Getting comfortable with I don’t know

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

~Gilda Radner

Let’s flash back seven years.

It’s 2003. I’ve decided to take a coaching class. I’m curious, and want to find out what all the buzz is about coaching.

So it’s the first day of class. We’re in the midst of an activity, walking around the room, and the instructor randomly chooses students and asks a question.

When it’s my turn, I respond, “I don’t know.”

Suddenly, the group is silent. Movement halts, all eyes trained on me. I freeze. And the instructor tells me, “You can’t answer that way. It’s a cop out.”

Huh? In the space of a minute, this charming man has labeled me a quitter, a dodger, an excuse-maker. And I’m totally confused.

Thus began my checkered history with those three little words: I DON’T KNOW.

Up until that point, I’d never thought much about them. Afterwards, they seemed to follow me around like a hungry cat at dinner time, howling and rubbing up against my legs.

They followed me into a class I was teaching, where one day the conversation settled on the topic of how to engage clients who don’t know what they want. One bright student announced that she knew exactly what to do. 

“Just ask them this question,” she said excitedly. “Ask them – If you did know what you want, what would it be?

And not long after, the three words followed me into my office. A client shared that a therapist once told her that replying with “I don’t know” was akin to dropping the f-bomb.

Finally, they followed me all the way to a wake-up call, when a few years ago another client immediately pulled back her “I don’t know” and sheepishly said, “Sorry, I know you don’t like it when I do that.”

Ouch!

Apparently, all the demonizing of this oft-used phrase had attached itself to me, stealthily working its way in. So much so that I was actually judging people who used it, without even being aware of it. So it was time to open my eyes and consider what it meant.

The first thing I noticed was this ubiquitous message: YOU MUST KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING. It’s almost inescapable; at each turn there’s another admonition that if we don’t know, we will be lost. So better get a five-year, 10-year, 20-year plan. Goodness, I’ve even seen 50-year plans touted.

Second thing I noticed was that I certainly had internalized this belief. And as I unpacked it, I came face-to-face with its absurdity. I mean, most people, looking back five or ten years will tell you they’re surprised (often pleasantly) about the way things turned out. But it wasn’t necessarily what they planned.

Fact is, we’re not very good at envisioning the arc of our lives.

I sure haven’t been accurate. Recently I unearthed some yellowing papers from a workshop I took 10 years ago. In it we were asked that old chestnut: where do you want to be, professionally and personally, five years down the road?

Let’s see. I had my eye on a community college counselor job. Among my peers that was the holy grail – good pay, great benefits, summers off. I also anemically speculated that I might want to venture into business for myself, but figured if it did happen, it would be far in the future.

Bet you can finish the story for me.

I never set foot on a community college campus, but instead started my business just six months later. And the rest of it? The dog I wanted? Nope. (My friend Deb got a dog though). Yes, I did get it right about the kitchen redo; I failed to see, however, that home improvement projects replicate like viruses, and that one minor kitchen update was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

And as I rolled around in these revelations, something new began to take shape. The possibility that “I don’t know” was not about being lost, but rather about being an explorer.

An invitation instead of a rejection.

You see, I’ve come to believe that “I don’t know” opens the door for discovery and experimentation. A trip onto the side roads. Those less traveled. Because  it’s okay not to know exactly where we’re going. I mean, if we stick to the main highways all the time, we’re likely to miss out on the wonders that are deep in the forest.

And the deep wisdom underneath the I don’t know.

Yes, I’m beginning to think that this space of not knowing is actually a call to drop down into the deeper, quiet wisdom that’s always available to us. The kind of knowing that lives within metaphor and symbol rather than concrete answers.

Here are some ways to move toward that wisdom (and away from the anxiety that often comes from I don’t know):

  • What kind of energy do you experience with the I don’t know? Stuck? Curious? Anxious? Relaxed? What does that energy need from you right now?
  • What stories occur to you as you experience it? Write or talk about them. 
  • What does the I don’t know look like? Find or create an image that represents it to you.
  • What does the I don’t know want to tell you?

