Human behavior is so complex, yet we tend to want to find the “bottom line” and to simplify it. A typical example of this may occur in interpersonal interactions involving a feeling of rejection. An unfriendly stare, an unreturned phone call, an abrupt tone of voice somehow become internalized as “she hates me”, “our relationship is ruined”, or worse “I'm unworthy of his/her kindness” etc. In other words, without having all the necessary information to know something with conviction, we often find ourselves making such self-defeating thoughts and looking for truths about how others think or our own value and worth. However, these “truths” are often filled with biases, fears and erroneous beliefs.
For example, imagine someone who has found out that they were not accepted into the college of their choice. In the same week of finding this out they also discovered that they were not invited to a social gathering. To make matters even worse, they were not called back after an audition for a theatrical performance. As this person is trying to make sense of all these events, while dealing with the unquestionably distressing feeling of rejection, he/she may be tempted to fall into the following thought-traps that are intolerant to ambiguity:
1) First, they may be tempted to lump all of these experiences together – just because they happened around the same time – and to want to establish a thread of explanatory relationship. Perhaps, there is a connection between all three incidents but most likely not.
2) Secondly, they may focus on one aspect of what happened (the rejection) while ignoring other separate factors: the invitation to the social gathering might have gotten lost, the college admission may have been a very close call, and the theatrical performance may have needed a slightly taller actor.
3) Thirdly, they may cling onto generalizations about themselves without acknowledging the varying degrees of accuracy: for example, it may be the case that this person's scores weren't high enough, that they were not liked by the people hosting the party and that their audition did not go well. However, this does not mean that they are not capable of other things, that they are not liked by others and that they cannot improve in the things they did not do well in.
To accept these incidents as a clear indication of a truth can satisfy the need to understand in the short term, but lead to harmful conclusions and behaviors in the long run.
This is where tolerance to ambiguity comes in: being able to sit with the feeling of not knowing can be uncomfortable at first, but helpful later. We do not always know why others do and say the things they do, what explains a series of unfortunate events or what will come next. Uncertainty tends to be against our intuitive desire to understand things; however, it is also a useful way of accepting life events, without developing inner stories about what happened that can lead to self-blame, discouragement and low self-esteem.
Being able to say “things did not go as I would like them to in this particular moment, with this particular person, in this particular situation” is a freeing sentiment which embraces ambiguity and opens the door to more opportunities.