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Can You Be Okay With Uncertainty?

The ability to tolerate “not knowing” is one of the keys to contentment.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

"When nothing is sure, everything is possible." ~ Margaret Drabble

When life is in session (and it’s always in session) we can be following the daily rhythms of our lives and all seems to be going smoothly enough when, often suddenly and unexpectedly, some sort of serious stuff hits the fan.

What happens when you experience the death of someone you cherish? When you or someone close to you is given a devastating medical diagnosis/prognosis? When your home is destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by a natural disaster? When you experience a massive change in or the end of a beloved relationship? When you or someone close to you has a catastrophic accident/injury and subsequent disability? When you encounter the loss of an important job or perhaps even a career? How about the loss of esteem or respect with which you once held someone or with which someone once held you?

One moment you’re standing on a firm foundation of familiarity, and in the next that foundation crumbles and it feels like you’re falling. Where you were grounded in life being a certain way, the rug has been pulled out from under you and you’ve become groundless. The consequences of such changes often result in profound loss, sadness, anger, confusion, and fear.

We tend to want and need to see ourselves—and the world—as essentially solid, stable, and permanent, and through that lens of predictability we find comfort. So, when the bottom falls out, it usually creates emotional chaos that can easily morph into crisis. But, does it have to? How do we stay present with the "not known," with that feeling of groundlessness?What’s the impact on how we see ourselves and the world?

Life evolves for each of us according to a process of ebb and flow. The process is universal, but the particular form it takes is unique to each individual. When you experience one of those seismic shifts that alter your world, it may not make any sense and may be unconnected to any identifiable precipitant or concrete reason. Yet, each time we’re in a place we’ve never been, we’re also standing at a crossroads. This is an opportunity to become more consciously aware and open to our experience—as challenging as it may be. It is an important chance to practice tolerating the ambiguity of uncertainty, of not knowing.

Because uncertainty can be so uncomfortable, for many people, not knowing what will happen is more painful even than knowing there will be a painful outcome. This is a phenomenon known as “cognitive dread.” Research demonstrates that faced with possibility of pain, most people want to get over with as soon as possible, and will even accept more severe pain in order to avoid having to wait for it. People who struggle with long-standing pain conditions report that the dread of worsening future pain can be more disabling than the pain itself.

Ambiguity describes any situation that’s unclear because it can be understood in more than one way. Tolerance for ambiguity is an extremely valuable life skill that helps create the conditions for contentment by allowing you to forsake the attachment to and need for clarity. Keep in mind that clarity is frequently a self-created illusion—fueled by the anxiety, stress, and fear of not knowing. When you can tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing and learn to co-exist with the uncertainty of groundlessness, you're more able to shift gears, experiment, be more flexible, and take in new information that you might otherwise reject.

Practical Practices

Allow yourself to feel. When you lose something or someone you find value and meaning in, it’s important to take some time to accept, be present with, and work through your emotions. Depending on the loss, you may well need to grieve. Use your social support system by sharing your emotions with those you trust. You can be angry, anxious, resentful, or scared without having to act out on or suppress those emotions.

Take time to clarify priorities and values. The experience of groundlessness is an invitation to take a step back and re-evaluate what matters most. Maybe your priorities have changed since you last really considered what is most important to you. What is negotiable versus what is not? Are there specific things/experiences that you need or want?

Apply the Serenity Prayer by identifying the areas you can control—and those you can't. Sometimes when life on its own terms unexpectedly smacks you upside your head, there is a tendency to focus primarily on what you can't change but deeply wish you could. The reality of all situations is that there are some things you can change and others you can't. Becoming aware of where you have some control and can make healthy changes facilitates emotional balance and enhances self-efficacy.

Practice patience and acceptance. There is a saying that “When one door closes, another one opens.” But you can’t know how long will it be and what form will it ultimately take. It’s the waiting in the hallway between those two doors that’s so difficult, and therefore takes awareness, skill, and practice to negotiate.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery (coming July, 2018)


Giles W. Story, Ivaylo Vlaev, Ben Seymour, Joel S. Winston, Ara Darzi, Raymond J. Dolan, (2013) “Dread and the Disvalue of Future Pain.” PLoS Comput Biol 9(11): e1003335. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003335

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