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Why You Should Learn to Tolerate Uncertainty and How To Get Better At It



For most people tolerating uncertainty is about as comfortable as waiting in line. We don’t what will happen, when it will, or most importantly, how we should respond.


Yet some cultures, as a whole, tolerate uncertainty better than others. This tendency was first noticed by Geert Hofstede, author of Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Hofstede uncovered that some cultures prepare us to feel more comfortable with uncertainty than others.


According to Hofstede, there are several factors that determine whether or not a culture has a high uncertainty avoidance. For example, cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance tend to have more laws and regulations than those with a low uncertainty avoidance. Additionally, cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to have more oppressed members, and members display less interest or participation in politics than those with a low uncertainty avoidance. Whereas cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance tend toward very strict and specific laws and rules, those with low uncertainty avoidance have more political interest from members, as participation, and even protest, is seen as a vehicle for change.[i]


In education, cultures that rely heavily on educators to have the answers display high uncertainty avoidance compared to those where children are encouraged to be open-minded. High uncertainty avoidance in family life leads to role rigidity and well-defined patriarchal and maternal figures, while low uncertainty avoidance allows for greater flexibility in family and gender roles.


On an individual level, people with a high uncertainty avoidance often like clear and predictable rules, tend to be formal in interactions, have a strict and rigid schedule, and are resistant to change. These people prefer a careful, circumspect approach, do not like unpredictability, and tend to be more emotional. Conversely, people with low uncertainty avoidance abide by fewer rules, do not have a set routine or structure, are more informal in their approach, and are more open to change. These people feel much more comfortable with fewer rules, a more changeable structure, and often appear more calm and collected.


But the problem for all of us is that uncertainty can’t be filtered out of life. Especially any time we face adversity, familiar beliefs, values, and priorities often change in drastic and unexpected ways.


And adapting to the changing circumstances uncertainty brings requires that we are willing to try something different—and more importantly, something unproven.


So how do we build uncertainty tolerance? Let’s try what I call an uncertainty brainstorm.


To do this, first answer this question: What one thing did the adversity or a setback take away?


Your answer can be anything from a marriage, a child, a career, wealth, health, or a personal goal. Whatever the answer is, write it down.


Now answer the following question: What would you have done if you didn’t lose_______________? (Write the answer from the first question here.)


Answer this question, listing as many possible options as come to your mind. For example, if your question was, what would you have done if you didn’t get married? your answer could be anything from travel, go to school, start a business, or pursue a life passion. On the other hand, if your question was, What would you have done if you didn’t become wealthy? your answer might be volunteer, join the peace corps, live more simply, or live in a different location altogether.


The goal is to list as many different options as you can think of. Once you have written each option down, move on to the next part of the exercise.


Starting with the first option, consider each one as completely as possible. Take each one separately and visualize what it would be like to start a business, travel, volunteer, live off the land, and so on. As you do this, write down your reactions to each option, beginning with your initial thoughts and adding any thoughts that follow. For example, your initial reaction to traveling may be that it would be costly, but as you think it over, you start to feel excited about it and perhaps even look forward to exploring where you might travel.


Whatever your reactions are, write them down. Then go back and look over what you wrote down. Do your answers reflect a resistance to change? Do you tend to focus on what is wrong with each option? Or perhaps why things won’t work? If so, reconsider each of your options, and ask the following questions for each one:


What could be one benefit of doing this?

What is one positive thing that could happen unexpectedly?

What could be one thing I learn from doing this?

Is there something I could see myself enjoying about this?


The goal of these questions is to begin to shift your attitude toward uncertainty. When you can see that each option could have a hidden benefit, allow you to learn something new, or offer hidden enjoyment, you can also start to view uncertainty as something that leads to new discoveries—the discovery of valuable information about yourself, what makes you happy, and what will lead to the life you want. And more importantly, you can start to see uncertainty as an important part of adapting.



[i] Hofstede, Geert. (1993). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Administrative Science Quarterly (Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University) 38 (1): 132-134. JSTOR 2393257


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information about Claire or her work, just visit

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Why You Should Learn to Tolerate Uncertainty and How To Get Better At It

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Why You Should Learn to Tolerate Uncertainty and How To Get Better At It. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jul 2016
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