Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).
According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).
The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.
1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?
Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.
Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…
Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).
Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.
Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.
Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).
Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.
Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.
Beliefs about uncertainty
It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.
Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.
Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).
Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.
As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.
2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?
The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:
Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?
How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?
What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?
Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?
3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.
How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.
For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.
4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).
Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!
Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.
Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.
Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.
Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.
Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.