental balance that we find within them can quickly give way to psychological entropy. When the world around us changes and becomes uncertain we have two options: to sink into entropy or to re-emerge with a new balance. Right now, we are going through a profound state of psychological and social entropy.
What is entropy in psychology?
Entropy is a concept derived from thermodynamics according to which all systems tend towards chaos and disorder. In the psychological realm, this concept describes the amount of uncertainty and disorder that exists within a system.
Carl Jung believed that the laws governing the physical conservation of energy can also be applied to our psyche. He said that when there is an overabundance of energy in one of our psychological functions, it means that another function has been deprived of it, which creates imbalance.
However, he pointed out that our minds tend to put in place compensatory mechanisms to avoid total entropy and maintain some stability. Defense mechanisms are an example of this attempt at compensation. When reality becomes unacceptable, we activate a barrier to protect our ego and maintain the image we have formed of ourselves.
Uncertainty as a measure of psychological entropy
One measure for assessing the level of disorder in systems, including our mind, is uncertainty: - the degree to which we can know how the different components of a system are arranged at a given moment.
In an unshuffled deck of cards, for example, we can know exactly how the cards are arranged. If we cut the deck and see the ace of hearts, we will know that the card below is the two of hearts. But if we shuffle the deck, we lower that certainty to the point that we can no longer reliably predict which of the remaining cards is under that ace of hearts. A fully shuffled deck would represent a maximum entropy system.
All the things that make up our lives look like that deck of cards. It's nice to be sure our partner will be waiting for us at home. Have a secure job. Knowing that the people we love are fine. Know the exact time when the bus or plane will leave ...
However, the rules of the game can change at any time, as this pandemic has shown us or what happens when we move to another country. In those cases, our cognitive schemes, the mental map we had formed of the world, are not sufficient to predict what will happen.
At that point, we usually fall into a state of maximum mental entropy. External chaos disrupts our inner world. Since we no longer have holds to hold on to, we become uncritical and consider all perceptions, from the most concrete object to the most ephemeral illusion, as equally valid representations of reality. When we are uncertain, anything is possible.
The transforming entropy
When we are unable to tolerate uncertainty because it has eroded the foundation upon which we had built our daily life, our perfect inner world begins to disintegrate. So we have two possibilities.
The first is to immerse ourselves in chaos and allow entropy to reign, in which case we are likely to end up developing disorders such as anxiety, depression or even psychosis. Indeed, it has been suggested that the inability to review interpretive structures after trauma could explain the onset of PTSD. This disturbance would be the result of our inability to create an organized narrative of trauma that puts our world in order.
The second alternative is to strive to decrease the level of entropy until we reach a point of optimal balance that allows us to tolerate uncertainty as we develop. perceptions of the world predictable enough to allow us to continue our lives.
We must bear in mind that uncertainty always presents us with a critical adaptive challenge which, in theory, should motivate us to take action to keep it at a manageable level. It is in these moments, according to Jung, that the most transformative changes take place.
This psychoanalyst believed that when we experience an important event that questions some of our most established hypotheses or beliefs, our balance suffers a violent swing. During this time it is normal for us to feel distressed, anxious and disoriented. It is as if we are experiencing a psychological earthquake.
After fighting against these new ideas, perceptions or shadows, a new attitude, belief system, style of thinking or adaptation is finally formed. We reach a new balance that is usually more enriching than the previous one. Curiously, this new formation will be all the more solid the more it deviates from the original attitude.
Accept entropy as part of life
There is chaos and uncertainty in life, nothing is 100% predictable and safe. However, many times we resist the acceptance of uncertainty. This resistance will only worsen entropy.
Resisting change involves engaging in constant suffering. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Toronto revealed that our brains process uncertainty in the same way as anxiety. This means that, in the long run, he will present us the bill.
One strategy to minimize the impact of uncertainty and protect our psychological balance is to develop flexible mind maps of our environment that guide us through the chaos to achieve our most important goals. When conditions change, an obsession with detail will make us waste precious energy. Instead, we need to quickly rearrange our mind map to focus on the really important goals in our life. So we'll have a foothold in the middle of the storm.
In any case, although we all need a certain degree of cognitive certainty and predictability, we must also accept that we are part of a natural and social environment that is subject to constant change and that has a chaotic and unstable component. Entropy is not our enemy, it is an extra feature of our mind, nature and the universe.
Self-organizing systems - like us - are involved in an ongoing dialogue with the environment and must adapt to changing circumstances to keep internal entropy at a manageable level. That is, if we are unable to tolerate the uncertainty of the world, any change will psychologically destabilize us.
As William James said, our inner lives are fluid, restless, fickle, always in transition. Those transitions are reality, we live in transitions because everything changes all the time.
Therefore, we must accept that we are balance and chaos. Stability and change. Assuming these changes are a part of life and promote greater well-being. Paradoxically, the more we accept chaos, the closer we are to serenity. The key is to accept what we cannot change and transform ourselves to better adapt to each external demand.