If you approached my grown children today and asked them what statements bother me the most, they would both probably say “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know.” We will leave the exploration of the statement “I’m sorry” for another blog, and for the time being concentrate on the statement “I don’t know.” 

On one hand, I think “I don’t know” is one of the most important statements to be able to utter. It is essential to be able to state that you do not know the answer, or that you are not the expert. How else can you learn if you are not able to say what you do not know? But often this phrase is not used when people truly do not know. Unfortunately, it is often used when people do in fact know, but feel as if they should not.

As a therapist, I hear so many clients speak with such clarity, assurance, vulnerability, and self knowledge, but then conclude by saying “but, I don’t know.” 

On one hand, our society stresses the importance of knowing, but it is not the importance of knowing self, it is the importance of knowing what is expected, what is assumed, and what needs to be done to be called a success. To let yourself know yourself, in some ways becomes dangerous. If I know myself and I do not like the expectations given to me by my parents or my teachers, then what am I going to do? It may be easier to just not know. 

Knowing Starts in Childhood

Learning that your needs are important and that there is value in knowing them begins in childhood. Laurence Heller writes in Healing Developmental Trauma that “Tragically, to the degree that there is chronic lack of attunement to their [children’s] core needs, children do not learn to attune to the needs within themselves.”

When caregivers are attentive to children’s needs, it enforces that children do in fact know what they want, and know what they need; but even when our needs are not fully attended to, a knowledge of self still resides within. There is always a seedling of self within just waiting to emerge, waiting to be heard, waiting to be attuned to. 

As I reflected on my own childhood, I remembered that I grew up in a house of secrets. My sisters and I were told to be silent and to not let others know what was happening to us emotionally, physically, or spiritually. As a result, we held our truths inside of us, waiting for someone to hear us. 

I wonder how different the world would be if caregivers were attuned to children’s needs and when children became old enough to say “I don’t know”, somebody said back “I think you do,  let’s explore together what you know about yourself, how you view the world, what you feel passionate about, how you feel about your parents, and how you want to express yourself.”

If You Cannot Go Internal, You Go External

So many children are not allowed to know themselves and instead search for grounding in the external, often hoping that if they meet the external expectations of their caregivers, then maybe their caregivers will eventually meet their needs, and begin to hear what the children know about themselves. This often leads to people living their lives desperately trying to climb the proverbial ladder, to reach goals that are externally driven. Sometimes people successfully reach these goals and then, as they stand on the top rung of the ladder they have been working tirelessly to climb, they begin to struggle, realizing that these goals were not their own. Something deep insides begins to come forth, often showing itself in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Others are unable to climb, and struggle with the shame associated with not meeting the expectations of others.  

Therapy can be a place to begin to reconnect and bring voice to what you know about self, to listen to the seedling of self waiting to be attuned to. It can be a place where someone can remind you when you say “I don’t know” that maybe, just maybe, you do.