Ambiguity Intolerance

Psychological Safety
July 20, 2022
Post Traumatic Growth
August 3, 2022
Psychological Safety
July 20, 2022
Post Traumatic Growth
August 3, 2022

Ambiguity Intolerance

Ambiguity – cloudiness, uncertainty vagueness. Something that is unclear or can be interpreted in multiple ways. It is interesting when reading a mystery or watching a suspenseful movie. In real life it doesn’t feel so good. Our sense of safety increases with certainty and predictability. We have all been living with a lot of unknowns over the past few years. Too much ambiguity can result in feeling overwhelmed, with decreased ability to function.

Tolerance Factors

How well you tolerate ambiguity is impacted by several factors. One is your basic personality – some people prefer predictability and consistency over variety and change. Another is your level of overall fatigue – it takes energy to interpret the unknown. A third is your mood – higher levels of depression or anxiety result in more despair or fear regarding vague possibilities.  Your ability to tolerate ambiguity fluctuates depending on how important the outcome is and the potential that the outcome could be very negative. 

What is your long term and current appetite for ambiguity? Do you like variety, spontaneity, surprises, and new experiences? Or are you in the mood for order, predictability, consistency and clarity?  

Creating Certainty

When you are feeling intolerant of ambiguity there is a risk that you will create certainty even where it doesn’t exist. This gives a sense of confidence, control and safety—whether accurate or not. Some ways people create false certainty:  

  • Make up their mind about something with very little information. 
  • Refuse to change their mind on a topic, person or food even when new information is available. 
  • Choose a familiar path or restaurant, even one you don’t really like, over an uncertain one that holds promise. 
  • Demand an answer or final result even though they have been told it is not ready. 
  • Micromanage every detail of a process. 

Tolerating ambiguity can be hard. Waiting to see how things will work out does not mean passively sitting by until clarity appears. Often it feels like building a ship while surfing the waves.  

Thriving with Uncertainty

It is terrifying to not know how things will turn out.  

It is exhilarating to not know how things will turn out. 

Both of these statements are true in different circumstances for different people. How can you increase your tolerance or even appreciation of ambiguity? 


  • Notice when things are ambiguous. There is power in naming the uncertainty. 
  • When imagining potential outcomes consider the negative, the positive, and the full range in between. 
  • Strive for learning and growth vs. perfection and correctness. See mistakes as part of the process. 
  • Acknowledge that, while you can’t predict the outcome, you can strengthen yourself for the journey. 
  • Build your knowledge about a situation, journey, or process so that you have greater capacity for flexible decision making. 
  • Develop a network of friends and colleagues who are open to discuss possibilities, challenges, and experiences so that you can explore ideas and options as change occurs. 
  • Engage your curiosity – try new foods, read different blogs or books, listen to a variety of music 
  • Join with our resilience building community as we all work to manage the ambiguity in our lives. 

Ambiguity has always been a part of life. Knowing your own tolerance level and doing what you can to increase your capacity to cope with change gives you more flexibility to respond to whatever comes your way. As each of us learn this skill, we can model it to those around us and increase the resilience of our own communities.  

Please share this blog with those you know who are impacted by change. Together we can be creative as change and opportunity come our way.


Laura A. Gaines

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