How to deal with uncertainty
Covid, Brexit, the economy, the environment: there are all sorts of reasons to feel that we live in uncertain times in the wider world. And in our own lives, health, money, school and college, jobs… for many people, the future feels very uncertain. Whether you believe this is the nature of the human condition or that we are living through a particularly stressful and unsettling time, it is clear that dealing with uncertainty about the future is something that we all have to confront and manage in our own ways.
People have differing capabilities for dealing with uncertainty, just as we have differing appetites for risk. But some level of security is essential to live a productive, creative, fulfilled life. People who have grown up in a home or environment without much security and stability can have a harder time dealing with uncertainty. But no matter what our background, what has happened in the past or is going on in the present, the future is uncertain.
It is about how we deal with it.
Worry as a tool (and not a very useful one)
One way to deal with uncertainty is to worry. While nobody gets out of bed in the morning saying “cool, I can’t wait to have a day full of worry”, worrying does serve a purpose. And that purpose is to give the mind the illusion of control over things that cannot be controlled.
We might see this as manifested in OCD behaviours for instance, but even if we don’t go down the labelling route, it seems clear that worry, although unpleasant per se, is a tool.
We might get fixated on checking that we have done things right. Or maybe try to get reassurance from other people that we have done everything we should have done. Worry might also come out as micromanaging others. Or maybe that wearying feeling of putting everything off, perfectionism, procrastination.
These are all tools, but ultimately they are a glass hammer, a chocolate fireguard. All are attempts to ward off anxiety about the fundamental fact that the future is uncertain, and therefore all of these tools are ultimately doomed to fail.
Instead, we have to reposition ourselves to consider uncertainty, allow it, manage and tolerate it.
Tips on how to tolerate uncertainty
So: what can we do?
Try to focus on the things that you can control.
I appreciate that this is easier said than done. But ultimately it has to be about assessing why you need certainty, and why you might be looking for it in the wrong places. It does not mean giving in and accepting your fate, far from it: but there might be a way to sift what you can and cannot influence. For instance: you cannot control the economy or the job market, but you can control sending out a CV. You cannot control the spread of Covid-19, but you can wash your hands regularly. And so on: it's about judging what you can and cannot influence.
Try to assess risk
Again, easy to say, difficult to master. Especially when you are in a heightened state of anxiety and stress. But many of us tend to exaggerate the likelihood of something bad happening. And crucially, we also downplay how resilient we can be and we will be if it does happen. It is not my job as a therapist to tell you not to worry: that would be patronising, and pointless. But I might be able to help you look at worries from a different angle, in a space where they are taken seriously, but not allowed to rule your life.
Spotting triggers and cues
Do certain behaviours and situations make you feel more anxious, less able to tolerate uncertainty? Then stop them. Maybe it is flooding your own space with negative news on social media, maybe it is trying to drown worries in alcohol, whatever. If you know there is something that definitely does not work for you, face up to it, and stop doing it.
Accept uncertainty as a feeling
Uncertainty is real. To find it distressing and upsetting is also real. And entirely valid. But, like all feelings and thoughts, trying to just make it go away by not thinking about it just does not work. You have to allow yourself to feel anxious sometimes, worried about the future, concerned. And then we need to move away from seeking certainty to finding clarity. Only by recognising and allowing feelings can they be explored, sat with, and ultimately overcome or lessened. And you do not have to do this alone: you can do this with a therapist who will value you, provide you a safe space, and work with you.
Part of the mystery of being a human is that there is only one certainty: that we will die. This knowledge is, of course, not acceptable at all to our brains, our minds, our sense of self, so we try not to think about it too much, and in turn we refuse to consider other unpalatables as well. Chief among these is that there is so much beyond our control.
I believe that accepting life as it is and trying to manage and influence the bits of it that are within our grasp, while trying not to agonise too much over the parts that are out of our control, is the way to go about it. Therapy can help you to integrate the past, not denying it or obsessing over it, and also to tolerate yourself and your present. This in turn can help you meet the challenges and uncertainties of the future in as robust a way as possible. We cannot control the future. We can build our tolerance to uncertainty. If you’d like to talk to me about any of this, please get in touch and we can explore it.