Tolerating Uncertainty

Uncertainty is ubiquitous.  Throughout every stage of life, one must face new circumstances and new questions about the future.  A child starting middle school in the fall has to cope with the challenges of navigating a new school building, meeting new teachers and classmates, and learning how to balance increased academic demands.  A teen who is going off to college will have to grapple with the uncertainty of choosing a major and eventual career path.  As adults, we face uncertainty when starting a new job, having a baby, ending a long-term relationship, and countless other scenarios.  Though we may have guidance along the way and try to follow in trusted others’ footsteps, we ultimately must chart our own path at each new life transition.

For many people, particularly those who deal with anxiety, uncertainty about the future can mushroom into paralyzing fear.  As children, we begin to learn about the world through cause-and-effect relationships.  If I clap my hands together, it makes a loud sound; if I release my grip on my pencil, it falls to the ground.  Gravity and other such laws of physics are predictable.  Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your stance), things involving human nature are rarely as predictable.  This uncertainty can make people feel that they are not standing on solid ground because things are suddenly out of one’s control.  Trying to regain that sense of control and certainty can be challenging.  In some ways, it may prove very adaptive and effective.  For example, attending an orientation before the start of the school year may help a child feel more acquainted with the space, people, and general expectations.  Before starting your own business, doing research on your target audience and meeting with financial advisors will help you establish a successful framework from which to build.

Sometimes, however, the ways in which we try to feel in control are maladaptive.  Confining oneself to his/her house because the outside world feels too unpredictable and scary is an unhealthy way to manage feelings of uncertainty.  Following a rigid routine or engaging in compulsive behaviors to prevent bad outcomes is another example.  With no crystal ball to predict the future, we must learn to tolerate uncertainty rather than try to hide from it or “outsmart” it.

Learning to accept that parts of life are uncertain – and just sitting with the anxiety that accompanies that realization – can be an amazingly freeing feeling.  Nothing is set in stone.  If it turns out that a choice you made was not optimal, that is likely not set in stone either.  It is never too late to change course and try something new.  This is the upside of uncertainty: the possibilities are endless.  Again, this open-endedness and limitlessness may be anxiety-provoking for some, but if we can turn that anxiety into tolerance and excitement, we are much more likely to make choices based on fulfillment rather than fear.

Mindfulness is key to tolerating uncertainty.  Being mindful means to be present in the moment and not allowing your thoughts to spiral out of control on a series of future-oriented “what-if’s.”  Notice how you feel in this very moment, and know that whatever the feeling is, that is okay.  Practice taking five long, slow deep breaths as you observe your immediate surroundings.  Most importantly, continuously remind yourself that even if you don’t have the answer yet, you will when the time is right.  Maintaining belief in yourself and your ability to handle the unknown makes it that much easier to “ride the wave” until the answer comes into clear view.  If there is one thing to be certain about, be certain that you can cope with whatever comes your way, no matter how unpredictable or unexpected.

Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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