“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” – Voltaire
Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life. Many of us feel distress when faced with uncertainty. This makes sense, given that sometimes things do turn out badly, or not as we would like. Nevertheless, the “not knowing” can still be the worst part of a situation. Why is this universal aspect of the human experience so often a source of distress?
Uncertainty feels uncomfortable because it challenges our efforts to anticipate our future and be in control. Our ability to understand the future leads to having expectations. This leads to trying to control our surroundings as best we can. This is healthy. It helps us to achieve our goals, make plans, and solve problems creatively.
But at times, trying to exercise control in response to uncertainty can actually increase our suffering. It can even lead to a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
Individuals vary greatly in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. While some people can generally accept uncertainty and “roll with it,” doing so is hard for many others. Some people feel easily overwhelmed by uncertainty and find it scary. They will do whatever they can to reduce it or escape it. This can result in procrastination, avoiding experiences altogether, and excessive efforts to control their surroundings, all of which typically add to their distress. Excessive worry, striving for perfection, overpreparing, seeking assurance from others, and excessive list making are some common ways people try to maintain a sense of control in the face of uncertainty.
For example, consider a woman who feels uncertain that she will receive a good review at her upcoming evaluation at work. She finds this uncertainty very worrisome, and is quite anxious. As a result, she tries to complete her work meticulously, repeatedly asks coworkers how they think her review will go, makes elaborate daily task lists, and commits herself to extra responsibilities to appear hardworking. However, she soon finds she has overcommitted herself, feels guilty for rarely completing her daily task lists, is bothered by even small errors in her work, and feels she has alienated some coworkers with her questions.
Strategies for dealing with uncertainty
So what is a healthier way to cope with uncertainty? For people with anxiety problems, the best way to deal with uncertainty is to embrace and tolerate it, rather than avoid or eliminate it through efforts to feel in control. Sometimes the best way to do this is to act as if you are more tolerant of uncertainty than you actually feel. When confronted with uncertainty, you can say to yourself, “This is uncomfortable, but I can tolerate it.” You can also remind yourself that, “Although things may turn out badly, that does not mean I will not be able to cope.” By approaching uncertainty in this way, you can put your coping skills to the test and learn what works best for you. You can also learn valuable lessons about the limits of your abilities to control your surroundings and the future, and how to accept these limits.
By regularly confronting day-to-day uncertainties, you can become better at tolerating the thoughts and feelings the evoke. You will then experience less distress when dealing with the larger uncertainties in life. Learning to tolerate uncertainty in a healthy way takes practice, but cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) includes techniques and exercises designed to help you increase your tolerance of uncertainty. Consider consulting with a CBT therapist if you think that difficulty coping with uncertainty is interfering with your wellbeing.