It can be very frustrating when you are unsure what the future, or even current situation, holds.
Intolerance of Uncertainty
The inability to tolerate uncertainty is an attitude that many people have towards life. This can make uncertainty, unpredictability and doubt feel like awful and unbearable experiences that must be avoided at all costs. People with this attitude often think:
- I can’t cope with not knowing
- I’d prefer that something bad happen now, rather than go on any longer without knowing
- I need to know how this will work out before I can make a decision on it
People who cannot tolerate uncertainty usually also think that worrying may be useful. But as we’ve covered before, it’s not really. If you’re one of these people, think back to yourself, “Has worrying made anything more certain or predictable? Will worrying change the outcome? Or is life still just as uncertain and unpredictable as it ever was?” Usually worrying just makes you think of all the worst case scenarios, works you up, and makes you feel bad in the process. Is this worth it?
Luckily, there are two things you can do: Challenge your intolerance of uncertainty and let go of and accept the uncertainty.
If you’ve been following the blog posts up to this point, then you should be pretty used to challenging your thoughts. This includes questions such as…
- Can you be absolutely certain about everything in life?
- What are the advantages of requiring certainty in life? How has it been helpful for you?
- What are the disadvantages of require certainty? How has needing certainty been detrimental to you?
- Do you tend to predict that something bad will happen, just because you’re uncertain?
- What is the likelihood that the things you predict will actually happen?
- Are there some uncertainties you can live with?
- Could you cope with uncertainty the same way other people in your life do?
Letting go of your need for certainty and accepting uncertainty as being an inevitable part of life can be easier said than done. A good place to start is using attention training exercises and learning to postpone your worry. When you first notice the feeling that you need to certainty, it requires making an active choice not to respond to that need, and instead letting go. This is done by turning your attention to being more present-focused instead of future-focused. If you’re focused on the present rather than the future, then uncertainty about the future is less likely to bother you. Your mind will likely drift back, but just keep repeating this process until eventually it does not. Check out the example below to see how it works.
Be Aware: “I’m telling myself how terrible or unbearable not knowing is. I’m seeking reassurance. I’m getting an agitated and restless feeling that comes with not knowing what will happen.”
Don’t Respond: “It is interesting to notice that in this situation I have a need for certainty, predictability, a guarantee… this need is leading me to worry. I’ll just sit with these feelings for a little while… observing them and noticing them a bit.”
Let Go: “My need for certainty is unnecessary… uncertainty is just a part of life… I’ll just let my need for certainty go, and accept uncertainty.” (visualise your need for certainty floating past you like clouds in the sky, or as you breathe out say under your breath, “let go.”)
Be Present-Focused: “I will bring my attention to the present. I’m noticing my breathing right now. When I inhale I can feel my belly rise; when I exhale I can feel my belly fall. I now notice my body sitting in this chair, how the seat supports my back, bottom, backs of my legs… I feel the weight of my feet on the floor, etc.”
Deal With a Wandering Mind: “Ah, my mind has wandered back to needing certainty. That’s okay, I’ll just bring my attention back to the present again.”
Remember that both accepting uncertainty, and challenging uncertainty are two different exercises. It’s important to try both; but also to use them regularly. Like a muscle you’ll need practise with it to really see the effects.
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.
This article was adapted from:
Saulsman, L., Nathan. P., Lim, L., Correia, H., Anderson, R. & Campbell, B. (2015). What? Me Worry!?! Mastering your worries. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.