Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Living With the Anxieties of Not Knowing

Adults pretending to have answers only dismay young people

“I don’t know! Don’t ask me! How am I supposed to know?” Young people often say that they don’t know because they don’t, because it’s the truth - however frustrating that may be for adults.

“Okay, but what are you going to do with your life?”

“Haven’t a clue!”

“How are you feeling?”

“Don’t know!”

“Why did you do it?”

“No idea!”

The world rewards us for knowing. In schools, young people are expected to know the answers and, when they don’t, they often pretend. Yet, when it comes to the most important things in life, the things that most concern them - love, death, friendships, the future - not knowing what to think and feel is usually the truth.

Young people hate not knowing. It makes them understandably anxious, especially when so many adults seem so sure. One response to not knowing is to give up altogether, to despair. Another is to split everything in the world into good or bad, loveable or hateful, because then everything seems simpler and it’s easier to convince ourselves that we ‘know’, even when the truth is much more complicated. A third response is to clutch at answers. Two young people going out together might not ‘know’ whether or not they love each other. They worry, feeling that they ought to know, so they cover their anxiety with endless reassurances (“I really do love you!”), with expensive presents (“Because I love you!”) or with sex (“This proves how much I love you!”) in order to prove something to themselves, to be sure. When these strategies don’t work, they might resort to pregnancy or marriage: anything to make the anxiety of not knowing go away.

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Not knowing is inevitable when it comes to the most important things. “What am I going to do with my life? How do I feel? Why do I do what I do?” In a famous letter written in 1817, the poet John Keats described, “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Keats described ‘the intense pleasure of not knowing’.

I suggest to fifteen-year-old Tyrus that I’m not giving him the answers he wants from a therapist.

“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s helping.”

“How’s it helping?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “It just is. I’m not used to talking about stuff like this.”

Lots of young people would say the same thing. What they mean is that they’ve never allowed themselves to stay in a relationship where the outcome is unclear, where the other person doesn’t make everything all right but where that doesn’t seem to matter: it’s good enough. Phillips (2012) writes that therapy “weans people from their compulsion to understand and be understood” (p63). So we go to therapy expecting answers. Weeks, months or years later, we realise that there are no answers to the most important questions. Now we can stop therapy, knowing that there are no answers and feeling better able to bear the anxieties of not knowing.

Reference:

Phillips, A (2012) Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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