Well, now it’s your turn. What don’t you know?

36 thoughts on “Getting comfortable with I don’t know

  1. Great subject matter, I think I will be tackling this topic today my self. it is something we are taught in our culture (American)we must have an opinion on everything even if we don’t know the facts. But saying I don’t know can be verry liberating.

    • Such a good point, Quinn. I think so much of the unending, intractable political disagreement these days is because we insist that we know what’s right (whatever our side is). There’s very little room for gray areas or uncertainty. But I happen to believe it is in those gray areas where we find a way to collaboration. I wish more people in the public eye would say “I don’t know, but let’s talk through it.” I guess if they did that, though, their constituents would brand them as ineffectual and weak. Such a vicious circle! Thanks for your comments.

  2. Nice article.

    I spent a long while the other day working out what I wanted. I couldn’t make it very specific, though, because I KNOW I don’t control my future. 50 year plan? Please.

    I think for the far future it’s good to congeal generalities about what you want – if you can’t stand wage-slavery, you’ll be an entrepreneur of some sort; if you feel hurt, you’ll need to get some personal healing in there of some sort. Then the Universe can take care of the details.

    For the near future we can create general projects – just take the best possibilities available and start on them, all the while knowing more or less where you’re going in the end, just not how you’re getting there.

    Andrew

    • Hi Andrew – Welcome! Nice to see you over here. You’re absolutely right. There are some things we do know, and it’s feels good to know them. But it’s also good to be kind to ourselves about those things that we don’t know. Because eventually we just have to loosen the reins and give up some control about the future. It sounds like you have been getting clear on that, so I commend you! The thing I see again and again in my work is resistance to giving up control about the unknown parts of the future. Thanks for your wise comments.

  3. I love this post. I too have had the “What do you mean you don’t know”, thing with that look of, “Are you stupid?” attached.

    The world is full of know-it-all’s that in reality don’t know. I would rather hear or say I don’t know than hear or say what is totally wrong.

    The truth is, as you say, there is very little we know for sure. We are all going to die and pay a lot of taxes.

    I personally have deep spiritual beliefs. I know there is a divine being who is God. I am made in his image and he loves me. I know that for sure as well. But other than those three things, it is a guessing game!

    Thanks for an awesome post.

    • Of course, Erin, Death and Taxes! How could I have forgotten that one? But seriously, there’s such freedom in your words. When you get it down to the few things you do actually know about, all the rest falls away and you’re good to go. Love that! Thanks!

  4. Hi Patty.
    Oh how I love it when we bloggers are on the samewave length and we certainly are, aren’t we Patty?
    Yes, as a career consultant I really got to see how absurd it was to think one could know and safeguard one’s future with testing and economic predictions & career trends.
    It actually did the opposite, it made people follow that path regardless of what they learned along the way and most ended up NOT safe.
    Oh I couldn’t possibly love medicine instead of law, I was tested for law, so they became a doctor and very unhealthy themselves.
    Give me a break!!!!!
    What are we living life for? To follow a set path till death or to venture and find things out for ourselves, to be surprised by unexpected turns and have us learn from the ever changing context we live in.
    To say “I don’t know” has become as bad as swearing. Does your doctor dare to say ‘I don’t know?’ when indeed he doesn’t know?
    He rather goes and find something unrelated than to admit and explore together with you or an alternative healer.
    We have made knowledge and certainty into a deity and the ‘I don’t know’ into the devil so to speak.
    Admitting ‘I don’t know’ allows to unearth so much more in life, so I now proudly admit a healthy ‘I don’t know’ and it has allowed me to find so many treasures.
    I never knew I loved design and I would have never found out if I would have stayed on the path of career counseling.
    Patty, I so connect with you on this one and I give you the biggest virtual hug you ever had. It is life saving if people finally allow the ‘I don’t know’. xox Wilma

    • Oh boy, Wilma. You and I could share some stories. I’m sure you know I’ve had thousands of conversations with people about their careers. And the refrain remains the same: “Just give me a test and tell me what I should do with my life.” And for a long time I went along, because I bought into the “prescription for life” idea. It became exhausting, though. So now I’m up front with people. I tell them it’s depth work, story work, holistic. And the wonderful thing is, that’s what a lot of people are yearning for, even though they don’t know it, probably because it’s not offered very often.

