Tolerating uncertainty

Feelings of uncertainty are usually connected to anxiety which is experienced when one is thinking about the future. Reduced ability to anticipate future events can trigger strong feelings of anxiety and many other unpleasant emotions. In fact, this ability to reflect about the future is something which makes us truly human. Uncertainty comes and goes, disguised in so many ways. However, our ability to understand and tolerate anxiety connected to it differs between people greatly—and even one person can handle some situations better than the others.

There are ways in which the person who experiences these emotions can transform this energy and help herself:

  1. Give yourself a break. It may sound funny, but the first thing we can do is to let our feelings just be. Just observe and listen to yourself. Negative emotions can be very strong, but the moment we detach from them and make even a small distance, our internal psychological dynamics begins to change as well. We are creating a free space for personal transformation which is derived from our awareness that we are something greater than our emotions—thus we can accept them for a while, release them, change them and finally let them go.
  2. Label your emotions. Multiple times. We usually think that we know everything about ourselves—which is not true. In fact, we often use wrong words for our feelings (e. g. instead of saying that I am sad, I would often say that I am nervous). When we say “anxiety,” we can think about many different things: Overwhelming feelings of doom, fear of failure or simply free-floating nervousness which borders with panic. Labeling our feelings with the right words might be liberating, but it takes a lot of practice to achieve mastery: You have to do again and again. In psychotherapy, we learn how to do it with professional help and constant supervision. It is usually much faster that way.
  3. Make haste—but then slow it down. Leading a life which is directed toward positive values is a decision which does not take much time. This is why it is crucial for you to make that decision right now, without hesitation. But after making that decision, you do not have to bet on all the horses in the race—quite the opposite, it is more than enough to just focus on one positive experience and one positive feeling, trying to enhance it. Positive life events do trigger positive emotions that have been there all along. So, changing your mind set can help you see a lot of positive experiences and relationships that have been there all along and that you might not have been aware of. After a while, you will be able to value them more and observe how unpleasant feelings of uncertainty transform into more positive feelings of joy and love, as you increase your tolerance for anxiety. You will therefore become a stronger and psychologically more resilient person.
  4. Challenge anxious thoughts. Usually we follow the worrisome thought and forget that it is only a thought—nothing more. This thought can be re-examined under critical scope, just like any other. Instead of following the White Rabbit, like Alice in Wonderland did, we can do the opposite, avoiding to fall into the hole, firmly staying on the ground. Indeed, the world of anxious thoughts is similar to Wonderland in so many ways. Everything seems twisted and not congruent with reality which we normally inhabit. Our thoughts can even become our enemies, working against us and our ability to cope with life situations. When we challenge these thoughts, they show themselves as they truly are—not so terrifying and threatening at all. For example, if a student thinks “I am going to fail the exam, I don’t know what questions will be on the test,” that thought can be easily challenged with making his own version of the test which covers all the major areas of the subject in question. Having the opportunity to look at his own knowledge from ‘the aerial perspective’, the student can find a sense of ease and reduce his or her anxiety. Then she can proceed to map the areas where she thinks her knowledge is weak and work with that further, realizing that she knows a lot and maybe needs improvement in only a handful of areas. Or take an employee who has an important presentation tomorrow in front of her colleagues and the CEO of the company: “I will sweat and make a terrible impression,” she might think. This thought can be challenged by evoking memories, for example, of all the past presentations that went well. She can ask herself what the chances are that this presentation, after past successes, might go wrong. Finally, she can also challenge the anxious thought mentally, imagining the perfect presentation, where everything is in-check and all went well.

There is nothing wrong in being anxious about future events. As we said before, this is something that makes us human. But, our levels of anxiety do differ greatly. It is possible to build up these levels and become better at living with uncertainty. Just like building muscles, it takes time and patience… and lots of practice. Of course, it is completely impossible to get rid of all uncertainty in life, and that is not a desirable thing, after all. Where is all the fun if everything is predictable?

Finding a ‘safe place’ within yourself is like building a virtual house, brick by brick, and after all the hard work, the prize is a sense of being at ease with yourself, even when things go wrong and not in the way you anticipated. It requires a lot of patience, but it is a worthwhile goal.