Managing Uncertainty and Doing the Next “Right” Thing

By Annabelle Parr, MA, AMFT

There are many different reasons why you might decide to seek therapy. Maybe you are struggling with the stress of the pandemic, including but not limited to stressors like working from home and trying to be a full-time parent, teacher, and employee all at the same time; maybe you are struggling with the emotional repercussions of racism; maybe you’ve started experiencing panic attacks; maybe you have developed a phobia of driving, or needles, or spiders; maybe you are constantly consumed with worried thoughts; maybe it feels like fear is making all your decisions for you. What therapists refer to as the “presenting problem” that brings an individual in to therapy may sound, on the surface, very different from client to client.

But one common thread that underlies almost all of our suffering (and applies especially to anxiety and related disorders, like PTSD and OCD) is a difficulty with uncertainty.

When the outcome of a situation is uncertain or ambiguous, our minds make themselves busy worrying, as if ruminating on every possible outcome (with heavy emphasis on the worst case scenarios) might prepare us. They grasp for certainty, and sometimes they will even convince us that catastrophe is inevitable because even that feels less uncomfortable than the truth: we don’t know. Usually though, this strategy makes our lives smaller. Our decisions become governed by a desire to avoid either the feared outcome itself or the anxiety that comes with taking the risk.

Here is the thing: rarely, if ever, does life truly give us certainty.

We control what we do and don’t do, but we don’t get to control the outcome. That’s uncomfortable, I know. But what if that actually frees us up? If we can’t control the outcome, maybe we can stop trying. Maybe, instead, we can give ourselves a little grace and make choices with something else in mind.

Earlier this year, when the pandemic had just started and I felt overwhelmed with anxiety about all the uncertainty about what was going to happen and what to do, my friend reminded me of a quote from Glennon Doyle to “just do the next right thing.”

If you’re like me, and you have a tendency to get stuck on what the “right” thing means, this quote as a standalone mantra could be tricky.

But from an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy standpoint, the “right” thing would be defined as the workable thing. That is, the thing that moves you towards your values, towards who and how you want to be in the world, in service of those relationships and parts of your life that matter most to you. The “right” thing is the thing that, though maybe not the easy or comfortable thing, does not come with the cost of making your life smaller and of moving you away from what CSAM director and author of Be Mighty, Dr. Jill Stoddard refers to as “the me you want to be.”

In her book, Untamed, Glennon talks about this as your “knowing.” The core of you that knows who you are, what you want or need, and what matters most to you. Sometimes that knowing is buried under layers of learning and socialization, stories in your mind about what you “should” do or what others want from you, or strategies designed to shield you from pain, anxiety, and discomfort. But if we get curious about what is underneath all of that, if we start to get curious about our pain and what it has to say, we can find that knowing. In fact, when we get curious about our pain, we get valuable information about what’s most important to us. Because it wouldn’t hurt if we didn’t care. Our values lay on the flip side of our pain; they are two sides of the same coin.


Just do the next right thing means that even in the face of enormous uncertainty, what matters is that we tune in to those values — our knowing — and figure out what it is we can do in this one moment that is in line with what matters most to us. Because this one moment is all we are promised. Nothing else is ever a certainty, even when it feels like it might be. And actually, that may just free us up to live each moment more fully, because really, the only certainty is that we are here now…so what are we going to do about it?


If you or someone you love needs support and might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety, panic, phobias, stress, PTSD, OCD, uncertainty or stress related to COVID-19, or if you would like more information about our telehealth services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at

By: Jill Stoddard
Title: Managing Uncertainty and Doing the Next “Right” Thing
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Published Date: Mon, 12 Oct 2020 23:43:25 +0000

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