      Love this: “We’ve made certainty into a deity and ‘I don’t know’ into the devil.” Yep, worshiping at the alter of certainty. I love that imagery.

      Thanks, my friend for bringing your wise words here. And a big virtual bear hug right back to you!

  5. Patty — I think this is my favorite post so far:~) You must a very good coach because you’re willing to “unpack” your own beliefs and that can only help free your clients with theirs.

    I loved how you encouraged us to get comfortable with, and explore, our “I don’t knows.” They CAN lead us to new discoveries.

    Also, I loved this line about your “I don’t knows” and how “they seemed to follow me around like a hungry cat at dinner time, howling and rubbing up against my legs. What a wonderfully creative metaphor!!!

    • Why thank you so much, Sara. One of the things I’ve learned about counseling and coaching is that there’s still so much to learn. So I’m working on it. A friend (another counselor) once told me there are a few careers where age is an asset, and we’re in one. The longer I do it the more I realize how right she is, especially because there’s such a long, slow learning curve. And about that metaphor: it was pretty easy to grab because it was right there, staring me in the face. Three cats looking anxiously at me as I wrote!

  6. Oh Patty, I am finally getting the extent of how much ‘I don’t know’ can open up for me in my life. And I have also realized how much my ego has avoided using those three words at all costs, much to the detriment my heart centre and it’s desires. Patty you’ve hit the nail on the head there by observing what your relationship to ‘I don’t know’ is. That is the key to turning things round, having ‘I don’t know’ be a valuable asset that serves our heart.
    This post is so timely for me as I am smack bang in the middle of exploring what it is that I want to create in my life. My answer is ‘I don’t know’ and as a result I am putting the breaks on my current life, suspending it if you will and taking time out to discover what it is that will make my heart sing.
    I agree with Wilma ‘I don’t know’ is life saving…it is saving my LIFE, that’s for sure.
    Thank you so much Patty for extending this enquiry, it is so valuable to be able to share it with you. You rock! Hugs to you Ann-Marie xxxx

    • Hi Ann-Marie – How lovely to have you over here visiting! Hmmm, I’m relishing your words: “I don’t know” is a valuable asset that serves our heart. Beautiful. And I so appreciate this point you’ve made – that it requires slowing down, putting the brakes on, and taking TIME to discover what makes our hearts sing. So often we want to rush through it, but it can’t be rushed, can it? Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom about what it’s like to be right in the middle of “I don’t know.” Big hugs right back at you.

  7. hi patty,
    how are you?
    i loved this statement ‘I don’t know” opens the door for discovery and experimentation’
    that is so true. I have discovered when counselling people using the non directive approach(rogers)and we come to a brick wall,reflecting their statements causes them to come to a conclusion that they actually know what to do. It also works for me in instances when I’m overwhelmed and i take time out to just be alone & think deeply. i find myself having several options, taking certain decisions, unravelling various issues……
    take care

    • Oh, Ayo, I love Carl Rogers. Such a master at helping people come to their own conclusions and insights. Perfect how you speak of it as unravelling. Like pulling on a thread and watching all of the material flow out. Thanks so much!

  8. LOVE IT!!! How real and meaningful would our interactions be if we were all comfortable with “I don’t know”. Why do we place so much value on facts, knowledge, measurable results, things that are definite, when so much of the magic lies in the unfolding and the not knowing? Is the unknown (or the not knowing) so scary that we can’t trust ourselves?

    I love that you point out that we’re not very good at envisioning the arc of our lives. For me, all I could envision with certainty was up through college. Then I got a job that I quit after a couple of years. It was around that time that I started paying attention to my right brain leanings. I adored that time when I dabbled in anything visually artistic because it was a side of me I didn’t know I had. And from then on, I’ve become more and more comfortable with “I don’t know.”

