Three Good Reasons You Struggle With Living in Uncertainty

“We’ve now been living in this country for two years. My husband’s contract is officially finished in 6 months.”

Lisa is telling her story for the umpteenth time to Beth, a new mum whose son just joined the International School.

Living in uncertainty…

“His contract may be renewed but there’s also a strong probability that it won’t. We have no clue what will happen then. He’s looking for other jobs, evaluating any opportunity around the globe, but in the meantime we can’t plan anything.”

Lisa notices Beth’s uncomfortable gaze and hears her automatic answer “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

She bites her lip.

I shouldn’t have been so explicit. I’m repeating the same story over and over again. I’m embarrassing myself and annoying everybody else. Even if it’s a way for me to vent and try to find some comfort, it’s totally counterproductive. Why would Beth now make an effort to become my friend? She knows we might leave in 6 months. Worse. She’ll probably tell her son to avoid making strong ties with Max, my boy.

Living in uncertainty is stressful. We all struggle. At various levels.

Let’s dig deeper.

Lisa’s mind gets carried away.

I used to think that living in limbo was the antidote to boredom. At first, this kind of lifestyle looked glamorous. Always something new. A sense of adventure. But after 10 years, I feel completely depleted.

All the efforts I’ve made so far can be ruined in a second. 

Moving to a new country means starting all over again… from scratch.

This constant uncertainty is killing me.

There are days when I get panicked. I can’t remain in stand-by mode forever! Years are passing by. There’ll be such a gap in my CV. I have to do something. But what?

Getting a degree without being sure I can finish it?

And which qualification should I look for?

A diploma from my home country? We may never go back.

A diploma from my current host country? If we may end up moving again, there’s a big probability it won’t be recognized in another country.

Not to mention the fact that should we have to leave shortly — with all the work involved in the transition — I won’t be able to follow through.

Looking at all those options gives me a headache. Then I freeze. I’m paralyzed. I can’t make any decision.

Some days it’s so overwhelming that I don’t want to think about it any more. I pretend I can handle it: I just need to focus on one day at a time, seize the moment and be grateful for what I have.

But then, without warning, reality catches up.

A question about the summer holidays, a friend sharing future projects, a child wanting to audition for a musical next year, and it’s the wake-up call.

“Our life is on hold, folks!”

In those circumstances many questions arise:

What’s the point of such a life? Why do I have to go through this?

Is it me or the situation that’s sick?

I need to understand…

Here are 3 good reasons we struggle with uncertainty.


Reason #1 – The influence of culture

Tolerance of ambiguity is not a new topic. It’s has been studied with mixed results for several decades by psychologists.

Budner and McLain have developed scales to assess individuals’ capacity to cope with uncertainty.

But social psychologist Geert Hofstede gave it a prominent place by introducing the Uncertainty Avoidance Index as one of the 6 parameters characterizing the culture in a paticular country.

The Uncertainty avoidance index “expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or let it happen?”

High uncertainty avoidance for a particular country denotes “rigid code of belief and behaviour and intolerance of unorthodox behaviours and ideas.”.

In low uncertainty avoidance countries, “practice is more important than principles” and attitude is more relaxed.

Greece comes first with 112. Singapore last with 8.

The highest scores (over 85) are found for Japan, Latin American countries, France (86), Poland (93), Spain, Portugal, Belgium (94) for example.

The lowest scores can be found in Sweden (29) or Denmark (23), USA (46), South Africa, Canada (48), UK (35), China (30), India (40).

Here is a world map detailing uncertainty avoidance per country

I can attest to those differences: I’ve been living in 2 countries showing a great discrepancy in UAI – Belgium with one of the highest UAI 94 and Australia at 51.

The difference in everyday life is striking.

Let’s take two examples.

Planning casual meetings with friends

In Flemish Belgium, you invite people a few days before … at least. They come exactly on time (or even 5 minutes earlier). They don’t appreciate sudden change of plans or a late arrival of their guests.

In Australia, you can text a friend in the morning for meeting the same day a few minutes or hours later. People are flexible and don’t need to have a strict schedule.

Education practice between Belgium and Australia

Even at a very early stage — primary school — the difference is huge.

