Need to know
Uncertainty is a universal human predicament: ‘the future’s not ours to see’, as a song once put it. While people often feel pretty certain about many things – including the sense that the rhythms of daily life will continue on as usual – each of us inevitably confronts situations in which the lack of certainty is obvious, and faces the displeasure of not knowing what will happen next.
When that occurs for you, will you fear the uncertainty, and attempt to escape it or avoid thinking about it? Or can you instead try to embrace the opportunities that an uncertain situation might offer? In this Guide, I will recommend some ways to better manage the unease that often comes with uncertain situations, especially ones with potentially negative outcomes.
These situations are commonplace. You may feel troubled, for example, when your email or phone call goes unanswered, might fear being ‘ghosted’ or rejected by a potential romantic partner or employer. Or you might dread the uncertainty that accompanies a wait for the outcome of a college entrance exam, a job interview or a medical test. Actually, almost any new task or project you undertake is likely to involve uncertainty. You might have doubts about whether you’ve got what it takes to succeed. You may be prone to overemphasise the possible negative outcomes, and see a situation as a burden or a threat that you would rather avoid or escape. At certain times, events that unfold on a wider scale plunge many people into uncertain situations at once – as during the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought with it a wave of anxiety and fear.
Scientific psychology has repeatedly highlighted the human aversion to not knowing. In 1949, the psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik introduced the concept of intolerance of ambiguity. This century, the psychologist Geert Hofstede popularised the idea of uncertainty avoidance. Since then, several theories have described how high uncertainty can be threatening, motivating people to defend against it.
My own work on the need for ‘cognitive closure’ – that is, the urge people have to feel that they’ve made a confident judgment about something – indicates that people attempt to escape uncertainty through responses such as jumping to conclusions and engaging in black-and-white thinking. Those tendencies can have adverse social and political consequences: for example, this work suggests that ‘freezing’ on the wrong conceptions by Israeli military intelligence, under a high need for closure, played a role in the surprise attack on Israel in 1973 (and, perhaps, the recent attack by Hamas). High need for closure also encourages people to support autocratic regimes and forms of governance that suppress dissent and are intolerant of diversity. In everyday situations, the need for cognitive closure might make one jump to a premature conclusion, interpret not hearing back from someone as a slight or a rejection, or judge a person on the basis of their gender, race or religion rather than getting to know them better.
These are but a few examples of a general trend in psychological theory and research that portrays uncertainty as threatening, and documents the tendency to escape it and flee to certainty, the sooner the better.
Uncertainty does not have to be so daunting
Some uncertain situations, such as the recent pandemic, are especially dire and come with a variety of alarming possibilities. But many uncertain situations are not so threatening, and in some cases – such as when you travel to an unfamiliar place or meet a new person – the potential outcomes are actually quite positive, even if there are also some undesirable ones (eg, getting lost, being rejected).
Of course, not everyone thinks about these positive and negative possibilities in the same way. Some people foreground their worst fears when they think about an uncertain situation, and so they might worry excessively about it or attempt to avoid it altogether. Someone who instead focuses on their hopes or aspirations in the face of uncertainty may embrace the situation more confidently.
What leads people toward these different tendencies? Research by my colleagues and me suggests that one factor is what we call the ‘long-term history of outcomes’. It seems that people who have had bad past experiences – such as being abused in childhood, or feeling abandoned or not cared for – tend to be more pessimistic and respond more negatively to uncertain situations. By contrast, people who remember having a positive childhood tend to be more optimistic, and respond more positively to uncertain situations. The research suggests that a person’s long-term history can be temporarily counterbalanced by more recent events (eg, positive events might lead to a boost in optimism), but that one usually returns to the baseline level of optimism or pessimism.
This baseline does not have to be permanent, however. Research from positive psychology has helped to demonstrate that the way a person thinks about failures and successes can promote the learning of optimism and reduce the fear of negative outcomes. Taking a stance of mindful acceptance toward uncertain situations can be valuable, too, by helping a person to detach from possible outcomes, good or bad. There are varied approaches you can use to embrace – rather than try to escape or simply suffer through – uncertain situations, and to make the most of the opportunities they might offer. In the next section, I present multiple exercises to help you develop these empowering mental habits.
What to do
Be your own defence attorney
As a first step toward changing your relationship with uncertainty, try the following exercise. Think of up to three past instances that caused you distress. These could be rejections that you received, or failures in personal, professional or academic domains. You might be tempted to see these events as signs that a future failure or disappointment looms whenever you face a new situation involving uncertain outcomes. I want you to take a different perspective.
For each of the instances you have recalled, write out several reasons you would use to convince other people (a ‘jury’ of your peers) that the unwanted outcome was unique to specific circumstances, and is unlikely to repeat itself in the future. The reasons you come up with should be plausible and realistic, of course. For instance, suppose that you recently applied for a job and were not hired. A reason that’s unique to that situation might be that you were tired during the interview because of a lack of sleep the night before. Or that your work experience to date doesn’t totally fit some of the requirements that were specific to the advertised position. Imagine another example: you lost a sports match you hoped to win. One reason you note for your defeat might be that you didn’t train enough in the weeks prior to the competition. Other reasons could be that you haven’t gone far enough to develop the skills required to address that opponent’s particular style, or you were distracted during the game by thinking about your work problems, and so on.
Try doing this exercise twice a week, for a couple of months (you can alternate exercise weeks with ‘off weeks’, if you’d like). Over time, this exercise, which is based on the pioneering work of the psychologist Martin Seligman, can help you develop a more positive attributional style – one that immunises you against the tendency to fear and accentuate negative possibilities. This positive-thinking habit can serve you well in approaching uncertain situations. Rather than being down on yourself and assuming that it’s simply your personality or a general lack of talent or social skills that produced a previous rejection or failure, you may be more inclined to look for external or temporary conditions to help explain what happened. When encountering a new, uncertain situation, this can help you avoid assuming that a previous disappointment means that another one is likely to happen again soon, and reduce your apprehension.
Develop a ‘can do’ attitude
Another practice you can engage in regularly – this, too, can be done a couple of times a week, for a couple of months – involves thinking about upcoming situations that you see as threatening. These could be forthcoming exams, job interviews, assignments you need to complete, or other stressful situations that involve an uncertain outcome. Think of up to three of these situations.
Now, thinking of these as challenges that you can meet, write out three ways (for each situation) that you can overcome the difficulties that the situation poses. You might think about specific ways you could prepare for the forthcoming challenges; about people you might ask for assistance; and/or about clearing your table of other, less important activities that might interfere with preparing for the situation.
Psychological research suggests that viewing a situation as a challenge, as opposed to just a looming threat, is empowering and can thus enhance your ability to turn uncertainty to your advantage. When you view a situation as a challenge, you’re combining recognition of the problem that needs to be addressed with faith that you can rise to the occasion and deal with it successfully. Doing this can mobilise one’s positive self-regard and sense of potency. There is also scientific evidence that a challenge mindset is associated with a more efficient cardiovascular pattern and better performance.
This way of thinking has often helped me in facing situations that I initially saw as threatening and burdensome, where I felt short of the necessary skills that other people seemed to have. These situations have ranged from athletic competition (eg, in tennis), to a job interview, to meeting people whose opinion mattered to me. Thinking of the uncertain situation as a challenge to be tackled, rather than a threat to be endured, has helped me feel empowered and able to confront it with energy and zest – actually looking forward to the situation with excitement rather than feeling forced into entering it, or wanting to avoid it.
As you think about an uncertain situation that you face, also pay attention to your physical state. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the negative possibilities and feel unfit to cope with them if you’re exhausted at the end of the day or after a sleepless night. Therefore, it’s helpful to mentally address the uncertain situation when you are well rested and energised. In such a state, it should be much easier for you to think of the uncertain situation as a challenge rather than a threat.
This exercise is aimed at helping you reduce your emotional dependence on the outcomes of uncertain situations. First, call to mind as many as three such situations that you are going to face in the upcoming month, thinking about the worst that might happen (ie, failure, rejection, disappointment). Then, for each situation, try to list three alternative courses of action you could take if the worst were to happen – actions that would still help you move in the direction you want to go.
Suppose that you’ve applied for a job and are uncertain about the outcome of your application. To allay your anxiety, you might consider what you could do if your application was unsuccessful and someone else was offered the job. This could include starting to consider where else you can apply to, as well as identifying aspects of your application materials that you think could be stronger, and taking steps to improve those for the next time. Lining up alternative possibilities in this way can help take the edge off the disappointment if the worst does happen. It prepares you to have something to do rather than stewing in the upset.
This practice can also help you see how even bad outcomes are rarely final. Think of efforts about which you feel uncertain, such as an upcoming test or a proposal you’ve made, as mere means to more fundamental ends – such as feeling worthy or appreciated, or developing and exercising your skills. Your current means could be substituted by alternative courses of action that would help you to accomplish the same ends.
This exercise is partly meant to focus you on the true reason why you do much of what you do: to feel that your life has meaning and significance, and that you matter. Regardless of the outcome of a specific uncertain situation, there will be some ways to attain a sense of meaning and significance. Generally speaking, these means also include things like caring for other people, being kind, and helping others.
If you can view uncertain situations as opportunities for learning rather than as trials that determine your fate forever, you might approach them with a more relaxed attitude. A growth mindset, as described by the psychologist Carol Dweck, involves believing that human capacities such as intelligence and competence are malleable rather than fixed. Failure, therefore, is never final nor fatal, but is instead an opportunity for learning and improving – which often involves finding alternative pathways towards what you want.
