Three Things to Consider Before Saying "I Don't Know" in Therapy


Therapy can involve reflecting on ourselves and our lives in ways that we hadn't considered before. Because of this one of the phrases I hear a lot in therapy when asking questions to elicit a deeper response is "I don't know."

And generally, if you honestly don't know - that's okay! Maybe it's something you hadn't considered, maybe it's something you need to think about for a while before you can answer, maybe it's something you'll never have a solid response prepared for.

But sometimes when people say "I don't know," what they are really saying it "I don't have an immediate answer for you." And that's okay! Generally when therapists ask us specific questions there are reasons for them, and even if on the surface we aren't sure of our response if we reflect on the question for a bit we may find some deeper insight that we may have dismissed if we just left it at that initial knee-jerk "I don't know" response.

Because of this, often when I ask a question and the response is "I don't know," I pause, give the client time to reflect on what they said and what I asked, and then if nothing else is forthcoming I gently push to see if there is something else behind that response. I may ask something like "It's a difficult question... Do you want to take a couple minutes to think about it?" or even "What feelings are there when you say you don't know, what emotions might be attached to this topic?"

When you find yourself wanting to respond to a question in therapy with "I don't know," I would encourage you to consider these questions first:

1) Is there any chance I am saying "I don't know" because I know answering the question more completely will involve opening things I'm not ready to talk about? If so, consider telling your therapist you aren't ready to get into that topic.

2) Are there any emotions that come up when I hear the question asked of me? If so, consider being clear about this - "I'm not sure, but hearing you ask that question makes me feel ____" will help to further explore your reactions to the situation being discussed.

3) Take some time to reflect on the question. Therapy can be difficult, and sitting with thoughts, emotions and reactions is often a part of the process. If you are asked a question you aren't quite sure of, it's okay to take some time to sit with it and consider. 

Sometimes with further questioning, individuals are able to gain a deeper understanding to that immediate response of "I don't know." Other times they genuinely don't know or have anything else to say to my question, and that is a fine reaction as well. But we're all in therapy to gain deeper insight, understanding, and even control over what's going on in our lives. And for that to happen sometimes we have to dig deeper in for our responses and reactions.