Considering what your relationship with uncertainty is like has probably not featured as something to think about. Unless of course you’ve had to deal with a challenging health issue, whether your own or someone else’s. Or another significant life event that brought a high degree of the unknown into your life.

For many people when they have to deal with a lot of uncertainty, they can end up feeling out-of-sorts. Which is understandable. They take appropriate measures to deal with their out-of-sorts feelings, which is good. Or try to suppress them, which isn’t as good.

And it tends to stop there. The aim is to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings. Not a bad aim, don’t get me wrong. But there isn’t any further reflection on why the uncertainty happens and one’s relationship with it as a way to improve it.

What I want to do is provide some questions for you to reflect on what your relationship with uncertainty is like as the first step to improving it. Particularly as there is so much uncertainty about due to coronavirus and the lockdown. Much more than many of us are used to. Finding ways to deal effectively with uncertainty can enable you to live with more ease during uncertain times.

A woman is sitting on a chair. She is frowning, looking uncertain and asking herself the questions: "What am I to do? How can I feel better? Why do I feel this way? When will it stop? Who can help. I feel so out of control." Next to her is standing Uncertainty. It has its hand on the back of her chair and is saying, 'I'm your new friend.' This is what it can be like to live with uncertainty. What is your relationship with uncertainty like? Check out for advice on how to do that and keep your sanity particularly if you're feeling out-of-sorts during lockdown.

When uncertainty happens

Uncertainty occurs when situations and events happen and you don’t know how to deal with them or you think you don’t know how to deal with them (but you actually do know). There may also be a lot of additional unknowns, conflicting and/or unclear information, a lot of change happening quickly and no clear timeline on when the situation will end.

All this can lead to feeling out-of-sorts, anxiety and panic even. Which is often due to feeling out-of-control and powerless. We humans don’t like those feelings.

The coronavirus pandemic is a perfect example of uncertainty in action.

What is your relationship with uncertainty like?

When you look at your relationship with uncertainty, it’s also helpful to look at your relationship to not knowing, change, dealing with ambiguity and fear. Because they fuel uncertainty. This is a big topic so I am going to only focus on dealing with not knowing and the fear that can result. I start with a pretty big question.

The picture shows that not knowing what to do (or thinking you don't know what to do), all the unknowns, dealing with unclear and conflicting info, lots of change and no clear timeline or end in sight all create uncertainty. And fear. A woman is standing looking at all this saying, 'I feel out of control and powerless.' This can make your relationship with uncertainty hard.

What’s it like for you when you don’t know something?

What I often see when clients, people, colleagues, and me don’t know something, we can rush to a solution. As I explained in this video, the anxiety around not knowing can fuel that rush to an answer or solution. But in that rush, we can miss the solution that would work really well for us. Because we don’t slow down and give space for the right solution to arise.

So the next question to consider is…

If you feel anxiety around not knowing, what is that about?

What is it about not knowing that produces anxiety?

Sometimes the anxiety around not knowing took root in childhood in response to how we saw the people present in our life deal with not knowing and their responses to us when we ourselves did not know. As a result, we may have absorbed helpful or unhelpful messages about not knowing.

A question to ask yourself is whether how you respond now to uncertainty and not knowing reminds you of how you responded as a child to situations where you didn’t know the answer and/or there was a lot of uncertainty. And does it remind you of how other people close to you responded to not knowing and uncertainty.

Some questions to help you explore your relationship with #uncertainty: What’s it like for you when you don’t know something? If you feel anxiety around not knowing, what is that about? #wellness Share on X

Here’s an example using myself

Growing up, the message I absorbed what that it was not ok to not know the answer to a question you were asked or to not know how to do something you were told to do. Whether this was at home, in school or elsewhere. When I didn’t know the answer or know how to do something, people would make fun of me or, particularly if they were adults, tell me that I should know or get mad.

Not knowing became linked to feeling shame – I wasn’t enough for the people around me. So I developed in part an unhealthy relationship with not knowing. This part of me coped by developing a Please People driver (Hay, 2009) – ‘If I know the answer, I’ll please the people around me and they will love me.’

