For a Good Life, Learn to How to Handle Uncertainty

· May 14, 2018

The only thing we know for sure in life is that nothing, or at least very little, is certain. Even so, Western society bombards you with the idea that it’s possible to keep everything under control. Not only that, but that you should quickly and efficiently find solutions to everything. Our society doesn’t encourage something that is actually crucial for adaptation: learning how to handle uncertainty.

To “handle uncertainty” means exactly that: the ability to deal with the lack of certainty and immediate solutions. You can try to fix everything and find an answer to everything. But, at the end of the day, that’s impossible.

Sometimes answers and solutions only come with time. Others are simply impossible to find. Humanity doesn’t know everything. In fact, what we don’t know far surpasses what we do know.

When you say it like that, everyone agrees that this is true. In practice, however, something else happens. Some people are virtually incapable of dealing with uncertainty. It makes them feel anxious and irritable. They can’t handle not having sold ground to walk on.

“I didn’t know peace until I had discarded all knowledge with disdain and concluded that it is impossible to affirm or deny anything.”

-Omar Khayyam-


How to handle uncertainty.

When you can’t handle uncertainty

People who can’t handle uncertainty have the need to experience something we call cognitive closure. This concept is what we commonly call “the last word.” There are people who need things to be clearly defined. Yes or no. Black or white.

People with this trait experience a lot of stress when there are no definitive answers. Cognitive closure implies certainty. “Do you love me… Or not?” They want the answer to be absolutely yes, or absolutely not. It’s difficult for them to understand that the most realistic answer is “Well…yes and no.”

Ambiguity and paradox are intolerable for people who can’t deal with uncertainty. They don’t see them as real things that have a place in the world, but as a lie, deceit, a way to cover up the truth. The bad news for these kinds of people is that we can say (almost with certainty) that almost everything human is ambiguous.

Consequences if you can’t handle uncertainty

When people can’t handle uncertainty, it’s probably because they are simplifying reality. They have limited hypotheses about what is happening. It’s either one or the other. People who see the world this way have a hard time making guesses. It’s difficult for them to make new hypotheses about what they see. Likewise, it’s hard for them to accept that something might be impossible to understand, at least for the moment.

cognitive closure

For example, they can’t understand that the same event could be the result of many different circumstances. If a person isn’t interested in reading, it isn’t necessarily because they are careless or uncultured. There could be a thousand reasons why they act the way they act.

Consequently, not being able to handle uncertainty usually implies a lack of empathy. People with this deficiency see the world only on their own terms. That makes it very hard to accept differences, because they believe that there is consensus about what is “right.” Plus, they believe that for relationships, families, and communities to function, they have to agree on everything all the time.

What does it look like to handle uncertainty?

A tolerance of uncertainty manifests as the ability to accept that there is no right answer. People who are able to deal with uncertainty don’t get anxious or uneasy when they don’t get answers right away.

They simply accept it and move forward with the information they do have. They focus on solving what they understand. If new elements come into the picture, they are aware and attentive, and use them to help figure out what’s actually happening.

Another thing that people who can handle uncertainty do is thoroughly analyze the facts. They don’t stay on the surface level; they try to go deeper. As a result, they discover that things are more complex than they might seem. That makes it easier to understand how hard it is to have definitive answers.

Interestingly, people with a lower tolerance for uncertainty are more secure with their judgments and decisions when they decide to make them. In contrast, those who have a high tolerance take longer to make decisions. They also have second-guess themselves before they act. Still, they deal with conflict and differences much better, and it shows in their relationships.