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Tolerating the Uncertainty of Life: Can We Learn to Coexist with Ambiguity?

If you take a moment to reflect, you will notice that almost 99% of the things that “bother” you are either in the past or the imagined future. Virtually none of them are in the here and now.

That’s because that which is in the here and now is available to us to interact with, encounter, know, and influence. We usually have a great sense of control about things — even problems — as long as we feel we can see and wrestle with them. Things in the past or the future aren’t available to us to wrestle with in a concrete way … they are ambiguous, and therefore we are left either making plans A, B, and C, or rehashing versions D, E, and F of woulda, shoulda, coulda.

We despise ambiguity because it renders us helpless to act, and acting is where we are comfortable. We are largely accustomed to taking in data, churning it around, and then focusing our efforts on doing something. Ambiguity makes it hard for us to do anything. And we hate that. We are action-oriented critters who find the feeling of helplessness highly unpleasant at best and severely distressing at worst. Being able to act gives us the illusion of control that makes us feel safe.

Consequently, ambiguity makes us feel unsafe and unable to do anything about it. Often, this feeling is so uncomfortable that we act out in other ways that are largely irrelevant but nonetheless give us the sense that at least we are doing something, as unrelated to The Problem as it may be.

This is the essence of the classic scene in which a rejected lover sits on the couch eating a half-gallon of ice cream. The character can’t do anything about making the object of their affection return the feeling, but he/she surely can locate a spoon, open the freezer, remove the goods, settle on the couch, and effectively eat loads of premium Rocky Road. It’s some kind of mission accomplished, if the other one is inaccessible. Many of our unhealthy behaviors are just that — stand-ins for other things that we can’t quite get our arms around, for whatever reason.

Recognizing our discomfort with ambiguity and learning to tolerate the uncertainty of life is a choice, a practice to be cultivated on a daily basis by those who seek to decrease their engagement in unhealthy stand-in behaviors (such as eating ice cream when you don’t understand why someone doesn’t like you, or smoking cigarettes when you’re waiting for medical test results because you’re “stressed”) and cope directly with the reality of how much we dislike the grey area.

If you’d like to start cultivating a greater tolerance for uncertainty so that you can decrease your unhealthy avoidant behaviors, one way is to practice on “little” uncertainties.

For example, we’re used to having our phone with us 24/7 and constantly “checking” all kinds of things, keeping up on a million little pieces of information. A lot of these pieces of flotsam and jetsam aren’t really very important to definitively know and yet we’re more or less addicted to knowing them anyway. You might start by going off the grid briefly. When you meet a friend, let them know you’re leaving your phone in the car so that you can practice tolerating little nonthreatening pieces of ambiguity such as, is your friend late? Did they get held up in traffic? What happened with that work thing that you don’t really need to know about this very minute?  

Like anything else, we can’t get better at tolerating uncertainly and ambiguity unless we practice it, and modern technology creates the illusion that we never have to do so, which makes us all the more unprepared for the moments when we have no choice. Technology has increasingly facilitated our avoidance of uncertainty, but by no means has actually changed it. We can help ourselves tremendously by choosing to practice coping with what is an inevitable part of life regardless of how much we dislike it.

Tolerating the Uncertainty of Life: Can We Learn to Coexist with Ambiguity?

Julie K. Jones, Ph.D., LPC

Julie K. Jones, Ph.D., LPC is the owner and director of Well Life Therapy, LLC, a private group psychotherapy practice in Middletown, CT. She and her clinical team offer a wide range of services and specialties including perinatal/postpartum support, trauma recovery, couples and family counseling, and teen/young adult assistance. She is a founding member and board member of the Connecticut Chapter of Postpartum Support International.


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APA Reference
Jones, J. (2018). Tolerating the Uncertainty of Life: Can We Learn to Coexist with Ambiguity?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/tolerating-the-uncertainty-of-life-can-we-learn-to-coexist-with-ambiguity/

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Aug 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.