Why It's Important Not to Know Everything
New research tells us more about knowing and not knowing
Posted Sep 28, 2019
My friend Lisa* was complaining about a person who reports to her at work. “Like so many people,” Lisa said, “she thinks that she’s impressing me when she says she knows what she’s doing, even if she doesn’t have the slightest idea. She doesn’t get it that I’d be a lot more impressed if she’d admit what she doesn’t know and ask for some help so that she does it correctly!”
My colleague Jackson* said almost the same thing about a student psychotherapist he was supervising. “Why does he think he’s supposed to know everything already? What does he think training is for? What makes it so hard for people to say ‘I don’t know’?”
In the same week, one of my yoga teachers, Ilana Siegal, focused an entire yoga class around the question of what we actually know. “I believe that it’s better for your body to do this move this way, or to follow a particular sequence of yoga positions,” she said. “But what if I’m wrong? What if that’s not right? Or what if it’s right for me and for some of you, but not for others of you?”
Throughout that yoga class, Ilana made comments like, “I think you should do a downdog; but maybe that doesn’t feel right to you. How do you know if it is the right thing for you?”
My own reaction to Ilana’s questions surprised me. I was intrigued, interested, and at the same time, a little irritated. I realized I wanted my yoga teacher to know what was right. One of the reasons I go to a class instead of doing yoga at home is to be able to give myself over to someone else – someone whose knowledge and expertise I trust. But I also know that in the past, when I was younger, I followed some teachers into poses that were dangerous for my body – that ended up adding to injuries or creating new ones. So I am well aware that in every class, now, I make decisions about what I will and won’t do. I also look for and stay with teachers whose way of working is good for me.
So I don’t actually completely give up my own knowledge or my own power to make decisions.
Which brings us to another question: how do we know what we know?
Many years ago I was in a study group for psychotherapists run by Stephen A. Mitchell, the psychoanalyst and author who founded what is now called the Relational School of Psychoanalysis. Stephen was perhaps one of the best teachers I ever had, in part because his teaching style consisted of trying to understand what any book or article we were reading meant. He never communicated any sense that he “knew” what the author meant, or that he thought they were right or wrong. He asked us to be curious about two things: what we thought each writer was saying, and what we thought about what they were saying.
I try to model my own teaching after Stephen’s, but I find myself struggling, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m opinionated. Although I try to make space for everyone to share their own ideas, and although I have learned over and over again that often these ideas bring me a new understanding of something I thought I already understood, I sometimes have troubles giving up my own beliefs. Even when something different makes good sense. And second, I know from my own experience that for me, at least, sometimes it’s easier to figure out what I believe when someone else tells me what they think. Whether I agree or disagree, another opinion helps me formulate my own thoughts.
Problems occur, however, when people with different opinions are each convinced that only their beliefs are correct. Discussion and dialogue disappears in such situations, and fights and hostility emerge.
Research has shown that human babies have a natural curiosity and thirst for learning. Yet as we get older, we start to feel ashamed of “not knowing.”
Interestingly, that same sense of shame sometimes makes us dependent on others to tell us what’s right, without questioning what they know or whether what they are saying is really correct – and, in the case of a yoga class or some other situation in which we are vulnerable, whether it’s right for us. Jules Mitchell writes more about this in her fascinating book Yoga Biomechanics: Stretching Redefined.** For instance, she tells us about "logical fallacies" in which two authorities offer research based evidence supporting two totally opposite positions.
I now teach psychotherapists – or rather, I should say, I facilitate them in learning for themselves. And at the beginning of any new class, I ask the students to talk for a few minutes about what they think makes the kind of therapy that they do work. In other words, how are they helping people? I ask them not to use theory or jargon, but simply to explain in their own words how they think about what they are doing.
Even experienced psychotherapists frequently have difficulties putting their own ideas into words, especially when I encourage them use their own words, not someone else’s. But over and over again, I have found that being curious about their ideas can help therapists begin to read the literature, which we do in all of my classes, with a different eye. As one class member said, “I’m more thoughtful about what I read and hear now. I listen, and read, and think about what someone has said. And then I think about what I think about it. It’s kind of powerful. Not only do I have a much better understanding of some of this complicated writing that psychotherapists use, but I also have a much clearer sense of what I think about what they’re saying. So I can integrate what makes sense to me, and try to understand what I don’t agree with, and keep my work growing and alive without doing things that someone who’s supposed to be an expert tells me is right, but that I don’t believe in or agree with.”
Knowledge is not finite. It’s not an end goal. It’s a process, made of learning and curiosity and not knowing; and the more we recognize what we don’t know, the more completely we can engage in the process that makes up knowledge.
* names and other identifying info changed for privacy
**my thanks to Ilana Siegal for recommending Jules' book!
Stephen A. Mitchell Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988)
Jules Mitchell Yoga Biomechanics: Stretching Redefined (Handspring Pub, Ltd., 2019)