The Life Skill of Tolerating Uncertainty

Finding answers to our everyday questions is often as quick as our WiFi access. We can type a question into a search engine and expect helpful information, from where-to-go-for-my-next-vacation to how-to-keep-my-plant-alive. Our access to answers clearly benefits us in innumerable ways; we can become self-taught hobbyists, language learners, and world news consumers from home. Our devices can be programmed to generate immediate responses; after all, we are encouraged to ask Siri, Alexa, or “just Google it”. However, there is one answer that a search engine will never plainly give us: “I don’t know.” 

As cognitive behavioral psychologists, we have found that the expectation of having one’s questions immediately answered negatively impacts the necessary life skill of tolerating uncertainty.

After all, most life transitions come with an inherent amount of ambiguity and more questions! We recognize that these moments can be challenging, tiring, and even painful. However, when women leave no room for the uncertain, they often experience greater levels of anxiety, self-criticism, and over-functioning as they try to answer questions that may require patience, openness, and an acknowledgment of our human limits. If you struggle to tolerate uncertainty, consider how we help our patients talk back to three of common and related beliefs: 

Belief 1: Uncertainty means something bad will happen. 

A hallmark feature of cognitive behavioral therapy is an evidence-driven approach to thinking. We love gathering data - and often ask our patients to become keen observers of their own lives before drawing conclusions about the meaning of a situation. Since uncertainty can feel unnerving, especially in situations we care about, we can become self-protective and brace ourselves for a worst-case scenario. We can mistakenly conclude that uncertainty forecasts a bad outcome. However, a lack of data is not evidence - consider how this reasoning would never hold in a court of law! For example, say a woman starts to date someone who she finds interesting and kind; however, she believes that if he does not share explicitly how he thinks and feels about her, it must mean that he will inevitably reject her. In therapy, we would work with this woman to tolerate that uncertainty is a normative part of the initial dating process as she gets to know her potential partner. In fact, presuming an unwanted outcome in this case may encourage anxiety-driven behaviors and misperception of cues that may actually encourage the feared outcome, rather than remaining open to experiences that will be informative and even clarifying. 

Belief 2: Uncertainty means that I have not done enough to ensure my desired outcome.

Sometimes we may conclude that not knowing an outcome indicates a failure on our part - after all, we are an outcomes-oriented culture and often feel good about ourselves to the extent that we can show results. However, it is important to recognize that sometimes the answer “I don’t know” is not data that we have fallen short, but in fact may indicate that our specific circumstance warrants growth and vulnerability. Alternatively, the evidence may interpreted neutrally in that the situation we are in is a complex one that takes multiple stages or collaboration with others before being resolved. Making sure to contextualize and identify the major factors in a situation can help de-personalize uncertainty as individual failure. For example, if the woman described above does not know yet if she can imagine her new dating partner to be a life-long partner, she may place unrealistic pressure on herself to “figure it out”. She may become unhelpfully ruminative, place an unrealistic timeline on the relationship, or begin over-functioning (i.e., assuming full responsibility) leaving her constantly anxious, self-critical, and in the least optimal emotional space to be present for the relationship and her partner.

Belief 3: Feeling uncertain means that I am helpless or out of control.

Tolerating uncertainty can definitely feel uncomfortable - although it does not mean that we must remain passive. As cognitive behavioral psychologists, we emphasize the concept of “agency” - meaning we encourage our patients to shape their own lives and situations when they can. However, being “agentic” is not the same as having full control of outcomes. While we don’t have a crystal ball to look into the future, we can choose to make moments of uncertainty valuable and constructive. We always encourage our patients to ask questions, learn from others, and identify the personal strengths that have gotten us this far. We can take steps to exercise self-care, nurture our relationships, and reach out for support as we await an unknown outcome. We can take the opportunity to practice mindfulness of the present - that is, observing our day-to-day thoughts, emotions, and decisions that we in fact do exert influence over and grow in self-awareness. In the same example described above, a woman who is dating can view the situation as an opportunity to grow in self-awareness as she takes risks in meeting potential partners. Like any other skill, learning to tolerate uncertainty takes practice! 

Choosing to tolerate the unknown can be a proactive step and more helpful than the alternative. We develop flexibility, resourcefulness, bravery, and humility when we encounter uncertainty; we are reminded we do not and cannot know everything – which can be a welcome freedom if we let it.