Tolerating uncertainty means adapting to change and being OK with not knowing what’s next. You can learn to accept uncertainty by anticipating triggers and making peace with not having control over things.
While some people cope well with not knowing what to expect, others find it hard to manage uncertainty. Then, most people just fall somewhere along a spectrum, tolerating uncertainty more or less depending on the situation.
Persistent uncertainty intolerance is often at the root of anxiety and may lead you to avoidant behaviors.
For example, you might avoid going on a trip with your friends because you become anxious about going to a city you’ve never been to before.
Learning to accept that you’re safe, for instance, even when things aren’t certain may help you reduce distress and cope with everyday challenges.
Tolerating uncertainty means you’re able to cope with the fact that you don’t know how things will turn out.
Signs that you may have a high tolerance to uncertainty include:
- being willing to take calculated risks
- adapting to new environments and processes
- making decisions with confidence
- being OK with spontaneous activities and plans
- feeling secure in your close relationships
Having a high tolerance for uncertainty doesn’t mean you don’t feel nervous or anxious about your decisions or experiences. The “sticking point” is whether or not you’re able to move forward even with those feelings of distress.
If you have a low tolerance for uncertainty, on the other hand, you may try to avoid engaging in activities that you cannot control. You might avoid taking risks or overthink situations trying to soothe your anxiety.
Again, uncertainty intolerance is more about the action you engage in or avoid than your internal experience or how you feel about taking the next step.
Signs that you may have a low tolerance to uncertainty include:
- researching things over and over before making any decision
- feeling like something might end badly, even if a bad outcome is very unlikely
- finding it hard to make and enjoy spontaneous activities
- needing constant reassurance from others
- feeling insecure in your relationships or career without evidence
Studies have associated intolerance of uncertainty with:
- anxiety disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- lower ability for self-compassion
- poorer sense of well-being
Having a low tolerance for uncertainty can impact your relationships.
If you find it hard to tolerate uncertainty, it can be difficult to take social risks (like introducing yourself to new people or asking a new friend out for coffee).
Not tolerating uncertainty can also make it difficult to feel secure in relationships or may lead to abandonment anxiety. You might often worry because you can’t be certain that your partner won’t leave you.
Learning to cope with uncertainty can help you reduce anxiety and feel more secure or confident when making decisions.
If you find it hard to tolerate uncertainty, the following tips might help you.
To learn how to tolerate uncertainty, consider cultivating self-awareness. Accepting the fact that you find it hard to deal with things you can’t control can be the first step toward recognizing the specific situations that may cause anxiety.
You might want to ask yourself:
- How do I feel when I’m not sure how something will work out?
- How do I tend to act when I’m dealing with uncertainty?
- How has this impacted my relationships/career/hobbies/emotional state?
The point isn’t to feel bad about being unable to tolerate uncertainty. Instead, it’s to know what activates your anxious response, how it affects your life, and which opportunities for potential personal growth every situation offers.
When your fear of uncertainty rises, try to put a name to it and pause. “I’m feeling anxious about this because I fear this or that.”
When you do this, it may allow you to pause and take note of what’s happening and why it’s happening.
For example, your boss gives you an opportunity to work on an exciting new project. Although it sounds fun to you, you feel anxious and nervous. Your reaction is to turn down the offer because you’re not sure how it’ll turn out or you experience an uncertainty about your skill or ability to complete the task.
In that instance, you might also want to take a step back and say to yourself, “I realize I’m anxious because I’m afraid this will turn out badly. But I can’t control everything and this is a great opportunity. These are the benefits of me accepting the offer.”
3. Focusing on the evidence
When making a decision, try to assess the situation from the evidence, not your anxious thoughts.
Your anxiety might convince you that the worst-case scenario is not just possible, but likely. A logical approach can help you assess the situation better.
Cognitive distortions are filtered thoughts that may make you think more negatively about a situation than what is actually true. Identifying them can help you turn away from them and focus on the evidence.
Try to ask yourself questions like:
- What is likely to happen?
- What has happened in the past?
- What is the worst possible outcome? How likely is it to happen?
- Is there a way to deal with the possible negative outcomes?
- If I turn down this opportunity, what could I lose out on?
To use the earlier example, you might reach the conclusion that your boss has assigned you this project because they know you’ve delivered in the past and are a top performer. You remember the last time you led a project, it was overwhelming but a great success. This may be another excellent opportunity for growth.
4. Not overthinking it
If you don’t tolerate uncertainty, you may be more likely to overthink every decision and do tons of research before even considering it.
Overthinking and researching every possible outcome may increase your anxiety.
When you’re doing research to help you make a decision, try to ask yourself how much research is necessary. In time, you can learn to identify when you’re overdoing it.
For example, it may be a good idea to discuss with your trusted doctor if you should begin a particular medication. You may choose to seek out multiple consultations and watch tons of YouTube videos on it, postponing your decision.
You may find contradicting information or have additional questions that will further postpone the decision.
A remedy to this could be that you put a cap on how many trusted options you will seek before making up your mind. It may also help to consider that the decision doesn’t need to be permanent. You can change your mind or decide on a different course of action if things aren’t working out. This may reduce your anxiety about making your decision.
5. Making peace with things going wrong
It may be what you dread the most, but in life, things go wrong. Not always, but sometimes.
You may impulse-buy a shirt and later regret it. You could go to a party and bore to death. You might go to the fanciest restaurant and get indigestion. It happens.
When it comes to bigger decisions, like buying a new car or going to college, you may want to do a fair amount of research.
But it’s important to accept that sometimes, even when you do your homework, things might not go the way you hoped. That’s OK.
Eventually, you learn something and you get something out of it. You’ll find a way to work through challenges, whether that includes returning the shirt or transferring to a different college.
Although “making the wrong decision” can be scary, learning that this too shall pass and that it’s possible to manage any outcome, might help you cope.
If intolerance of uncertainty is negatively impacting your mental health, daily functioning, and relationships, it may be time to seek the support of a mental health professional.
These signs might suggest you could benefit from psychotherapy:
- Your intolerance of uncertainty makes it hard for you to make day-to-day decisions.
- Your anxiety is making it difficult to function at work or school.
- You feel distressed on a regular basis.
- Your loved ones have suggested you seek help.
- You’re finding it difficult to adapt to change.
- You may be developing symptoms of depression.
Tolerating uncertainty is about being OK with not having control over the outcomes.
It can be hard to cope with not knowing how things will turn out. However, tolerating uncertainty is a skill you can learn. When you learn to accept uncertainty, you may experience lower levels of anxiety, become more efficient at making decisions, and enjoy daily activities and social life.