How to tolerate uncertainty in your life

How to tolerate uncertainty in your life

If, as Benjamin Franklin once declared, "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes", then how can we tolerate uncertainty?

We like to be certain and reassured about things in life. It provides us with a sense of comfort, control and calmness.

However, the reality is that life is filled with unpredictable, unknown and unexpected occurrences and changes. In our reality, uncertainty is a fact of life.

Unhelpful behaviours of dealing with uncertainty

Experiencing uncertainty can be distressing and anxiety-provoking. For some it can also be overwhelming and paralysing. Many try to control, avoid or eliminate the uncertainty.

People often believe that worrying makes life more certain, controllable and predictable. However, in reality, worrying does not change the outcome. It only increases anxiety and stress levels. Think about it, has your worrying ever made anything more certain or more predictable in your life?

Besides worrying, other common behaviours that people, who cannot handle uncertainty well, engage in are procrastination, reassurance seeking, distractions, refusal to delegate or release control and repetitive checking behaviour.  

Living with uncertainties

When you think of a specific situation, you may feel like you cannot tolerate its uncertainty. But reflect on it for a moment: are there other uncertainties in your life that you are already tolerating?

Every time we drive a car we can end up in an accident. But does that uncertainty stop us from driving? And walking through a crowded shopping centre, we don’t know if we will fall victim to a pickpocket, but does that uncertainty stop us from shopping?

So, what do we do to accept and cope with such uncertainties?

The answers can vary but the common themes are that:
we realise that we cannot control what others will do
we know that we cannot predict the future, but that cannot stop us from living
we accept that some things we just don’t know

Additionally, we also know that we do what we can within our capabilities to prevent the negative from occurring.

Now, could you not say the same things, and behave in the same way, in the situations where you are currently having difficulties tolerating uncertainty?

Learning to tolerate the unknown- start by challenging your thoughts

To start initiating a change, look back into your past and try to recall instances in which you initially had uncertainty and engaged in the behaviours mentioned above.

Ask yourself the following questions:
Have these behaviours increased your certainty and predictability? In what way were they unhelpful?
Was the outcome exactly as you expected it to be?
Were there times when you felt really anxious, even overwhelmed, but the outcome was amazingly positive?
In other cases, did things turn out okay in the end? What do you attribute that to?

Looking back at all your answers, what do you conclude?

Tips for handling uncertainty

You need to make a conscious choice not to give in to the urge of seeking certainty. Some key actions you can take are:

Use anxiety reduction techniques (such as deep breathing, meditation, etc) to attain more calmness and emotional balance in difficult situations.

Focus your attention on the present rather than on imagined negative future scenarios.

Analyze the situation and see what you can solve in the present. In other words, differentiate between what is under your control at the moment, which is changeable and solvable and what is not. It is important to know the difference between the two.

Take action to find the best solution that you can apply with the knowledge and capacities that you have in your possession in the present.

Accept what you cannot change and what you do not know or control right now.

Believe in yourself and in your capabilities to cope with uncertainty. Believe that you can cope with and solve whatever issues might arise in the future.

Finding a way to move forward

When you are able to accept the presence of  uncertainty in this manner, you will reduce intrusive thoughts, ruminations, anxiety, concentration and attention problems.

In their place you will gain a sense of focus, calmness and motivation to stop any unhelpful behaviours and to take a little step forwards towards your goal.

Sharon Galor


Sharon Galor

Dr. Sharon Galor helps adult expats overcome their struggles and achieve greater happiness, balance and well-being in their life. The Light Wave Psychologists Practice is located in Amsterdam and Den...

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