In Belgium, children are taught with strict rules. I would even say military rules.  You can’t get up from your seat, you must raise your hand before speaking, you’re not allowed to talk with your neighbor or to go to the bathroom during class. When you get an assignment, the topic is well defined. You need to answer questions as precisely as possible. You’re expected to apply THE method taught by your teacher. Should you dare to go outside of those well-defined  borders, you’re out.

 In Australia, you choose the topic! You invent the questions. You get a few guidelines from the teacher and you’re supposed to apply them in order to show that you’ve understood the knowledge. But you’re encouraged to be creative. At the end of the assignment, you need to reflect on your work: what did you find hard, what did you enjoy, what could you improvehave a reflection task where you ponder your work

It’s easy then to understand how destabilizing it can be — having been raised in a very strict and predictable environment — to live with heightened uncertainty and ambiguity in a highly uncertainty tolerant culture!


Reason #2 The ripple effect – loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, withdrawal, loneliness, despair

Lisa keeps mulling over:

I used to have clear goals, to set milestones and achieve them. Since I’m here, living in limbo, I’ve lost my ground. I’m stagnating.

All those worries spinning in my mind keep me up at night. I can’t sleep properly. I can’t think clearly.

I don’t like what I’ve become.

I’d better stay home.

I don’t have a lot of acquaintances anyway whether it’s because they don’t want to invest time knowing I might be leaving in a few months, or simply because there is something wrong with me. I don’t know!

Do they find me needy? Do they feel my stress? My anxiety? My despair?

One thought leads to and builds on the next. Before you know it, there’s a runaway train with your sanity onboard.


Reason #3  The urge for solid ground that never comes

Facing uncertainty feels like hanging in the air.

Instinctively we want to hold onto something solid, something strong, something sure in the unknown.

This reminds me of an experience we had as a family.

Some time ago, we went tree climbing.

The purpose was to go from tree to tree facing different types of challenges. Once, we were hanging in the air on a flying fox, next we would walk on suspended bridges or crawl through a tunnel 15 meters above the ground.

When we faced the challenge to cross on suspended logs, there were 2 schools of thought. Some of us grabbed the strong metal cable linking both trees while walking on the logs that moved in the air. The upper part of their body was fixed while the lower part was swinging in the air. They bent, spinned and swirled in the air. They had to display an incredible amount of energy to progress, slowly and laboriously. Struggling, puffing and sweating.

The instructor took pity. He shouted: “Hang onto the ropes of each log instead”

What? Should we let go of the strong stable metal cable and grip the swinging chords and the wobbling logs instead? This took a serious leap of faith at this altitude, believe me.

But the difference was incredible.

It was still shaky. It was still scary. But far less tiring. After a while, we were (nearly) able to progress with grace!

Letting go of certainty sounds extremely counterintuitive. We’re inclined to arch, bend, stiffen and hold onto solid, reliable, predictable, well laid out plans.

But what if we tried to go with the flow? What does it mean concretely, you may wonder. Something different for each of us that we need to find. But you get the idea, right?

Now that you know WHY uncertainty is so challenging, it may help alleviate some of your anxiety.

Often, just knowing that we’re not alone — that others feel the way we do, too — is enough to begin to help us relax, isn’t it?



  1. Hi dear Anne,
    I think to succeed living in another country is to try and stop comparing everthing and focus most on day by day resources that you have around you. If you keep thinking about how it was in your home country you tend tomiss out on the good things which are around you in the host country and you make yourself unhappy. Sometimes we plan but then either circumstance or people change it for us. So why worry on something if you are not ready to change it right now due to some reason or other. When I worry I tend to feel unwell and cannot concentrate and now I have adapted this thing where I write down what is worrying me at aparticular time of the day. I only give it 15mins of my time and then try to forget the worries and leave for tomorrow same time same 15mins. I find this help me put the worries away at least for a while and who knows maybe tomorrow I will not even be worrying about it after all.

    I hope this will help someone who like me is a constant worrier.

    take care


  2. Parvin Ngala says:

    My question then is…how can we live with this uncertainty? What are the coping strategies?

  3. Great post and thoroughly explained with the tree jumping example. Although the theory seems to stereotype nations, there are some surprises, such as Singapore. Thanks Anne.

    • Thank you Ellie for stopping by 🙂 I’ve never been to Singapore. What do you find surprising? That they’ve got such a high tolerance to uncertainty? Any story to share?

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