When 'I don't know' is good enough

Reflect on this scene with me: Carrie has been dating Doug since their junior year in college. They are now getting ready to complete graduate school and start the next phase in their lives. She has been looking at wedding rings and dresses and making little comments, meanwhile, Doug is sweating bullets because he just isn’t sure. He has doubts about the timing, the quality of the relationship, his own ability to commit, etc.  Doug, after much heartache, decides to come clean with his Carrie that he is not on the same path as her. He says “I just don’t know” when she asks him if he wants to marry her. 

Next in this story, Carrie is bemoaning her fate to her friends and family. She immediately assumes he is cheating, not happy with what they have and wants to try to do better, that there is something wrong with her, or that he truly does know what he wants, he is just too scared to say it because it will hurt her feelings. What follows is a series of ultimatums, back and forth drama and lots of hurt feelings. Probably, I would guess, are all the things that Doug wanted to avoid. 

But what if Doug was telling his truth? He just really didn’t know? He wasn’t hiding something, in fact, he made a revelation that could have made the two come closer together, if Carrie could have soothed herself and accepted “I don’t know” as enough and not a reflection on her. 

So when did the revelation that a person is truly confused become not good enough as an answer? 

Authenticity and vulnerability are necessary in healthy relationships. They are foundations in healthy communication. And sometimes, when a person reveals themselves to be confused or unsure, why is this not celebrated as a step toward an authentic relationship?

This is because, in my opinion, that we, as human beings, make very little room for the unknown. Because when there is unknown, we can either stay present, open, mindful or fill in the gaps with our worst fears. Guess which one people usually do? 

Think about how we deal with uncertainty in other arenas…let’s say your child is uncertain about what breakfast she wishes to eat. Do you allow her the time to choose or do we pick for her, because you are in a rush? What about if your partner is unsure about the job path they wish to take. Do you allow them space for the unknown, or do you push for an answer?

Uncertainty makes people either want to avoid or fix, when in truth, the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves is to stay honest, open and present. Just to be. Allowing space for the unknown, that is, accepting the idea that some variables cannot be answered, is actually considered key in healing from issues such as trauma, anxiety and depression. 

How do we get to this personal nirvana? Well, mindfulness practice is one way. Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

I could blog about mindfulness from now until infinity, but will begin by saying that spending time focusing on your five senses, allowing yourself to be present in this very moment, for a few minutes daily retrains your brain to respond to fearful stimuli with a deliberateness rather than reacting with knee-jerk words and behaviors. 

What if Carrie had been practicing mindfulness? Perhaps she could have responded to Doug by saying “This really scares me. I had all these plans that are being threatened. I don’t know what to do when I can’t plan my future so this is hard but thank you for being honest with me.” 

What would happen if YOU could practice mindfulness? When your work  your children’s lives, your spouse presents uncertainty. Maybe instead of backing away or forcing an outcome, maybe you could learn to be present in your body in that moment. Then what could happen?

“Depression lives in the past. Anxiety lives in the future. Peace, joy and calm live in the present." -Lao Tzu (Whitney’s version)

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT LADC, owns and operates the Warren Alexander Group, a group mental health practice serving Stillwater, OK and the surrounding communities.