    Thank you for illustrating in this tremendous post what a gift it truly is!

    • Thank you, Belinda! What an important point you make – time spent exploring the right side of the brain sure does get us more comfortable with the unknown. It’s like it loosens us up and wants to just be let loose, not knowing what the path ahead looks like. Oh yeah! But I do also think what you say is true: we have learned a message about fearing the unknown. There’s an archetypal character called the innocent, and it is the archetype of trust, hope, and faith. Often when I talk about it with clients they say, “I don’t like that one – too naive, too trusting.” But oh how we need a little bit more of that right now.

  9. Great article! “I don’t know” is a habitial answer for some who do not want to take responsibility for decisions. For others “I don’t know” is simply an honest answer which opens up doors to learn. You did an excellent job with this subject.

    • Hey there, thanks for coming by. You’re right, sometimes it is a way to shirk responsibility, but often I see it in people who have actually taken on too much responsibility and have lost themselves!

  10. Excellent post! It’s surprising that the real answer “I don’t know” is actually the more truthful. By realising that you “don’t know” may spur one on to find out.

    Carl Jung said many times that we really can’t explain the sub conscious but that the symbolism of dreams can be eventually interpreted by one’s active consciousness.

    My ego has always resisted that expression “I don’t know” so I came up with an alternative “Hold that thought and I’ll find out” that gave me the incentive to explore. (But mostly it saved me from the embarrassment of not knowing).

    Gurdjieff once explained that man’s knowledge in comparison to that of the Universe “is but a tiny pile of pebbles in the middle of a vast desert” I guess that means there is a lot of “We don’t Know” going on.

    Thanks for sharing your food for thoughts and the angles for finding out.

    Eso

    • Hello Eso and Welcome! Glad to see you’ve stopped by. You’re quoting Jung so you’ve got my attention right away. My husband and I have been talking about Jung and active imagination this past hour. So thanks for jumping into the conversation and reminding us that anything that opens the conduit between the conscious and unconscious minds will help us explore what it means to find out, as you say. Wonderful! Really appreciate your comments.

  11. Whenever someone asks me “What should I do?”, I ask them, “Well, what do you want?” And 99% of the time, they do not know. And most of the time too, they’re afraid to find out. Like I was. Funny you should use the word ‘explorer’. I used it too in a poem about my journey. The one in French. Becoming aware that we do not know is the first step towards wholeness. The next is pushing that door open and exploring. If only people could trust that there’s nothing to be afraid of and that exploring is a divine gift leading to one’s true self…

    • So true, Maryse! Much of what lurks behind ‘I don’t know’ is fear. What if I don’t like it? What if I fail? What if I don’t have the energy? All variations of what if I’m not enough or get overwhelmed? And I so like that you brought in wholeness. Jung talked about wholeness and individuation, and that following the path of exploration was indeed about finding one’s true self. You say it so very eloquently. Thank you!

      • ( I wrote this in response to the comment you posted on my blog, I thought I would post it here to.)

        Welcome to my humble Cave Patty!

        Well maybe not so humble, but that is a matter of opinion.
        I am glad you stopped by. I have to find a way to have coffee on in here for my visitors. It was a pleasure to read your post and comments. I am glad that you and your husband are interested in Dr Jung, he is one of my favourite authors along with Nicoll and others. Just to let you know, in case you read this here. I will put a link on my blog back to yours. No need to reciprocate, I just like sharing what I consider to be good reading. looking forward to your next post.

        Eso

  12. As a writer, I often have to live with “I don’t know.” As in, I don’t know where this novel is going. Don’t know where this story is going. And sometimes self doubt rises. But when I remember just to trust the process and not worry about knowing everything, magic happens.

    • Hi Charlotte – Welcome! Thanks for coming by and giving us that perspective. I have a friend who writes fantasy novels, and he told me he doesn’t want to know where the story is going. He wants to hold himself in that in between space, which you so perfectly identify as a place between doubt and trust. Very wonderful to think of that as an equation that leads to magic. I appreciate that wisdom.

