The only certainty in life is change. But it is the only certainty that we refuse to accept. We are too comfortable with what we know. The familiar makes us feel safe. Safe from adversity.
That is why we create bubbles within which we end up living. These bubbles of “security” are sustained by our habits, ways of thinking, beliefs and values. They validate our vision 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 achieve within it can quickly give way to psychological entropy. When the world around us changes and becomes uncertain we have two possibilities: sinking into entropy or coming back with a new equilibrium. Right now, we are going through a deep state of psychological and social entropy.
What is psychological entropy?
Entropy is a concept derived from thermodynamics, according to which systems tend to drift towards a state of chaos and disorder. In the psychological realm, this concept describes the amount of uncertainty and disorder that exists within a system.
Carl Jung, for example, believed that the laws governing the physical conservation of energy can 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 generates an imbalance.
However, he pointed out that our minds tend to put in place compensation mechanisms to avoid total entropy and maintain a certain stability. Defense mechanisms are an example of this attempt at compensation. When reality becomes unacceptable, we activate a barrier that protects our ego and maintains the image we have formed of ourselves.
Uncertainty as a measure of psychological entropy
One measure to assess the level of disorder in systems, including our minds, is uncertainty – the degree to which we can know how different components of a system are arranged at any given time.
In an unmixed cards’ deck, 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 underneath is the two of hearts. However, 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 completely mixed deck would represent a fully entropic system.
All the things that make up our lives resemble that cards’ deck. It’s nice to be sure that our partner will be waiting for us at home. Have a safe job. Knowing that the people we love are fine, the exact time the bus or plane will leave …
However, the rules of the game can change at any time, as this pandemic has shown us or as it happens when we move to another country. In those cases, our cognitive patterns, the mental map that we had formed of the world, is not enough to predict what will happen.
At that point we usually fall into a state of maximum mental entropy. The outer chaos disorganizes our inner world. Since we have no handholds to cling 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 have no certainty, everything is understandable and possible.
The transforming entropy
When we are not able to tolerate uncertainty because it has eroded the foundations on which we had built our day to day life, the perfectly constructed inner world begins to disintegrate. So we have two options.
The first of these is to plunge into chaos and allow entropy to reign, in which case we are likely to end up developing disorders such as anxiety, depression, or even psychosis. In fact, the inability to review interpretive structures after trauma has been proposed to explain the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. This disorder would be the result of our inability to create an organized narrative of the trauma that gives order to our world.
The second alternative is to strive to decrease the level of entropy until we reach an optimal point of equilibrium that allows us to tolerate uncertainty, while developing perceptions of the world predictable enough to allow us to continue with our lives.
We must bear in mind that uncertainty always presents us with a critical adaptive challenge that, in theory, should motivate us to act to keep it at a level that we can manage. It is precisely at these moments, according to Jung, that come the most transformative changes in our lives.
This psychoanalyst believed that when we experience a major event that calls into question some of our most established assumptions or beliefs, our balance is thrown into a violent swing. During this period it is normal for us to feel distressed, anxious or disoriented. It is as if we are experiencing a psychological earthquake.
After struggling with these new ideas, perceptions, or shadows, is finally formed a new attitude, belief system, way of thinking or coping style. We reach a new balance that is usually more enriching than the previous one. Curiously, this new formation will be more solid the more it differs from the original attitude.
Accepting entropy as part of life
In life, there is chaos and uncertainty, nothing is 100% predictable and safe. Still, many times we resist accepting uncertainty. That resistance will only worsen entropy.
Resisting change implies committing ourselves to constant suffering. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Toronto revealed that our brain processes uncertainty in the same way as anxiety. That means that, in the long run, it will take an emotional toll on us.
One strategy to minimize the impact of uncertainty and protect our psychological balance is to develop flexible mental maps of our environment that guide us in the midst of chaos to achieve our most important goals. When conditions change, obsessing over details will waste precious energy. Instead, we must quickly reorganize our mind map to focus on the really important goals in life. So we will have a foothold in the middle of the storm.
In any case, although we all need a certain degree of cognitive certainty and predictability in our lives, we must also accept that we are part of a natural and social environment that is subject to constant change and has a chaotic and unstable component. Entropy is not our enemy, it is one more feature of our mind, the nature and the universe.
Self-organizing systems – like us – are involved in a continuous dialogue with the environment and must adapt to changing circumstances to keep internal entropy at a manageable level. That is, if we are not able to tolerate the uncertainty of the world, each change will destabilize us psychologically.
As William James said, our inner lives are fluid, restless, fickle, always in transition. Those transitions are reality, we live in transitions because everything is continually changing.
Therefore, we must accept that we are balance and chaos. Stability and change. Assuming these changes is part of life and promotes 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.
Zhang, W. & Guo, B. (2017) Resolving defence mechanisms: A perspective based on dissipative structure theory. Int J Psychoanal; 98(2):457-472.
Hirsh, J. B. et. Al. (2012) Psychological entropy: a framework for understanding uncertainty-related anxiety. Psychol Rev; 119(2):304-20.
Jung, C. G. (1960) La estructura y dinámica de la psiquis, Vol. 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.