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Building Your Tolerance for Uncertainty: Act “As If”

Step 1: Make a list of behaviours

Start by writing down all of the things you do to try and feel more certain, or to get around or avoid uncertainty. You can use the sample of behaviours listed above as a guide. For example,

  • Do you seek reassurance from others?
  • Do you do a lot of double-checking?
  • Do you look for a great deal of information before making a decision?
  • Do you procrastinate a lot?
  • Are there situations that you avoid?

A good way to compose this list is to be a detective in your daily life: notice when you are feeling anxious, and what it is that you do to try to feel less anxious. For example, if you have to buy a present for someone and you start to feel anxious about what to buy, what do you do? Do you call your friends and ask for advice about what to get? This reassurance-seeking behaviour can then go on your list.

Step 2: Rank your behaviours according to anxiety

If you want to start acting “as if” you are tolerant of uncertainty, it is best to start small. That way, you are more likely to do it and to succeed. If you pick something too difficult, you might be unable to do it and you probably won’t want to try it again.

With this in mind, look at the behaviours that you have that might be easier to try to change. You can then rank your behaviours on a scale from 0 (“no anxiety at all”) to 10 (“extreme anxiety”) by imagining how anxious you would become if you could not do them.

Here is an example:

Behaviours to Reduce Uncertainty

Anxiety Level (0-10)

 Delegating important tasks at work to others, without checking up on how it was done

10

 Not calling kids on the cell phone when they are out with friends

8

 Going out with friends and letting them make all the plans

6

 Going to the grocery store without a shopping list

4

 Sending an email to a friend without checking for spelling mistakes

3

 Going to a movie without knowing anything about it

2

Step 3: Practice tolerating uncertainty

Once you have a list of behaviours that you do to reduce or avoid uncertainty, then start picking small items that you can do to practise tolerating uncertainty. Try to do at least 3 things a week.

For example, you might try going to a restaurant and ordering a meal that you have never had, and then you might send a few emails without checking them first (and no cheating! Don’t send the email to yourself as well so that you can check it later).

Step 4: Write it down!

Keep a record of all the times you were acting “as if” you were tolerating uncertainty.
Write down:

  • What you did
  • How you felt while doing it (was it harder or easier than you thought?)
  • What happened (did everything turn out alright?)
  • If it did not turn out as planned, what did you do?

If you write things down, you will be able to see all the work that you did in facing uncertainty. As you keep practising, you will find that the things you once thought were difficult have become much easier.

Step 5: Record what happened

If you are taking some risks and are not being 100% certain in your life, there is the chance that things will not go perfectly. For example, if you tolerate uncertainty and go to a movie without reading a review, you might not like the movie. If you go grocery shopping without a list, you might come home and realize that you forgot something.

When you allow some uncertainty in your life, sometimes things go wrong.For this reason, it is important to write down the outcome of your tolerating-uncertainty exercises, and what you did to cope. For example, if you forgot an item from the grocery store, what did you do? Did you pick it up the next day? Did you go back to the store? How horrible was the outcome?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did things turn out O.K., even though I was not 100% certain?
  • If things did not turn out O.K., what happened?
  • What did I do to cope with the negative outcome?
  • Was I able to handle the negative outcome?
  • What does this tell me about my ability to cope with negative outcomes in the future?

REMEMBER: Sometimes things will not go exactly as planned, if you allow some uncertainty into your life. But this is not a sign of failure on your part. Most people who tolerate uncertainty learn that even if bad things happen, they can cope with them.

It is also important to realize that despite trying to make everything certain, things often didn’t always work out. It just took a lot more energy and time trying to be certain. By becoming more tolerant of uncertainty, you can let go of all of the problems associated with being intolerant, and you get to realize that you can deal with things, even when they don’t go perfectly.

Step 6: Build momentum!

When you feel comfortable with the small steps that you have taken to tolerate uncertainty, gradually try more difficult things.

Look for opportunities to tolerate uncertainty in daily life. For example, if someone asks you to pick up a bottle of wine for a party, try going to the store and buying a bottle without asking for anyone’s advice.

As you start acting more and more “as if” you are comfortable with uncertainty, it will get easier and become a part of your life. Think of it like building a muscle; you need to do your exercises every day if you want that muscle to get strong!