  13. I sometimes like to drift in the “I don’t know” for a while and see where the path leads. I did this last year when searching for a job after a lay off. I threw my resumes in the wind and just waited to see where they landed. Then came a point of clarity. I had seen what jobs where out there, I though about what parts of my last job I was passionate about, and I figured out what I wanted. Then the “I don’t know” went away, a seemingly natural part of the process. Then by luck, skill, or the law of attraction, I found a good job that fit most of my wants.

    • Hi Eric – That’ such a great story to illustrate the power of “I don’t know.” I’m hearing so much patience and trust in it, and this imagery – “I just threw my resumes into the wind and waited to see where they landed.” I’ve got this scene in my head of a sheaf of papers blowing through a very blue sky and blanketing the world. Nice! Thanks!

  14. Hi Patty! Well this post is simply DY-NO-MITE! And it brings up so so much for me I think it will turn into one long blog someday! I used to believe saying “I don’t know” meant you were stupid (thanks Dad – he’d NEVER let me say that!) so consequently I had to make up stuff. Got a B.A. in B.S. I’m thinkin. I never knew, but could not admit it – ever.

    Well now , them’s days is GONE. I don’t know means an adventure ahead. It’s OK. The more I know, the more I know I don’t know nuthin. And what does this look like symbolically? Hmmm – a big open sky. Limitless!

    Thank you so much for sharing so much of your journey! AND for causing so much thinking AND inspiration along the way!

    Hugs
    suZen

    • Oh SuZen, I love it – a B.A. in B.S! Leave it to you to get us right to the meat of it. Yeah, I think I’ve done my share of BS-ing too, mostly to myself, at times when I was afraid to accept the ‘I don’t know.’ Love those images – adventure, big open sky, limitless. Hey, similar to Eric’s. What amazing imagery we’ve got going on today. And thank you right back for your always supportive words and your zest and humor. You are without a doubt the Court Jester in this kingdom; you know, the one who speaks truth and cracks us up at the same time!

  15. Four things I did know in my life: I wanted to make my marriage work. I wanted to learn how to be a good mom. I wanted to move to the South West. I wanted to find a way to inner peace.

    Everything else in my life fits in between these with little help from me….things I didn’t know or plan.

    I heard if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans.

    So I remain open today to the best happening in my life I don’t need to know what it is…

    • Sounds great, Tess. Remaining open to the best, whatever it is. Also your comment made me think about just what it is I’ve known for sure: I wanted to perform, I wanted to marry my husband, I wanted to return to my roots, and I wanted be educated and spend a lot of time in an educational environment (I worked many years at colleges/universities). All the rest, good stuff but not planned. Thanks for the insight!

  16. There is a difference between “I don’t know and I don’t care” and “I don’t know but I will find out”. Sometimes people simply accept their ignorance and do nothing about it. But if your “I don’t know” serves as motivation to dive in and explore things, then it is actually a very positive thing.

    • Hey there Happysad, welcome! I missed this one earlier, so thanks for the comment. That’s a good distinction you make between a motivational I don’t know and a do nothing I don’t know. But do you think sometimes you need to be in the do nothing place to get to the motivational place?

  17. Patty, why does what you write make so much sense? Have you been looking into my mind while I’m asleep to find the questions and thoughts that are most pressing to me? Spooky. 😛

    I have started a comic series at my blog called “Darwin’s Regress” recently. I have no idea how it’s going to end yet. I’m just taking it as it comes and exploring whatever ideas take my fancy, whatever issues that concern me. So I can certainly relate to the “I don’t know” thing.

    Yup, my whole life has always been one big, “I don’t know.” As a Christian I’ve been told by other Christians that I must always present myself with boldness and confidence… but I am not those things. I am only me, and I’m still exploring. Why? Because I don’t know. It’s as simple as that.

    • Hi Tony – Well, I think it makes sense because that’s really where most of us are. Contrary to what some would have us think is supposed to be true for humans: all knowing and going and doing, with our acts together. Good for you to stand up to your peers and say no, that’s not me. That’s tough to do but I so admire it. Thanks!

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