The fear of not knowing

2014

When was the last time you admitted that you "don't know"? More than that, when was the last time you said "I don't know" and felt completely at ease with saying it?

Admitting that we don't know something makes most of us feel uncomfortable. We all feel that we're meant to have certain capacities and competencies – a certain 'know-how'. And we all feel that other people depend on our ability to have, to be, to do and to know.

In Western cultures, we tend to over-emphasize how much we know and so feel that not knowing is unacceptable. So when we really just "don't know", we put ourselves in something of a conundrum. Our fear of admitting that we don't know leads us to try to save face. So we conjure up some sort of appearance of knowing so we can feel we're in control and hope to fool others into believing that our veneer of competence is intact.

Not knowing puts us on the defensive. This unconscious reactivity is why we try to hide what we don't know behind jargon, double-speak or techno-babble, hoping this will create a veneer of credibility. We might resort to spurious facts or figures to cloud the issue, or feign outrage or exclusion in an attempt to find allies to support our not knowing. Or we blame someone else to deflect attention away from our discomfort and uncertainty. All tactics to try to stay in control and protect our fragile egos.

The positive side of not knowing

In contrast, many Eastern cultures view not knowing as a self-supporting, personal-developmental practice that can improve how effectively we experience life. Approaching a situation or problem with a sense of "not knowing" can be a catalyst for creativity and insight. The darkness of the unknown supports us to access our inner strength and inner wisdom. And asking positive (not-fear-based) questions can help us to overcome our uncertainty and feelings of inadequacy.

So not knowing can actually prove very helpful. It gives us a rare opportunity to slow down, take a deep breath, go beyond our assumptions, misperceptions, misunderstandings and expectations and explore a reality in which we are free from the burden of having to have all the answers. It lets us relax, to "see beyond our eyes" and to become curious about what it is we don't know.

Giving up the need to be the expert frees us from ego, blaming, judging or needing to be right. It lets us enquire, to invite, to be open, to ask and observe, to watch and listen. In terms of punctuation, it means more question marks and fewer full-stops.

So rather than defending against what we don't know, relax into it as a part of who we are, knowing that not knowing is a part of our everyday life and an opportunity to grow and learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Next time you find yourself not knowing, why not ask yourself some of these questions?

  • If there is a deeper reason for me to be here, what is it?
  • What's important to me about this situation and why do I care?
  • What's my intention here? What's the deeper purpose that's worthy of my best effort?
  • What stands in the way of my being fully present in this situation?
  • What draws me to this interaction? How much does the first person who speaks set the tone for the ensuing conversation?
  • Can I by-pass some of the trust issues that normally keep /me from opening up and moving into deep conversations?
  • Can I step into the unknown?
  • To what degree might it be possible for me to see the world/issue/problem through another's eyes?
  • What am I hiding?
  • Do I give myself permission to be fully myself?
  • Does my expertise distract me from exploring the essence of the issue/question?
  • How comfortable (am I with not knowing?
  • What would someone who had a very different set of beliefs than I do say about this situation?
  • What is missing from the picture so far? What am I not seeing? Where do I need more clarity?
  • What could happen that would enable me to feel fully engaged and energized in this situation?
  • What's possible here and who cares about it?
  • How can I support others in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can I make?

Remember, it's OK not to know!

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.