You Can’t Know the Future, but You Can Be Gentle with Yourself

crystal-ball-0612134Grappling with our unknown futures is part of what makes us human—and nothing fans the flame of worry like the great unknown. Much of our lives are sort of a blind man’s bluff game of moving forward in time with no guarantee of what is to come next. Whether it’s waiting for the results of a biopsy, waiting for someone you’re interested in to text you back, or wondering where you parked the car in a vast multilevel parking garage, uncertainty walks beside us, questioning our decisions and actions. Our minds move forward in time, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst: “It’s cancer”; “She hates me”; “It’s Alzheimer’s.”

For those of us who are excellent worriers, tangling with the what-ifs, if-onlys, and I’ll-never-evers—dissecting a future that hasn’t even happened yet—is just part of our DNA. “What if I hadn’t made weekly visits to the tanning salon?” “If only I hadn’t sent her that text.” “I’ll never, ever be able to travel alone again.” Some people chase elusive perfectionism as way of hedging their bets toward certainty. Others may try to control others’ actions—“If she doesn’t text back by 6:45 p.m., it means it’s over”—or impose rules: “I will park on only C2 of this ramp.”

The thing is, it seems worrying is something some people are just better at. As Dr. Sylvia Boorstein, psychotherapist and teacher, says about herself and her ability to worry, it just came with the equipment. Worry will be there, and that’s OK. It’s our reactions to our worried, uncertain thoughts that can get us into trouble. The good news is our reactions to our thoughts are something we can work on and potentially change.

Maybe the first thing to do is to acknowledge that uncertainty sucks. When the stock market, with its pile of anxious traders and algorithms, is uncertain, the market is a mess. But can they ever really know the future? Nope. Nobody has yet found a crystal ball to tell our futures. Accepting uncertainty’s suckiness is a good place to start to change our reactions. Other people don’t know what their futures hold, either. We are all muddling around uncertain, some more blithely than others, but unknowing all the same.

It’s established that intolerance of uncertainty is a characteristic that underlies many anxiety issues. It can cause hours of worry, repetition of thoughts, and, in the case of obsessive compulsion, thoughts and behaviors. Many studies on the subject of worry benefit from interventions aimed at tolerating uncertainty. Building a tolerance for uncertainty in our lives, for not knowing what’s beyond the next bend and being OK with that, seems to help.

So consider being gentle with yourself. It’s not easy not knowing—they don’t call ’em worry lines for nothing! Try being compassionate toward yourself. Treat yourself like you would a good friend who expressed the same worries.

More on self-compassion and automatic thoughts next time.

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  • Laurel

    June 17th, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    Very intolerant of not knowing what the future may hold. From the big things to the small I am a girl who always likes to be in control of every single detail and the uncertainty causes me lots of head ache and worry. I don’t know why I am like this because neither of my brothers are and my parents aren’t either, so maybe all of that unsettlement when growing up made me want to super be in control now.

  • Verna b

    June 18th, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    I have found that this is the most difficult thing of all- to find a way to be kind to yourself.

    We complain about others being so critical. But really most of the time we are our own worst critic.

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