Tolerating Uncertainty: Strategies for Being OK With not Knowing

With the unspeakable tragedy that happened in Parkland two weeks ago, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about UNCERTAINTY. How do we manage the fact that we can’t control what happens in the world? We don’t know who is going to walk into our children’s schools. We don’t know what will happen in this current political climate. How do we manage all of this really anxiety provoking uncertainty?

Well, we have two choices:

1.       Do everything in our power to eliminate the uncertainty

2.       Learn to face and live with the uncertainty

As you may have guessed, there is no getting rid of uncertainty. So, we have to learn how to live with it. But, how? As a cognitive behavior therapist, I focus on the relationship between thoughts, behaviors, and emotions; and learning to live with uncertainty is no different.

Below are a few strategies to manage your anxiety around the unknown.

CAVEAT: I can’t promise you will ever like not knowing, but you will learn that you can handle it way better than you once thought.

1. Identify what you do to feel less uncertain: Do you take an “approach” or “avoidance” strategy?

  • Avoidance Strategy Examples:  Procrastination, avoidance of making decisions or avoidance of fully committing to things
  • Approach Strategy Examples: Look for a lot of answers before making decisions, seek excessive reassurance, recheck things repeatedly, or try to do everything yourself and not delegate tasks

2. Act “As If” you are OK w/uncertainty: Work on slowly and gradually changing your approach or avoidance strategies. In time, you will learn that (typically) what we are afraid of happening doesn’t happen; AND if it does, we can handle it better than we think.

  • For example, if you always research hundreds of reviews before making a purchasing decision for fear that you might make the wrong decision, commit to only reading one or two reviews.
  • If you typically avoid delegating tasks to others for fear that they might mess it up, then practice delegating tasks at work without checking up on how it was done

3. Focus on what you do know and do have control over: When we are anxious about the unknown, we tend to spiral downwards with our, “What ifs.” BUT, we don’t actually stop to pay attention to what we do know.  

  • For example, we know the security measures that our school has in place to keep our kids safe.
  • We know that one bad grade on an assignment will not affect our college admittance

4. Change your mindset: People who are intolerant of uncertainty, tend to think that, “I can’t handle not knowing” and “The unknown is too scary.”

  • Remind yourself of the unknowns that are exciting – e.g., The gender of a newborn baby or the outcome of the Superbowl
  • Look at the evidence and remind yourself of the times that you did cope with the certainty and survived!
  • Practice saying, “I don’t know.” The more you can learn to embrace the unknown, the less scary it becomes!

For more information on the benefits of tolerating uncertainty, check out the Atlantic's piece, "How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety"