Dealing with uncertainty is an unavoidable part of daily life. Because we can’t see the future, we can never be certain about what exactly is going to happen day to day. Research has found that people vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. That is, some people are okay with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives, and other people cannot stand even a small amount of uncertainty. Anxious people, particularly those adults who worry excessively, are more likely to be very intolerant of uncertainty. They will often try to plan and prepare for everything as a way of avoiding or eliminating uncertainty.
What’s Wrong with Being Intolerant of Uncertainty?
Obviously, it is normal, even common, for most people to be a bit uncomfortable with uncertainty. We prefer to know that the restaurant we are going to serves food that we like, that there will be people we know at the party we were invited to, and that our boss tells us exactly what he thinks about our work performance. This knowledge feels more comfortable to us than not knowing anything about the restaurant we are going to, being unsure about who will be at the party, and not knowing whether our boss thinks we are doing a good or a bad job.
Uncertainty as an allergy…
Being intolerant of uncertainty is a lot like having an allergy. If you are allergic to pollen, for example, you will sneeze and cough and your eyes may get red and teary when you are exposed to even a small amount of pollen. When people who are intolerant of uncertainty are exposed to a little bit of uncertainty, they also have a strong reaction: they worry, and do everything they can think of to get away from, avoid or eliminate the uncertainty.
But being very intolerant of uncertainty can cause problems, since it leads to a lot of time-consuming and tiring behaviors, causes stress and anxiety, and is the major fuel for worry.
What do people who are intolerant of uncertainty do?
If you can’t stand having uncertainty in your life, you are probably doing things that are designed to either remove all uncertainty in daily life situations or you are outright avoiding uncertain situations.
Some of the behaviors that people do when they are intolerant of uncertainty include:
Remember: Unless you can see the future, you will always be uncertain about some things.
Another problem with intolerance of uncertainty
If you can’t stand uncertainty and do everything you can to get rid of it, you might have noticed a problem: it is IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of all uncertainty in your life.
What this means for you is that all the work that you are doing to get rid of uncertainty is useless, it just doesn't work. If it did, you would probably not be struggling with anxiety and worry.
So, what is the solution?
If you can’t get rid of uncertainty in your life, the only way to manage your intolerance of uncertainty is by learning to be more TOLERANT of uncertainty.
How can I learn to become more tolerant?
Obviously, even if you agree that being more tolerant of uncertainty would be helpful, it is not easy to change an attitude. However, in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), we know that our thoughts, feelings and actions are all inter-connected, and that if you change one, you can change the others. So, the best way to learn to become more tolerant of uncertainty is to start acting “as if” you are tolerant of uncertainty. That is, you can change your behavior around uncertainty, using CBT and this will eventually help you to change your thoughts and feelings around uncertainty.
Learning to Act "As If"
Step 1: Make a list of behaviors
Start by writing down all of the things you do to try and feel more certain, or to get around or avoid uncertainty. You can use the sample of behaviors listed above as a guide. For example,
Step 2: Rank your behaviors according to anxiety
If you want to start acting “as if” you are tolerant of uncertainty, it is best to start small. That way, you are more likely to do it and to succeed. If you pick something too difficult, you might be unable to do it and you probably won’t want to try it again.
With this in mind, look at the behaviors that you have that might be easier to try to change. You can then rank your behaviors on a scale from 0 (“no anxiety at all”) to 10 (“extreme anxiety”) by imagining how anxious you would become if you could not do them.
Step 3: Practice tolerating uncertainty
Once you have a list of behaviors that you do to reduce or avoid uncertainty, then start picking small items that you can do to practice tolerating uncertainty. Try to do at least 3 things a week.
For example, you might try going to a restaurant and ordering a meal that you have never had, and then you might send a few emails without checking them first (and no cheating! Don’t send the email to yourself as well so that you can check it later).
Step 4: Write it down!
Keep a record of all the times you were acting “as if” you were tolerating uncertainty.
Step 5: Record what happened
If you are taking some risks and are not being 100% certain in your life, there is the chance that things will not go perfectly. For example, if you tolerate uncertainty and go to a movie without reading a review, you might not like the movie. If you go grocery shopping without a list, you might come home and realize that you forgot something.
When you allow some uncertainty in your life, sometimes things go wrong. For this reason, it is important to write down the outcome of your tolerating-uncertainty exercises, and what you did to cope. For example, if you forgot an item from the grocery store, what did you do? Did you pick it up the next day? Did you go back to the store? How horrible was the outcome?
Ask yourself the following questions:
REMEMBER: Sometimes things will not go exactly as planned if you allow some uncertainty into your life. But this is not a sign of failure on your part. Most people who tolerate uncertainty learn that even if bad things happen, they can cope with them.
It is also important to realize that despite trying to make everything certain, things often didn’t always work out. It just took a lot more energy and time trying to be certain. By becoming more tolerant of uncertainty, you can let go of all of the problems associated with being intolerant, and you get to realize that you can deal with things, even when they don’t go perfectly.
Step 6: Build momentum!
When you feel comfortable with the small steps that you have taken to tolerate uncertainty, gradually try more difficult things.
Look for opportunities to tolerate uncertainty in daily life. For example, if someone asks you to pick up a bottle of wine for a party, try going to the store and buying a bottle without asking for anyone’s advice.
As you start acting more and more “as if” you are comfortable with uncertainty, it will get easier and become a part of your life. Think of it like building a muscle; you need to do your exercises every day if you want that muscle to get strong!
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist