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How to Keep Uncertainty From Destroying Your Happiness

Uncertainty can be painful. Here are ways to keep it from being devastating.

Key points

  • Uncertainty is part of life, but human beings long for certainty.
  • Recognizing and accepting your feelings about uncertainty can help you manage them.
  • Uncertainty is a lot like "ambiguous loss" in that it is often a time of loss, sadness, anxiety, and lack of closure.
  • Fortunately, there are things you can do to make uncertainty more tolerable.

After three years of trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, Janisha* was moving into her second trimester of pregnancy. “Those were difficult years,” she said. “Every month, we faced the uncertainty—am I going to get my period? Could this be the month? What’s going to happen?” I thought when I finally conceived that all of that would be behind me. But now we’re back in the middle of uncertainty. Will I miscarry? Is everything OK with the baby? Even if I make it full term, will the delivery be alright? Will the baby be OK? Is it a boy or a girl? And, oh yes, will I be a decent mother?”

She said she told her older sister, who has three children, about her fantasy that once the baby was born, she’d breathe a sigh of relief. “My sister just laughed,” Janisha said. “She said she thought uncertainty was the one constant in parenting.”

Marc*, who was going through his second round of treatment for cancer, came to therapy to get help with some of the painful and confusing feelings that were coming up around his illness. “I’m getting too angry about too many things,” he said. “My partner told me he’s there for me, no matter what, and that he completely understands my anger, but he said that I was driving everyone, including him, away.” Marc was silent for a minute. “Maybe that’s the point,” he said. “I can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen. Maybe I need to push everyone away just to have something I’m sure about.”

Marc had just pinpointed something therapists often struggle to help our clients see: that many of our behaviors, often without our knowing it, are efforts to protect ourselves from undesired or painful feelings. And uncertainty is one of those emotions.

Benjamin Franklin is famously supposed to have said, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” But we can add to that list. Uncertainty is bound to come into every life.

The problem is that we humans don’t like uncertainty, which involves a sense of doubt, anxiety, fear, and insecurity. When we are uncertain, we often hesitate to make decisions. We feel stuck in what one of my clients poetically called “a fog of vagueness.”

The psychologist Pauline Boss writes in her book Ambiguous Loss, “People hunger for certainty. Even sure knowledge of death is more welcome than a continuation of doubt.” In her book, she explores some of the pain of loss that is uncertain or indefinite. This can be the loss of a loved one whose body has never been found, the loss of a home in a natural or manmade disaster, or the loss of a homeland from which you have escaped.

Erin’s* mother had Alzheimer’s. “She’s there and not there,” Erin told me. “Sometimes she’s her old self. Sometimes she’s a person I’ve never met. I never know who’s going to greet me when I come to see her. And because we don’t know how this disease is going to progress, and because she still has a lot of clarity and the ability to make decisions, we don’t know the best way to deal with it. My brothers and sister and I are having a terrible time knowing what to do and how to make her life the most comfortable. And we keep saying, ‘If only Mom were here to help us figure it all out.’”

Erin and her brothers imagined that their mother, as she once was, could help them find a solution with confidence that it was the “right one.” That, of course, is certainty. But in many, many cases, we don’t know what the right decision is, or we don’t even see a possibility of deciding at all. We are left to the whims of chance, trying to stay afloat in the murky waters of uncertainty.

But there are some things you can do to help with uncertainty.

1. Recognize that uncertainty often is a container for other feelings.

These can include anger, self-doubt, worries about the future, guilt, and a profound and difficult sense of loss. Allowing space for these emotions can make it easier for you to live with them and to move on—since, as the brilliant Buddhist monk Ticht Nacht Han reminds us, accepting feelings is one of the best ways to change them.

Janisha told me that once she allowed herself to feel the sadness and anger of the past years, she could also manage the uncertainty of being pregnant with greater ease. “I think I’ve been afraid that I’ll lose this baby, and then I’ll be sunk back in all of those awful feelings. If I can own them now, I can remember that I managed them. I’ll be alright, no matter what happens.”

2. Make small decisions whenever you can.

Marc, for instance, decided that he would simply focus on things like whether to take a shower or a bath or when to take a nap. “Those are decisions I can make, even when the big questions aren’t mine to answer,” he said.

3. Look for moments of joy and pleasure and treasure them.

Erin found that her mother’s sense of humor had suddenly blossomed with her dementia. “She never used to laugh at herself,” Erin said. “Now she can make silly jokes! It always takes me by surprise. But what a lovely gift from this awful illness!”

4. Listen to yourself.

If you feel a need to be alone, honor your desire. But if you feel that it would be good to connect to someone else, find ways to do that as well. Either way, you don’t have to focus on your uncertainty. Being alone or being with others can help you manage your feelings without necessarily talking or thinking about them.

5. Speak to a professional.

Uncertainty is a part of life, and as a result, there are many people who are qualified to help you tolerate and manage these feelings. Erin and her brothers consulted with an Alzheimer’s specialist, who gave them helpful pointers about dealing with the stage their mother was currently in, as well as looking for signs that they needed to take different action. Erin shared her worries with her obstetrician, who reassured her that they were a normal part of pregnancy, which comforted her.

Marc found that as he acknowledged and owned the reality of his pain in therapy, he was also able to appreciate genuine moments of pleasure, not just with his partner but also with others. “It’s amazing how loving the people at the treatment center are,” he told me. “I don’t know how they do it, but while I’m having these horrible treatments, I’m also feeling loved and cared for. It’s a pretty special moment in a truly difficult time.”

To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today's Therapist Directory.

*names and identifying info changed for privacy



Pauline Boss. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief

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