And yet, the curious part of me would wonder why couldn’t we just figure it out together if I/we didn’t know something? Thankfully, she stayed with me throughout childhood well into adulthood and is still with me today. This part of me is the one that says to clients in response to their dilemmas and issues: Everything is figure-out-able. Let’s figure this out together.

An approach of ‘everything is figure-out-able’ can help you deal with #uncertainty with more ease #wellness Share on X

If you realise that your response to not knowing and uncertainty was learned from others in your young life or in response to what they said or did to you, that self-awareness can help you to choose a different response today.

Sometimes the not knowing breeds fear

This can be the case in respect to coronavirus. The fear of catching the virus and how one could be affected for example. And how a loved one who is elderly or has health issues is affected by the current situation and could be if they caught the virus. These are very real and legitimate concerns that can also feel scary. You can be afraid for your existence and that of your loved ones.

The length of time the not knowing goes on can also feed the fear. Here is what helped a client of mine in that situation.

One thing is certain about uncertainty

There will always be uncertainty.

This is an original quote by Barbara Babcock of Return to Wellness®. It says: One thing is certain. There will always be uncertainty.

I don’t mean to be flippant in saying that. It’s a fact. And a paradox.

The client I said this to was dealing with ongoing uncertainty about the unpredictability of symptoms in relation to her chronic health condition. She didn’t know if symptoms would appear from one day to the next, how bad or not they would be and therefore how she would and could deal with it. She described as having ‘to be in it for the long haul’ and was understandably feeling upset as a result.

Acknowledging that the uncertainty would always be there helped this client. She said, ‘It puts it in a box.’

Acknowledging is powerful because when you name something – for example, that uncertainty will always be present – you make the unknown known to yourself. When you do that, it changes what felt like an unknown large thing that is everywhere to something that is easier to hold. That helps you to contain any fears you may hold around uncertainty more easily.

A woman is standing at a table. On the table is a large box. The woman is putting uncertainty into the box and saying, 'I'm going to put uncertainty into this box. I've got things to figure out and sort.' The point is that when we acknowledge uncertainty, it can make living with it easier. Our relationship with uncertainty is improved because we are no longer denying it.

A final thought about your relationship with uncertainty

When I did a masters in coaching psychology, an article I referenced in my dissertation mentioned: ‘Appraisals of illness uncertainty also influence how people evaluate and incorporate an illness into their lives (Babrow, 2007; Babrow & Matthias, 2009; Mishel, 1999; Mishel & Clayton, 2003).’

This came from the article ‘Patients’ and Partners’ Perspectives of Chronic Illness and Its Management by Checton et al (2012).

We can broaden that statement to uncertainties that appear in our lives beyond illness or injury: ‘Appraisals of pandemic uncertainty also influence how people evaluate and incorporate a pandemic into their lives.’

I am not saying you have to say yes to the pandemic, agree with it, or welcome it. It’s just about acknowledging that it is here, it’s having an impact and that impact may be positive in some ways to downright awful in others.

Incorporating the pandemic into your life is also about managing its impact, which won’t always be simple or easy, so you still retain some quality of life. There’s a focus on yeah, this isn’t fun or easy, it can be scary, AND there is still good in my life.

What’s it like for you?

How would you describe your relationship with uncertainty? To what degree does not knowing impact it? What ideas have you got from this article to help you in managing your relationship with uncertainty? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).  

If you are living with a challenging health issue or are caring for someone who is, and would like support on any of the issues discussed here, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2020


Checton, M.G. PhD, Greene, K. PhD, Magsamen-Conrad, K. PhD, Venetis, M.K. PhD (2012) Patients’ and Partners’ Perspectives of Chronic Illness and Its Management, Families, Systems, & Health, Vol. 30, No. 2, 114–129.

Hay, J. (2009) Transactional Analysis for Trainers, 2nd edition. Hertford, UK: Sherwood Publishing.

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