How often do we respond to a question or enquiry with 'I don’t know'? How does it feel when you say ‘I don’t know’? What unconscious expectations may be associated with it?
'I don’t know', may have various meanings.
Indecisiveness - when we are struggling to decide about something important be it about work, making a choice, a relationship - the 'I don’t know' can simply be another way of saying that you are not ready to know, and a sense of uncertainty or risk creates a feeling of ambivalence and hesitancy. All you may know in the moment is that you genuinely don’t know.
'I don’t know' - could express a fear of being wrong. Under pressure to give the right answer it might be associated with embarrassment, fear of ridicule and diminishing self-worth.
'I don’t know' - as a dismissive statement might be in response to wishing to avoid difficult situations.
'I don’t know' - may also be a way of saying that you do not have the words to express your feelings or emotions.
'I don’t know' - could express not being in touch with your feelings and emotions.
'I don’t know' - may be an indicator that you are experiencing a range of different feelings and feel confused or conflicted.
Any of these may suggest that you find it difficult to process your feelings and emotions.
I don’t know’ is ‘not knowing’. In therapy, curiosity is an encounter with what we do not know. Through the collaborative work between therapist and client, both strive to be open and tolerate ‘ not-knowing’ or ‘I don’t know’.
'Knowing what one doesn’t know – the known unknown - is at least as important as to know what one does know – the known known'. (Bob Chisholm ‘ The Wisdom of Not-Knowing’)
The Johari Window is a technique to help individuals make sense of the unknown areas of themselves in relation to others and to different parts of ‘self’:
Open Self: What you know about yourself and are also known by others
Blind Spot: What is unknown about yourself but is known by others
Hidden Self: What you know about yourself that others do not know
Unknown Self: What is unknown by you and is also unknown by others.
According to Daniel Siegel ('The Mindful Therapist'), the ‘unknown’ is an integral part of the psychotherapeutic encounter, which brings us face to face with uncertainty. “… sometimes the most powerful statement we can make is an authentic 'I don’t know' or “I’m not sure'.
If you are new to counselling, you may feel confused by uncertain feelings, thoughts or questions that arise. It is in these moments that the therapist’s role is to remain curious and open to explore with you the underlying issues of ‘I don’t know’.
How hard can listening be? How do we listen? What are we listening for? Are we aware when we stop listening? How do we know we are being listened to? Why do we listen differently from one person to another? For the therapist listening is the most important part of the work.
The philosopher and psychologist, Peter Wilberg writes about therapeutic listening as “an active form of silent inner communication with others”. This type of listening is different from ordinary listening where, for example, the listener is trying to relate the other person’s experience to their own, or thinking of responses to carry on a conversation. Therapeutic listening goes beyond verbal and nonverbal listening skills. It engages all of the therapist’s senses and perceptions to fully experience the emotional essence that the client is expressing between sentences and words. The anagram for listen is silent.
As therapists, we listen for meanings. Therapeutic listening has the potential to capture a word that pinpoints the client’s feeling or thought, while also resonating with the therapist’s own intuitive felt sense. Therapists' intuitive strength rests with their ability to sense connections between the client’s past and presenting issues. The silence of listening is at the very heart of therapeutic presence.
From time to time, I take myself off to a Buddhist retreat when my life needs slowing down. ‘Retreat’ literally means to withdraw from one’s ordinary day-to-day concerns – away from the many distractions. ‘Retreating’ for me is a journey of stepping in and stepping out of a moment in time. It is a time for in-the-moment awareness and attentiveness to those multiplicities of levels. My intention is to pull away for a while from personal and professional dilemmas. However, I have learned from attending previous retreats that everything comes with you. Daily meditative practice requires paying attention to what is present. However the dilemmas, the tetchiness of uncertainty, do not suddenly disappear. All I can do is ‘be with’ and allow the struggle unfold without the expectation of a ‘eureka’ moment. Jon Kabat Zinn describes meditation as "watching thoughts itself".
A lot of my work with clients is trauma related. Mindfulness/meditation is a way of maintaining self-care and well being to offset vicarious traumatisation and secondary trauma.
Certain Buddhist practices have a direct bearing on how I approach my work as a counsellor, and influenced by writers such as Jon Kabat Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, Tich Nhat Hanh and Mark Epstein, who bring Buddhist thinking into the therapeutic arena. I strive to pay attention to letting go, inquiry, curiosity, uncertainty, and presence.
Letting go and acceptance - in Buddhist practice, the process of ‘letting go’ is best described by Stephen Batchelor as “a calm, clear acceptance of what is happening... a contingent state of mind”. Sometimes the most difficult challenge is to let go of one’s old narratives and learn to shape new ones.
Inquiry – as a therapist, I am curious to listen to the other’s story - to inquire ponder, wonder, feel and share my curiosity. Inquiry comes from different directions, and is informed by the curiosity of not knowing.
The inside looking out – as I meditate, my dilemmas surface in many different ways. I still search to find a solution that ultimately comes from projecting my struggles onto the outside world. Meditation practice is difficult, it requires my staying in the here and now and bear witness to whatever arises. Sometimes I experience a deeper unmediated knowing, an intuitive truth that presents itself in the moment. The process of meditative inquiry is what we as therapists do all the time – be curious, and to attentively deepen our capacity to listen.
Not knowing/uncertainty - therapy as a practice responds to the client’s problem of not knowing. From a Buddhist perspective life is about uncertainty/impermanence. The only certainty we live with is death. Frequently I question to myself, "how do I create a space for uncertainty as a therapist, and how do I meet the client’s uncertainty?". Perls described it as the "creative void", Roger’s as “presence", Spinelli as "unknowing", Bion as "without memory or desire", and Keats as "negative capability".
Presence - meditation practice helps me to cultivate what Geller calls "therapeutic presence", the state of one’s whole self in the encounter with the client, by being completely in the moment on a multiplicity of levels - physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually.