Learn to Tolerate Uncertainty

“I have devoted my life to uncertainty. Certainty is the death of wisdom, thought, creativity.” -- Shekhar Kapur

Terrorist attacks, cancer, death of those you know and love -- all these moments undermine the illusion of security we all embrace to carry on with daily life. Some people take the chaos of living in stride. Others hate it or fall somewhere in between, but learning to cope with the discomfort of uncertainty is key to finding well being.  No one obsessed with wringing every drop of uncertainty out of life can achieve much contentment or fulfillment.

How do you know if you struggle to accept life’s uncertainties? Take this brief quiz:

Do you seek excessive reassurance from others?

Vulnerability guru Brene Brown recognizes this behavior in herself when faced with uncertainty. “I compulsively poll my friends: What do you think? Is this crazy? But there’s a fine line between asking for suggestions and desperately grasping for answers nobody else can offer.”

Do you center your life around lists?

List making is a common anxiety work around and that’s not always a bad thing. Channeling a mild obsession for lists can make people incredibly productive and even creative.  BUT it can also mask an inability to sit with the chaos naturally occurring all around. And people who work through their day, week and life, looking for the relief found by crossing through a line item, are often missing deeper sources of satisfaction.

Do you try to do it all and avoid delegating because it just makes “more work” in the end?

Refusing to let go of tasks and insisting on controlling todos at work and at home can be a major red flag for intolerance of uncertainty (and perfectionism). If you think only you can do something “correctly,” consider what’s really going on. You doing it all means avoiding the uncertainty of not knowing whether others can do the task or do it to your standards.

Do you procrastinate and avoid large projects?

This is a classic response to the paralyzing force of perfectionism, which, as we just discussed, is about avoiding uncertainty. Larger, long term tasks, in particular, can not be mapped out perfectly and cannot be done without running into uncertain roadblocks. While some may try and work through it by obsessive list making, others may just not do it all. But both approaches stem from uncertainty intolerance.

How do we learn to better tolerate life’s uncertainty?

There are better coping mechanisms than the ones listed above. But at the heart of all approaches, there is one unavoidable reality. You have to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty.

So says author and health advocate, Jeff Bell in his Psychology Today article, The Uncertainty Paradox. He encourages us to stop trying to find escapes from the discomfort uncertainty creates. The best way to manage and accept the anxiety caused by uncertainty is to embrace it in all its anxious ugliness.

Bell says, “If we simply allow ourselves to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty, that discomfort (anxiety) will decrease all by itself. … Dr. Tamar Chansky likens the process of embracing uncertainty to jumping into a cold swimming pool. At first, the coldness is extremely uncomfortable, and our brains send us messages of "cold, cold, cold" and "Get out! Get out! Get out!" BUT, if we stay in the pool, the water seems to warm up. Of course, it doesn't really get any warmer; instead, we habituate ourselves to the discomfort of the coldness.”

Try a few of these uncertainty tolerance exercises.

  • Delegate something important, but small, to someone else at work or home and then don’t check up on it or remind them.
  • Live through a weekday without a list.
  • Go out with friends and let them plan everything.
  • Dedicate an hour a day this week to that insurmountable project.

Go ahead and commit to jumping into the pool of uncertainty. We promise it actually feels warm after you’ve been in a while.

Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited