What does “I don’t know” mean in therapy?

I hear the phrase “I don’t know” a lot in therapy. I hear it more from some than others. It is maybe the most common answer to any question I ask when I am first getting to know teenagers, which makes sense in their case (more on that later). I tend to give teenagers the benefit of the doubt because they so often genuinely do not know what they know. So when in doubt, they say “I don’t know.” Fair enough. With adults though, I am not as willing to accept the answer quite so easily, passively. Don’t get me wrong, its not that I jump on anyone because they tell me they don’t know how to answer my question. Sometimes it is a needed opportunity for me to reexamine my own question to make sure it makes sense, is understandable, and is asking something a client is pretty likely to know. I find it helpful to try to restate a question as many times as it takes for a client to know what I am asking. The point of this chapter, though, is about adults who say “I don’t know” when the question is pretty clear, when they are likely to know the answer, and their response of “I don’t know” is therefore probably not really or completely true.


Why do people say “I don’t know” if they actually know at least some part of how to answer the question? Why do they repeatedly say, “I don’t know” even when it seems like they do? Are they lying? Possibly. Not usually. When people say “I don’t know,” I presume it is only part of the answer they want to give, and try to imagine finishing the response for them. I say to myself, “does she mean, ‘I don’t know… […how to answer that question] or […how to say what I think or feel] or […what you really want me to say] or […how to say what I want to say without offending you or making my partner sitting next to me in therapy really upset with me].”


A therapist friend of mine (who is also a Buddhist and a pretty astute guy all around) once told me about a situation in which he asked a client something like, “how do you think you mother might respond if you told her how you feel about….” The client said, “I don’t know.” My friend then asked something like, “what would it be like if you did know?” This exchange seems strange, funny, even a little ridiculous. It has a point, though. My therapist friend and I tend not to trust someone’s assumption that they do not know what they do in fact know. Or maybe a better way to put it is to say clients know much more than they think they know. They mistakenly assume that they have to “completely know” or completely understand everything about a question in therapy to answer it properly. This is never true. There are very few questions in any context I ever know how to answer completely or with complete understanding. In fact, I find that questions I don’t know how to answer fully are often the most interesting to consider, for myself, and with my clients.


Another approach I take when a client has a really hard time answering a question is very simple and effective. I say, “okay, so you don’t know how to answer that question. That’s okay. But I think it is a good question for you. And I want you to figure out how to answer it. Let’s not accept ‘I don’t know’ as a final answer. I want you to think about the question and possible ways to answer it for yourself after you leave today.” Sometimes, if it seems like a question worth really exploring, I will even write it down on a piece of paper and hand it to the client. I will tell them the story of my therapist friend, and will ask them to imagine what it would be like if they did know how to answer the question.


Let me give you a few examples of important questions to which clients have said “I don’t know.” “What might be an ideal version of the kind of person you are?” “If you could have one thing change in your marriage more than anything else, what might it be?” “What do you want your ideal partner to want from you?” “How do you think it might feel if you stopped engaging in self-destructive behavior (excessive drinking, drug use, gambling, cutting, tolerating an abusive relationship) for six months straight?” I like all of these questions, depending on the needs and circumstances of the client. My point in listing them is to show you the variety of the kinds of questions that come up every day in sessions with clients. They might also tell you why I am reluctant to accept the answer “I don’t know.” If a client is willing to consider what it would be like if they did know, they can more easily imagine their own growth and find encouragement to move toward it. These are all global, big picture, existential, life changing questions, so asking clients to ponder beyond “I don’t know” is kind of obvious, I suppose.


Then there are the more trivial, mundane, immediate questions that clients will answer with “I don’t know.” First, let’s get back to teenagers, who sometimes say “I don’t know” more than anything else when they are first starting to get to know me, no matter how trivial the question. “How was your day at school today?” “I don’t know, fine, I guess.” How was your weekend at your grandma’s house? “I don’t know, kind of a bummer.” Why was it a bummer? “I don’t know, it just was.” And so on. Teenagers are an exception, though, because they do not really know themselves, and are in a fairly consistent state of confusion and internal transition. So, “I don’t know” might actually be true in their case. Teenagers are also very guarded. For good reason. They are often not in therapy on their own accord. Their parents, a probation officer, school counselor, or their pediatrician probably instigated therapy, either against their will, or without their full support, at least initially. So, I tend to be much more tolerant of letting questions go when teenagers say “I don’t know.” I mostly just translate it as really meaning, “I don’t want to tell you about that.” I assume a teenager is in a better position than me to know whether it is safe or acceptable for them to disclose an answer to any of my questions. As a teenager learns to trust that I am not interested in judging them or offering unsolicited advice or planning to disclose their answers to parents or teachers, they often come around to being more willing to talk, and I hear “I don’t know” from them much less as sessions continue.


Unlike teenagers, adults come to see me of their own accord (okay other than partners who come to satisfy their partner’s request to come). So, when an adult voluntarily comes to therapy and then tells me “I don’t know” to even the most basic questions, I assume they do know something about how to answer that question. A man comes in for a session, he tells me he just had a huge fight with his partner, proceeding to tell me all the details he can remember about the fight and how it made him feel. I listen carefully, discuss with him how he feels now. He is able to tell whatever I ask. Then I ask him to go back to the beginning of the fight, and tell me how his partner might describe the fight. “I don’t know” is his answer. I ask him to pretend he has a videotape of the fight, and ask him to tell me how he contributed to the escalation in the fight. “I don’t know, I just got mad when they said….” Clearly, my client isn’t ready during this session to examine his own behaviors and responsibility for the fight. That’s okay. No hurry here. Later in therapy, when another fight comes along, I will ask him to compare that fight to the fight he’s just described. I will help him put together the pieces of identifying patterns. When he begins to see these patterns on his own, he will learn that talking about his own responsibility for the conflict, doesn’t mean it is all his fault, that he is a bad person, that his relationship is doomed, etc. As my client gains confidence in his ability to become self-aware, he will also hopefully gain some relief from having to hide from what he knows, but doesn’t want to see. He will then use this confidence, this relief, this acceptance of himself as part of the problem to seek out new solutions, even discussing them with his partner, or bringing his partner into therapy with him, ready at the start to discuss his part in the problem, as well as his perception of his partner’s responsibility for the ongoing conflicts.


You can see I generally do not trust when a client tells me “I don’t know.” Sometimes it is true, but challenging this response—with respect and patience—is almost always valuable for a client. When clients no longer trust their “I don’t know” response and view it as a way to avoid an answer, they can look at why they are trying to avoid the answer. The reason behind avoidance is often the real problem, not the question itself. Addressing avoidance let’s the client figure out what they are hiding from, so they can lose their limitations. They can open up to new possibilities. Clients who refuse to accept their own “I don’t know” answers, will find better more real answers, if not now, then later, when they are ready to say “I do know the answer, or at least part of it.” This is the beginning of a genuine and confident path to self-discovery and self-acceptance.


Copyright, 2013, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.



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