How to Tolerate Uncertainty When Waiting

[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Ding. You’ve Got Mail.

Later, you will think, “I really ought to turn off that notification. It’s not 1997.” But right now, other things are on your mind. Your throat is tight, your heart is thumping, and you’re nervously staring at that bold subject line which has appeared on the screen:

Result of Your Application

This is it. The answer you’ve been waiting for. After all that effort of studying, applying, working, interviewing, it’s time to discover if you’ve succeeded… or failed.

If you can bear to click, of course.

Opening the Envelope

Recently a friend of mine was about to receive feedback from Big Important People on a scary new project which is dear to their heart. Before the results arrived, they told me how they and their partner had planned in advance how they would handle bad news.

It turned out not to matter: the feedback was positive. Obviously, I was pleased to hear the Big Important People liked my friend’s work! But as they told me the story, that planning ahead was the detail I seized on, as I thought about similar situations I’ve experienced.

These days, I often send out creative work for feedback. Afterwards I inevitably scan my inbox a little more nervously until I gradually forget. Eventually, the reply arrives, and I’ll hesitate before opening it.

That moment of hesitation sometimes reminds me of something I read in the book Love’s Executioner. A therapist tells the story of a patient who refused to open a collection of envelopes for YEARS because he couldn’t bear to discover what was inside.

But I’m willing to bet that most of us could never tolerate that much uncertainty. Usually, once the envelope or email has arrived, there’s no question that I’m definitely going to open it. Even if I feel nervous as I physically click the subject line, I can console myself that it is always better to know.

The news is either good or bad: the sooner we know, the sooner we can either enjoy it or do something about it. For me, I’ve either celebrated wildly (with a massive cake) or cried (perhaps onto a massive cake), as appropriate.

But somehow it had never occurred to me to make an actionable plan for either eventuality. 

Planning for Good News

Naturally, planning for success is usually easier—after all, we’ll have what we were aiming for. But victory can bring its own anxieties. A new job might mean upheaval. An acceptance might lead to greater exposure. We don’t need to plan in advance for every possible emotion—especially if you have a tendency to overthink and talk yourself out of acting in the first place—but it helps to be aware that you might not feel entirely celebratory even if the news is great.

(I do try to enjoy successes when they come, honest. I’m not naturally such a pessimist!)

To plan for success, try asking yourself:

  • How will I feel if I actually get the good news?
  • How will it affect my other plans?
  • What changes will I need to make? And how might I feel about those?
  • Will new responsibilities come with this good news? How can I make sure in advance that I’ve got the resources to handle them?

You don’t need to channel Dr Strange and envision 14 million possible timelines, but a little forethought to how good news could affect you will make any changes smoother to manage.

Oh, and don’t forget the most important question: exactly how will I celebrate this excellent news?!

Planning for Bad News

Failure and rejection are harder to take, which is why my friend planned specifically how they’d spend the evening with their partner after opening their feedback.

There is a sense in which bad news can be relieving. When my old company used to fail at a pitch to a new customer, I would joke with my boss that at least we’d all have less work to do as a result. But while this negative humour can lighten the load, it’s important to have a plan for dealing with the very real negative emotions which come from an important rejection.

First: can you plan an emergency morale event? Perhaps you could have a favorite movie and some ice cream on standby, or save up some cash to treat yourself to a gig ticket or some new shoes. Maybe you could warn some friends in advance that you might need cheering up, and they’ll be ready to take you out for a slice of cake and a vent.

You know yourself best! In the immediate moments after getting the bad news, you can put your plan into action.

As well as the immediate plan, you might also prepare yourself for the days that follow. When everything else is going okay, a rejection might fade rapidly. But when we’re struggling, even a small perceived failure can be the final straw. Again, planning ahead for bad news will help, as we take into account our current mental and emotional state.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help plan for the potential bad news:

  • How strong is your ability to cope right now? Does everything else feel like it’s going well, are you in a rut, or are you somewhere in between? Depending on how you’re feeling, the same bad news can hit with different force. Expecting how it’ll hit you might help to soften the blow.
  • How do you normally process negative emotions? Some of us are more prone to anger, others to sadness, or frustration, or a mixture. How do you expect this bad news to hit home?
  • If you think you’re likely to need it, perhaps you could even plan to handle each type of emotion. Which pillow will you punch to let out the anger? Which sad movie could help you cry? Have ideas in place so you can just try them if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • What do you have to look forward to? It might be completely unrelated, but it helps to have something good to focus on. If the answer is currently “nothing” then that’s a great opportunity to think of something—large or small—that you can plan for.
  • If this fails, what’s plan B? Even if this seems like the final roll of the dice, there’s always another option. This failure or rejection might mean licking your wounds and trying again, or it might mean a change of direction. You don’t have to have the answers right away, but if you can mentally prepare for another option then you’ll be better placed to handle the bad news and move on quickly.

For most bad news, this level of preparation will be overkill. But if this news comes after a run of bad luck, it can feel like everything is riding on getting good news. In those circumstances, having a detailed plan in place for channeling the negativity into something positive can save us from an extended struggle.

But Before All This… Even The Waiting is Hard

The patient who refused to open the envelopes got addicted to the uncertainty. But for many of us, the waiting is the hardest part. There’s no easy answer, but the general principle is that focusing on the wait only makes it worse. Whether we throw energy into other projects, or idle our time with fun and games, doing anything is better than thumb-twiddling and rumination.

It might even be worth planning for an outcome which remains forever unknown. When pitching work or applying to popular programs, it’s a sad truth that we don’t always get a reply. After a long enough time we’re supposed to simply presume we didn’t get it. But there is a period in which we have to live with that uncertainty.

Again, where possible, focus on channeling the wait into positive action. If you use the waiting time to spin up other projects, you might never even notice that you never got a rejection on this one.

Next time your mouse cursor is hovering over a scary subject line, I hope you have an awesome backup plan—and, more so, that it never has to be used at all.

Your Turn

How do you handle waiting for news? What about disappointments or rejections? Share your tips and stories with the community in the comments.


Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

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