When You Just Don’t Know

“The thing to do, once you know you are lost, is to find a good, safe place to build a little fire, build it, fire three shots, light a cigarette, and sit down and wait.”
― Louise Dickinson Rich

“I don’t know. I just don’t know!”
― All of us at some point


When is the last time you didn’t know? You didn’t know which option to take, how to talk about something, how to help, how to apologize, what to do, how to please someone, or how to communicate.

Did you feel lost? Stuck? Embarrassed? Paralyzed? Panicked?

Not knowing is an uncomfortable place to be. Sometimes it’s downright painful.

How do you know, if you don’t know? It’s a circular dilemma. And if you stay there too long, it can lead to despair.

Here’s what to do when you don’t know:

Take a different route

Stop trying to know, and answer another question.

Instead of asking what to do (or how to do it), ask either (or both) of these questions:

  • What do I feel?
  • What do I want?

Those can lead to very different conversations. Those pathways will likely take you in a different direction, and when you explore that scenery, you’ll have more subject matter to consider. The more information you have, the better equipped you are to make a decision.

After you explore what you feel and want, the question of what to say, do, or how to do it often answers itself. Sometimes it becomes a moot point altogether.

Let’s consider Robert

I saw him and his wife for couples therapy. (I always change names and details to protect confidentiality) Tania’s complaint was that Robert wouldn’t communicate with her. He always copped out with, “I don’t know.” She said they had drifted so far apart that she didn’t even know her husband anymore.

When I asked about Robert’s side of the story, he said (you guessed it), “I don’t know.”

I began to feel Tania’s frustration. Just say something, man! And then, with each of Robert’s attempts, apparently sincere attempts, to say something, I began to see it from his side. He honestly didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.

I said, “I believe you! I think you really don’t know what to say. Let’s take another tack [he was into sailboats, so I knew he’d appreciate that expression]. Forget what you know or don’t know. Forget what to say.

“Just share with me what you’re feeling right now.”

Then the floodgates opened. Robert talked of his frustration for not being able to articulate his thoughts. He expressed his embarrassment at looking dumb to Tania. We heard about his fear of saying the wrong thing and hurting Tania’s feelings. He admitted his fear of doing the wrong thing and making her angry.

Then I said, “I knew there was a lot inside that you didn’t know how to get out. I’m curious now, right this moment, what it is you really want.”

Tania and I were treated to another torrent of wants and desires that were raw, and sincere, and helped Robert feel known, heard, and understood.

He no longer had to “know.”

Because we now did.

The next time you feel stuck

When you can’t express yourself with the right words, when you just don’t know what to do . . .

Stop and share what you feel.

And if everything doesn’t come out, explain what you want.

Then, usually, it will no longer matter what you don’t know . . . because you suddenly will.

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