In this blog we will look at why it is difficult for some people to say ‘I don’t know?’
The answer is simple, anxiety. Our feelings and emotions like anxiety and depression are determined not by events but by the way we think about these events. An event can be about all sorts of things including imagining saying ‘I don’t know’ or actually saying ‘I don’t know’. The specific triggers can vary from person to person.
At the heart of anxiety is irrational or unhealthy thinking or beliefs about the threat or risk of saying ‘I don’t know’ (be it real or perceived) to ourselves or to our personal domain (the things and people that matter to us). Rational or healthy thinking about this risk leads to what we call healthy concern or nervousness, different to anxiety or to panic.
Anxiety about saying ‘I don’t know’ is commonly triggered by two things:
• A perfectionist internal demand to always know and viewing ‘not knowing’ as something catastrophic, unbearable or proof of worthlessness or of being a total failure. Not knowing is not just perceived as bad, it is perceived as ‘end of the world bad’.
• An internal demand to always be thought of in a positive way by others and viewing negative judgement as catastrophic, unbearable or proof of worthlessness or of being a total failure.
Irrational or unhealthy belief at the heart of ‘anxiety’ and avoidance:
I absolutely must know, if not it would be awful, catastrophic, I couldn’t bear it or tolerate it, it would prove I’m a total failure.
The above does not accept the possibility of not knowing, even though in reality the person may not know.
People must not judge me negatively, because it would be awful, I couldn’t bear it, it would prove I’m a failure.
The above does not accept the possibility of negative judgement, even though it exists for everyone. The worth is linked to other people’s opinions.
Rational or healthy belief at the heart of healthy ‘concern’ and non avoidance:
I would really like to know but I accept the possibility that I may not or don’t know. If I don’t know it would be bad but not the end of my world, I would find it difficult but I will tolerate and bear it, it would not mean I’m worthless. I accept myself as a fallible human being like everyone else.
The above attitude allows for the possibility of not knowing to exist without linking one’s worth to it.
I would prefer it if people always thought positively of me but I accept that some might not (when I say I don’t know). It would be bad but not the end of the world, I would find it difficult but I can stand it, it would not mean I’m worthless. I accept myself as fallible. My worth does not depend on whether people like me or not.
The above belief accepts that negative judgement exists without linking one’s worth to it.
So how do you free yourself from the paralysis of anxiety about saying I don’t know?
1) Change your beliefs about not knowing. Accept that you are human and therefore fallible. None of us know all the time.
2) Keep the badness of not knowing in proportion. Of course not knowing something may be bad in some situations and may have negative consequences but nevertheless the world does not come to an end. So keep it bad but not the end of the world bad.
3) Develop resiliency to not knowing. Accept you will find it frustrating, difficult, uncomfortable, but the truth of the matter is that you do survive it. Telling yourself you can’t tolerate nor stand not knowing is simply not true but it does impact greatly on your feelings of anxiety. So tell the truth ‘it’s hard but bearable’.
4) Accept yourself as fallible. No one is perfect so not knowing something at times is human. Believing that you’re a total failure or a worthless person because of it is unhelpful and is at the heart of your anxiety.
5) Accept uncertainty. Accept that at times you are unsure.
6) Put it into practice and say ‘I don’t know’, ‘I’m not sure at the moment’, ‘Let me think about it and I’ll come back to you’, ‘I don’t know but I will find out’. Then in your head repeat ‘I accept myself as fallible. My worth does not depend on whether I know or not or on whether people judge me or not.’
Accepting ourselves as worthwhile but fallible human beings frees us from the anxiety of saying ‘I don’t know’. As a consequence, we then can be free to find out and learn and improve and it also connects us to people as we come across as confident and happy in our own skin.
You may be interested in learning more about self acceptance and ego disturbance in our new Master Class Treating Ego Disturbance on 1st June 2013.