How to Accept—Not Fear—Your Fuzzy, Uncertain Future
A word that I think sounds just like it feels: ambiguous. Think about it: am-big-u-ous. To me, the word sounds wobbly, fuzzy, and kind of unsure of itself. And that’s exactly how things that are “ambiguous” often feel to me—unsettling, unnerving, and uncertain.
For me, and many other people, uncertainty leads to worry. When things aren’t known or certain, it creates room for possibilities. And, seeing as we’re wired to worry, I can invent ways those possibilities will definitely not work in my favor.
A new year always brings out this side of me. Some people love January 1 and the whole “clean slate and a new year full of possibilities” concept. To me, it’s a buffet for my inner cynic—I can worry about all the things that could go wrong.
Fearing the Crystal Ball
Why do we sometimes worry about the future rather than welcoming it?
An article in The Atlantic goes deep into this topic, and it offers a few expert theories. One simple reason why: We have the ability to worry about the future, so we do.
“In other animals, unpredictability or uncertainty can lead to heightened vigilance, but I think what’s unique about humans is the ability to reflect on the fact that these future events are unknown or unpredictable,” Dan Grupe, a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, told The Atlantic. “Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans in particular.”
When we stare into a fuzzy crystal ball, it's easy to start to worry about what’s inside, like a present we can never unwrap. And it feels productive. Studies show that we often believe worrying can prevent negative outcomes or it can help us find a better way of doing things.
When we stare into a fuzzy crystal ball, it's easy to start to worry about what’s inside.
Some people are more comfortable with uncertainty than others, and there’s even a scale created by researchers to measure a person's intolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity. Psychologist Alain Samson, Ph.D., explains in Psychology Today that people with “a high need for certainty, preference for familiarity, etc., are considered to have a high intolerance of ambiguity.” But cultivating a high tolerance for uncertainty is key—it's just as beneficial as having an optimistic outlook, Samson says.
“It could be argued that uncertainty tolerance has become one of the most important siblings of optimism in the 21st century as far as psychological benefits are concerned,” Samson writes. “People with high uncertainty tolerance are generally more adaptable, which is a major advantage for life in a fast-changing world that is awash with information, full of choices, and host to many unpredictable events.”
So, how do us uncertainty intolerant learn to get better at embracing the fuzzy future? Here, a few tips:
1. Recognize Your Hindsight Bias
A statement that might feel comforting (or frightening): Everything has always been uncertain. Yup. Last year, the year before, the year before that—you had no idea how it was going to play out before it did. And yet, it can feel so much more certain when we look back on it.
A little thing called “hindsight bias” makes us feel this way. Journalist Dan Gardner and psychologist Philip E. Tetlock unpack this phenomenon in an essay for the Washington Post.
“To try to get a handle on how worried we should be, we tend to compare the present with the past,” the authors write. “And when we look back, we tend to see much less uncertainty—not because there necessarily was less, but because hindsight bias drains the appearance of uncertainty.”
The past can feel predictable while the future can feel ambiguous—and it makes us forget that we’ve handled uncertainty before and came out on top. How do we fight our hindsight bias? The authors suggest keeping a diary as an accurate archive of your past dances with uncertainty.
“By writing down your thoughts and feelings daily, you create an immutable record that may be consulted years or decades later,” Gardner and Tetlock explain. “People who have done this are routinely surprised by the gaps between what they remember feeling and what they wrote at the time.”
The past can feel predictable while the future can feel ambiguous—and it makes us forget that we’ve handled uncertainty before and came out on top.
And maybe, you’ll be surprised by how that situation that feels so certain now was truly uncertain—yet you made it through. You’ve danced with uncertainty before, and you’re equipped to do it again.
2. Let Yourself Imagine the Best
It might sound a little “cheer up, buttercup” but imagining the best possible scenario can help you feel good in the now and move into uncertainty with a little more confidence.
“In our minds, we can play out future scenarios to predict how we would personally think, feel, and respond to them,” Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., writes in Greater Good Magazine. “And by doing so, we experience thoughts and emotions similar to those that would occur if the situations were actually happening to us right now.”
If you start drifting into worst-case scenario mode, let yourself imagine the best-case scenario, too.
Davis cites a study where participants were asked to imagine four positive things that could happen in the coming day. They did the exercise every day for 14 days straight. “At the end of the study, this group showed an increase in happiness, while groups who imagined negative or routine future events did not,” she writes.
If you start drifting into worst-case scenario mode, let yourself imagine the best-case scenario, too. It can help you create positive emotions to carry you through whatever is truly up ahead, good or bad.
3. Cultivate an Openness to Uncertainty
Rather than avoiding your fear of uncertainty, it can help to get intentional about it. That doesn’t mean trying to eliminate it immediately, but creating a little more space to accept and allow uncertainty here and there.
Tom Corboy, the founder and executive director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, tells PsychCentral that gradually building a willingness and an openness towards uncertainty can help. He suggests trying a mindfulness activity and sitting with your feelings—with an open mind—next time they come up. “Using mindfulness, you can learn to sit with your feelings of uncertainty, and thus discover that you are indeed able to do so,” he says.
4. Find Your “I Can’t Control Everything” Mantra
For me, a lot of my issues with uncertainty come from wanting control—control over what happens next, how it happens, and how I’ll react in the moment. But it’s just not possible to know the future and control how it pans out.
To accept—and remind yourself—of this truth, it can help to have a mantra. The Serenity Prayer is my go-to, and it goes like this: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Find your own mantra or phrase that helps you let go.
The next time you find your fear of uncertainty creeping in—or holding you back from new opportunities—turn to your mantra to remind yourself that you can handle uncertainty and accept what you can’t control.
You got this—even if you're not sure what this is yet.
Read next: 5 Ways to Handle Uncertainty