With so much emphasis in our culture on knowing, on being certain and correct, having the answers, it may be that the psychotherapist’s office remains one of the last places where it is perfectly all right to not know. After all, to discover, to learn more about oneself — an essential, perhaps the essential, goal of the psychotherapeutic process — means to start out from a place of not knowing. To discover means to have not known in the first place.
From grades in schools to job performance evaluations, from the insistence on specialization to the demands of parenting, we are pressured to be sure, to know the answer, to get it right. This pressure causes a great deal of stress in life, and the uncertainty of not knowing can cause a great deal of anxiety. I often ask my clients how they feel when they are driving and become lost. Do they panic, feel uneasy until they get back on course (thanks to GPS the experience of getting lost happens less frequently these days)? Or do people tolerate, even enjoy, the experience and sense of adventure?
The quest for knowledge is, of course, one of the great human passions. And it is often comforting to know. Even in dire situations, when presented with some disheartening news or situation, there is something reassuring in knowing the answer, in having an explanation. But it is all right to not know as well. In fact, it’s a good thing. It’s a human thing and a necessary step towards understanding. Not knowing often requires some compassion for oneself and ability to tolerate discomfort.
And that is where psychotherapy comes in. When I am working with a client, I am there to offer my mind, my thoughts and feelings, to his or her mind. Together we can think about things, particularly about the vexing and disturbing problems in the client’s life. Often we do not have the answers immediately (the truly troubling issues in someone’s life have often been developing for some time; the answers to these issues also take some time). There are no cookie cutter approaches: Just two people (sometimes more) who do their best to try to understand. And in the process, the client may develop a greater tolerance for not knowing. I think that is one of the great benefits of psychotherapy. In the process of searching for answers, people can become more comfortable with the search, with not knowing. In that process, they can feel less anxious. In a sense, people can come to enjoy the ride more. I think of the lines from a favorite James Taylor song (“The Secret to Life”):
Isn’t it a lovely ride
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride