From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

The Ubiquitous Answer

The Response We Give When We May Not Want to Say What's on Our Mind

I have been guilty of uttering these three words. They sprung from my mouth (seeming automatically) when I didn’t know what else to say, when no other answer came to mind, or when I was too tired or too lazy to motivate myself to work harder in my therapy session.

“I don’t know.”

I dare to say that most of us have articulated this brief phrase at one time or another, in therapy or out. But in the therapeutic office, these words carry a special meaning. “I don’t know” may be a form of avoidance; we use these words to change the subject, skip off into another direction barely a breath taken in between.

Today I still hear the words escape from my mouth. But I am much more aware of the sound, of the familiar rhythm and I catch myself. Thinking, exploring, I don’t even have to wait for my psychiatrist to prod with raised eyebrows, “You don’t know?” with implied disbelief.

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I am anxious to get to work, to get down to the business of discovering what those three words are hiding. Sometimes uncovering the truth is easier than others; at times it is painful, exhausting and yes, exhilarating to finally understand

I hear these same words spoken by my patients and my antenna shoots up. I pay attention to how often they use the phrase and before it becomes ingrained and automatic I point it out to them.

“What does ‘I don’t know’ mean?”

“It means that ‘I don’t know.’”

“Would you think about what we were just talking about for a minute?”

Silence

Are you aware that a lot of the time when we get close to something, your go-to answer is “I don’t know?”

“Not really.”

“I think that by saying that there is something that you may not want to look at or not want to say. What if from now on I make you aware when you answer ‘I don’t know’ and we stop and review what we were just talking about?”

I leave it up to the patient. If they’re ready, then it’s something we proceed with. If they hesitate, then they’re not quite there yet and they will continue with the ‘I don’t knows.”

 I don’t know is a mystery waiting to be unraveled and solved. Only it’s not like one finishes the last chapter of a book and every thread is tied neatly together and resolved. Once one I don’t know seems to be answered, another premise is released and who knows where it will lead?

The adventure of I don’t know takes the patient and the therapist on an infinite journey of investigation and discovery; one that ultimately has an outcome of mastery and enhanced insight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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