You are inundated with the cultural message that you “should” Know. You should know what you want to be when you grow up. You should know who you are. You should know how to be a good parent. In our culture, a state of knowing is directly associated with high esteem. Knowing means you are smart, capable, credible, an expert. And yet there is a problem with drawing this conclusion…. Not knowing comes to mean you are dumb, you aren’t capable enough to figure it out, and people have nothing to learn from you. You may have felt this way before – “I don’t know, but that person over there knows, so there must be something wrong with me.” Let’s challenge that assumption – Is it true that not knowing means there is something wrong with you? No, this is absolutely not true. Being in a state of un-knowing is a typical state that most people find themselves in much of the time. Take a minute to think about it. Tally up the times you knew versus the times you weren’t sure you knew …
Did you really know what sort of career you wanted or did you just fall into something? Are you so sure you know now that you are doing the right thing with your work-life? Do you sometimes question who you are and what you’ve become? Did you find yourself feeling uncertain with the birth of your first child – not knowing whether you should respond to every cry or wimper, not certain how to interact with this new being? Does your child display behavior that leaves you feeling baffled – where did they learn that? And how do I respond? Certainly there are also times you have known, have felt certain. That feeling in your gut just told you what to do. Or you did some research and knew exactly how you wanted to respond to your infant’s cries, or that communication problem with your boss. We fluctuate between knowing and not-knowing. But what I want to reiterate here is that there will be many times you may find yourself not being sure, a state of un-knowing. And this, I proclaim, is Normal! It is normal, a part of the human experience and condition, to not be certain, to feel ambivalent or to not know what to do at all.
What is not ‘normal’ or helpful is expecting to know. Expecting that you “should” have figured something out. Expecting that you can solve the problem. Many people feel upset when they find themselves feeling uncertain on how to proceed with a situation or problem; you might feel anxious, or sad, paralyzed even. If asked why you were feeling upset, you might say “I’m upset because I don’t know what to do about this.” That seems like the likely conclusion to draw – I don’t know and therefore I am paralyzed. However, I’d like to propose an alternate conclusion – What makes you feel distraught when you aren’t sure about something, don’t know how to solve a problem, is NOT the “un-knowing.” What makes you feel distraught and inadequate is that you feel you SHOULD know. How do I know this? Because being in a state of un-knowing is a typical state that people find themselves in much of the time. It is not a weakness or a reflection of your self-worth. So, why then do we feel like it is a weakness and why does it feel like we are supposed to know. Because we get messages from TV, from magazines, from strangers, and even family and friends and ourselves that we Should. Have you had an experience where your toddler was having a tantrum in a public place and you looked around to find someone staring at you with an expression that communicated “you should have more control over your child!” When I gave birth to my son, I thought that breastfeeding would be easy. It’s a natural thing, I thought, and my body and my son’s body will know exactly what to do. When it wasn’t easy, I felt like something was wrong with me. I should be able to do this. Why isn’t this working? What’s wrong with me?
On the flipside, if you have children you probably find yourself expecting them to be in a state of un-knowing most of the time. Afterall, they haven’t lived long enough to know many things for certain. And we accept children as being in a constant state of learning. Accepting our children in their states of un-knowing allows us to focus our energy on teaching them and showing them how to do things – how to build self-esteem, how to choose supportive friends, how to manage their emotions. And accepting ourselves as adults in states on un-knowing results in the same – more energy to focus on taking care of and nurturing ourselves. What I’m proposing is accepting periods of not knowing as they occur throughout our whole lives. Because they will and do occur. Not just reserving tolerance for our children, but also having tolerance for our uncertainty as experienced and competent adults. And modeling this for our children. Think about a time your child didn’t know how to do something and got frustrated – maybe cried, or threw something. We adults get upset when we expect ourselves to know something we don’t know, as well. Wouldn’t it be great to model for our children that it’s OK when you don’t know and it’s normal and natural, throughout one’s lifetime.
A huge shift occurs when we start being OK with a state of un-knowing, when we start to accept that right now, in this moment, we aren’t sure what to think or do. It’s not possible to know all the time, therefore expecting this of ourselves is expecting the impossible. What we can do is resist the messages that being competent and smart is contingent on knowing. Protest the army of thoughts in your head that tell you “you should know this,” “my child should know this,” “we aren’t competent unless we’ve figured this out.” Remind yourself that being in a state of un-knowing is a typical state that people find themselves in much of the time. Not knowing is OK and it’s “normal.” Right now, in this moment, you aren’t sure AND you don’t have to know right this minute. You have time to figure it out. You aren’t alone in figuring it out either. All of your friends and family have not known what to do at some point as well (whether they acknowledge this or not is another story!). So, do some thinking, gather information, ask people you trust what they think, relax….Knowing is not a thing you have or don’t have, it’s a process of gathering information, learning about yourself, and trusting that you’ll figure it out. Redifine “normal” and competency as accepting periods of un-knowing. Periods of un-knowing will pass. And you will get through these periods with less stress and increased self-worth knowing that it is OK, and you are OK. So, let us all go out into the world today, into whatever situations come our way, and say to world, “Bring it on. I might not know exactly what to do or say and that’s OK.” Love you’re un-knowing self just as much as your knowing one!