Intolerance of Uncertainty

Why Tolerate Uncertainty?

Dealing with uncertainty is an unavoidable part of daily life. Because we can’t see the future, we can never be certain about what exactly is going to happen day to day. Research has found that people vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. That is, some people are okay with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives, and other people cannot stand even a small amount of uncertainty.

Anxious people, particularly those adults who worry excessively, are more likely to be very intolerant of uncertainty. They will often try to plan and prepare for everything as a way of avoiding or eliminating uncertainty.

What’s Wrong with Being Intolerant of Uncertainty? 

Obviously, it is normal, even common, for most people to be a bit uncomfortable with uncertainty. We prefer to know that the restaurant we are going to serves food that we like, that there will be people we know at the party we were invited to, and that our boss tells us exactly what he thinks about our work performance. This knowledge feels more comfortable to us than not knowing anything about the restaurant we are going to, being unsure about who will be at the party, and not knowing whether our boss thinks we are doing a good or a bad job.

Uncertainty as an allergy…


Being intolerant of uncertainty is a lot like having an allergy. If you are allergic to pollen, for example, you will sneeze and cough and your eyes may get red and teary when you are exposed to even a small amount of pollen. When people who are intolerant of uncertainty are exposed to a little bit of uncertainty, they also have a strong reaction: they worry, and do everything they can think of to get away from, avoid or eliminate the uncertainty.

But being very intolerant of uncertainty can cause problems, since it leads to a lot of time-consuming and tiring behaviours, causes stress and anxiety, and is the major fuel for worry.

What do people who are intolerant of uncertainty do? 

If you can’t stand having uncertainty in your life, you are probably doing things that are designed to either remove all uncertainty in daily life situations or you are outright avoiding uncertain situations.

Some of the behaviours that people do when they are intolerant of uncertainty include:

  • Seeking excessive reassurance from others: This might be asking friends or family their opinion on a decision that you have to make
  •  List-making: As a way of eliminating uncertainty, some people will make long and detailed “to do” lists, sometimes several lists every day
  •  Double checking: For example, calling loved ones repeatedly to “make sure” that they are okay, or re-reading emails several times to check that they are perfect and that there are no spelling mistakes
  •  Refusing to delegate tasks to others: Many people who are intolerant of uncertainty will not allow anyone either at work or at home to do certain tasks; this is because they cannot be “sure” that it will be done correctly unless they do it
  •  Procrastination/avoidance: Because being uncertain can cause anxiety, some people simply procrastinate or avoid people, places or situations. If you do not do something, then you don’t have to feel uncertain about it
  •  Distraction: Many people who are intolerant of uncertainty keep themselves “busy” most of the day, that way, they don’t have the time to think about all the uncertainty in life

You probably noticed that all of these behaviours require a lot of time and energy. Needing to be certain about everything can often take the fun out of life, since surprises or unexpected events become something threatening. Also, if you avoid or procrastinate, you might miss out on a lot of good opportunities in life simply because of a dislike of uncertainty.

Remember: Unless you can see the future, you will always be uncertain about some things.

Another problem with intolerance of uncertainty

If you can’t stand uncertainty and do everything you can to get rid of it, you might have noticed a problem: it is IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of all uncertainty in your life.

What this means for you is that all the work that you are doing to get rid of uncertainty is useless, it just doesn't work. If it did, you would probably not be struggling with anxiety and worry.

So what is the solution? 

If you can’t get rid of uncertainty in your life, the only way to manage your intolerance of uncertainty is by learning to be more TOLERANT of uncertainty.

How can I learn to become more tolerant?

Obviously, even if you agree that being more tolerant of uncertainty would be helpful, it is not easy to change an attitude. However, in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), we know that our thoughts, feelings and actions are all inter-connected, and that if you change one, you can change the others. (See What is CBT for more details about this).

So the best way to learn to become more tolerant of uncertainty is to start acting “as if” you are tolerant of uncertainty. That is, you can change your behaviour around uncertainty, and this will eventually help you to change your thoughts and feelings around uncertainty.