Dealing with uncertainty - What you need to know
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Veronica Grigore, BABCP (Accred), Member of BPS, division of Clinical Psychology
12th July, 20150 Comments
Do you find yourself thinking that you ‘hate’ not knowing or not being sure? These notes are concerned with getting to know this part of ourselves and learn to cope better with uncertainty.
When using strong words there isn’t much scope for opening up to possibilities. We therefore recommend to replace ‘hate’ and ‘dislike’ with ‘it makes me feel uncomfortable’. Have you ever disliked something but then you ended up liking it? The most obvious example that may be applicable to all of us is certain foods such as olives and coleslaw. When we feel we hate something, we tend to avoid it and thus ‘hating’ remains an unmovable ‘beast’. Trying out seems to be the antidote, but how can we try something that we have strong feelings against and why? We definitely need a strong motivator. Pursuing thinking of three good reasons as why we would want to do something we are uncomfortable with should be on the agenda of everyone who tends to avoid things.
Here is a checklist of how intolerance to uncertainty is manifested:
- Wanting to do everything yourself and not delegating tasks because you can not be certain that it will be done right.
- Looking for a lot of information before proceeding with something, such as reading a review for a movie before seeing it, shopping for a long time before deciding what to buy.
- Making lists - writing a ‘to do’ list sometimes several times during the day.
- Not making a decision because you are unsure which one is the best decision.
- Looking for reassurance.
- Checking - doing things over again as unsure if you did them correctly. For example, re-reading an email before sending it so you are sure you have not made any mistakes, checking on dear ones by calling several times to make sure that they are okay.
- Avoiding committing fully to activities and relationships as unsure about the outcome.
- Finding excuses to do things, putting obstacles in the way of doing tasks or activities.
- Procrastinating, putting things off.
- Keeping busy as a way of avoiding feelings.
- Avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
Dealing with uncertainty is an unavoidable part of daily life. The sufferers of ‘not tolerating uncertainty very well’ do it too. Do you know when you are going to die? Would you like to know? If you did, would you be able to do things in life without constantly counting down the days? Therefore not knowing has its benefits; it allows us to assume safety (dying of old age). But the reality is that we do not know. We do not know if our boss likes us or not. We may assume that he/she does like us until proved otherwise. If we assume that she/he does not, then we are running the risks of engaging with unhelpful behaviours such as monitoring who he/she talks to, who she/ he pays compliments to, trying to please, or avoiding the boss, which may bring about exactly what we do not want to get - our boss ending up disliking us.
Not knowing what others think of us is a great source of distress for many socially anxious suffers. It is not the ‘knowing’ that matters, as we can never be certain of what people think or what it is going to happen in the future, but what we assume: safety or danger. When we wait at the red traffic light which then turns green we assume that we are safe (but we do not know for certain) and therefore we carry on driving, we take some risks. What would happen if we didn’t? The car behind us might bump into us. Therefore it is more adaptive to assume safety than danger once we have gathered some evidence of safety.
Research has found that people vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. Some people are okay with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives, and other people cannot stand even a small amount of uncertainty.
Anxious people, particularly those adults who worry excessively, are more likely to be intolerant of uncertainty. They will often try to plan and prepare for everything as a way of avoiding or eliminating uncertainty. More recent research into worry supports the idea that the opposite is true - people who can not tolerate uncertainty very well are going to worry as a way of transforming uncertainty into certainty.
There are two ways of dealing with uncertainty:
- Transforming uncertainty into certainty.
- Increasing tolerance to uncertainty/tolerating the ‘I do not know’.
What is wrong with being intolerant of uncertainty?
We prefer to know in advance that there are going to be familiar others at the party we are going to, that the restaurant we are going to will serve our regular food, that the close ones are sincere and honest, that friends we accommodate are not going to steal from us, that the boss tells us exactly what he/she thinks about our work performance. This knowledge feels more comfortable to us than not knowing. Living in an environment where everything is new to us will require enhanced senses, increased vigilance, heightened concentration, which equates to experiencing stress. The principle of economy of resources requires that we can predict our environment with some degree of fidelity.
But being very intolerant of uncertainty can cause problems - it leads to a lot of time consuming and tiring behaviours, causing stress and anxiety; needing to be certain about everything can often take the fun out of life and surprises or unexpected events become something threatening. Also, if you avoid or procrastinate, you might miss out on a lot of good opportunities in life.
The way forward…
- If whilst reading this elicits upset and anger for you (claiming what it is righteous for you) then you are on the right track towards developing a different relationship with uncertainty.
- One way to think about intolerance to uncertainty is as a psychological allergy. People with an allergy to pollen for example will only need a small quantity of the substance before starting presenting symptoms: coughing, sneezing, red/watery eyes. Similarly people who struggle to tolerate uncertainty will have a strong reaction of increased/excessive worry: worrying about flying as there is no certainty/no guarantee that the plane will not crash, worrying about driving the car as there is no guarantee that they will not be involved in a car accident. Using the metaphor of the allergy can increase the understanding of such difficulties.
- As long as people seek guarantee that nothing bad is going to happen they will never overcome their fears. Many treatments for flight phobia or health concerns fail to be effective because of this de-fault position. Bad things are part of life: we get old, we get ill, close ones die, people betray us. Being upset, hurt, annoyed and disappointed is part of our life. Please refer to the article ‘What do we have emotions for?’ for further information on the role of emotions. It is impossible to get rid of all uncertainty. Bad things when they happen, do not come to us and ask - are you ready to cope with me now? They just happen.
- If you can’t get rid of uncertainty in your life, then the only way to manage your intolerance of uncertainty is by learning to be more tolerant of uncertainty.
How can we learn to become more tolerant?
Having done the preparatory cognitive work above (seeing the ‘I hate not knowing’ with a different pair of glasses), we invite you to discover yourself how it is like to act as if you are more tolerant of uncertainty. You are now ready to change your behaviours around uncertainty, and this will eventually help you change your thoughts and feelings around uncertainty. Exposing yourself to things you are uncomfortable with in the order of difficulty, starting with something that you feel more at ease with is the next step. Try out going to a movie without reading a review, ordering a meal that you have not tried before, sending an email having checked it once or not at all, checking doors and windows just once by ticking them mentally or on a piece of paper. Start small and then you may feel more confident to take risks (once you have experience some successes). Remind yourself who and what you are you doing this for. Sometimes things will not go exactly as planned if you allow some uncertainty into your life. Most people who tolerate uncertainty learn that even if bad things do happen we can cope with them and we can benefit from them as they make us more resilient and resourceful.
The moral of these notes is that the most obvious thing that people who do not tolerate uncertainty very well is worrying. People who are intolerant of uncertainty believe that uncertainty is stressful, upsetting, that being uncertain about future it is unfair and should be avoided and that uncertainty interferes with their ability to function. In order to change a belief it is best to start by changing your behaviour. And remember you were not born with these beliefs, you ended up believing that this is the case through your experiences. People who experienced more unpredictability (changing schools, homes, alcoholic parent) in their lives as children, are more likely to struggle.
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