Now that we’ve covered several exercises that involve rethinking uncertain situations, let’s turn to how you respond to the experience of uncertainty itself. I will ask you to sit with uncertainty, and let it be exactly as it is, rather than trying to avoid it.
The next time you are feeling concerned or anxious about one or more uncertain situations you face (which may be right now), take some time to observe the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that the uncertainty brings up. Instead of chasing it away, embrace it; instead of denying it, accept it. Give this some space and time – maybe 10 minutes, maybe longer, but make a date with it, and show up for it. This is a basic example of practising mindfulness. Getting habituated to the experience of uncertainty through this exercise can help mitigate the instinctive fear that it might evoke, and may enable you to explore any positive aspects or novel opportunities the situation contains.
Practising mindfulness more routinely, through meditation, can put you in a more relaxed state of mind, allaying your anxiety and the state of physiological arousal that uncertain situations might cause. Consequently, you may feel simply less concerned about possible outcomes, less dependent on them, whether they are negative or positive. Through mindfulness practice, both your fears and your wishes lose some of their grip on your mood and mental state.
Essential to the practice of meditation is the idea of directing attention to the present moment, preferably with kindness toward yourself and without judgment. Naturally, thoughts and feelings will come; the practice of mindfulness meditation is to allow them to pass like clouds in the sky – noticing them but not engaging with them. If you have been confronting an uncertain situation, an unsettling thought might come to mind, and bring anxiety and a sensation of your stomach twisting in knots. When you’re practising mindfulness, you do not argue with the thought or deride the feelings; rather, you acknowledge them (it helps to think to yourself: Oh, isn’t that interesting) and allow them to pass. Over time, and with practice, one notices that they do pass – nothing lasts forever – and they pass sooner if you don’t fight them or dwell on them.
In times of high uncertainty, mindfulness can be especially helpful in handling natural human emotions without allowing them to take over. If you’d like some further help getting started on the practice of meditation, you might find it useful to try a meditation app such as Aura, Calm or Headspace. There are also many guided mindfulness meditation recordings available on YouTube, and books that include meditation exercises (see the Links & Books section below for an example).
The reduced degree of caring and tension about outcomes that mindfulness meditation promotes may also help you approach uncertain situations in the spirit of curiosity and exploration, rather than being overwhelmed and consumed by negative possibilities. You can move forward by thinking of uncertainty as a companion by your side, rather than an enemy in your way.
Uncertainty is an inevitable part of life and, with the quickening pace of change that the world is experiencing, feelings of uncertainty are likely even more prevalent now than in the past. To live a happy and productive life in these circumstances, it is important to learn to live with uncertainty, to welcome it rather than being overwhelmed and frightened by it. I hope that following the suggestions I’ve shared in this Guide will help you on the way to achieving that goal.
Key points – How to embrace uncertainty
- Uncertain situations are inevitable. From waiting for a call back to anticipating important test results, everyone faces situations with uncertain outcomes. Not knowing what will happen can be challenging.
- Uncertainty doesn’t have to be so daunting. Many people worry intensely about or try to escape uncertain situations. But developing a more optimistic outlook and learning to tolerate uncertainty can make these situations easier to face.
- Be your own defence attorney. Reflecting on past failures or disappointments, identify reasons for each outcome that were unique to that situation – rather than reflecting a permanent problem.
- Develop a ‘can do’ attitude. Think of situations with uncertain outcomes as challenges to be met – and list specific ways to overcome the difficulties they pose.
- Devise alternatives. Reduce your emotional dependence on the outcomes of uncertain situations by listing alternative courses of action that you can take if the worst were to happen.
- Practise mindfulness. Take some time to simply observe the thoughts and feelings that an uncertain situation brings up. Cultivate a more relaxed state of mind with regular mindfulness meditation.
Links & books
In my book Uncertain: How to Turn Your Biggest Fear into Your Greatest Power (2023), I cover this subject at greater length, reviewing my own and others’ psychological research on escaping and embracing uncertainty.
The book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (2012) by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön is based on Buddhism’s three commitments: to cause no harm to others, to help others by keeping the heart and mind open, and to embrace the world as it is. Guided meditation exercises are among the practices offered in this book.
Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (reprint edition, 2006) is an essential guide to developing a more optimistic perspective – which can help one to embrace, rather than try to escape, uncertainty.
In her book Mindset (2006), Carol Dweck explains the ins and outs of developing a growth mindset and why it can help one to overcome the fear of failure.
If you have frequent, distressing thoughts about a worst-case scenario coming to pass, you may benefit from also reading Psyche’s Guide ‘How to Defuse Catastrophic Thoughts’ (2023) by Lucia Tecuta, which offers a therapist’s recommendations for recognising and challenging such thoughts.