An important lesson for me as a therapist has been learning to be comfortable with what I don’t know. This means not always having the answers, even when someone expects me to. It also means accepting that sometimes there just aren’t any answers and some things can’t be fixed.
At times this has been a hard lesson for me. I went into this therapy gig wanting to help people, rather than not knowing what to do. I worked hard for many years (and continue to) to gain knowledge and experience so that I do have the answers and can fix things. I like sounding smart and having solutions. And I really like being right. I mean, who doesn’t?
In Buddhism there is the concept of the beginner’s mind. This means going into a learning situation without judgment or preconceived ideas.
Not knowing and not having the answers can be pretty freakin’ difficult at times. But here’s the rub: being uncomfortable when I don’t know the answer or pretending I have answers when I don’t doesn’t give me the answers. It just makes me feel bad. And I really don’t like feeling bad. So, when I’m faced with a situation in which I don’t have the answer, rather than feeling incompetent or embarrassed I’m learning to embrace it. Okay, “embrace” it may be a bit of an overstatement. For now, let’s say that I’m learning to accept it openly and without judgment of myself.
I’ve learned that being comfortable with what I don’t know doesn’t make me an incompetent therapist. It makes me a better therapist. Feeling that I always have to come up with an answer or solution can be quite distressing. In the wrong situation it could be negligent. Acknowledging my areas of inexperience means I’m more open to new information and to the ideas of others. I enjoy seeking out consultation from colleagues. I like learning from others. I do this better when I’m not trying to impress anyone or make them think I’m smart. I used to believe that always having the answer for my clients would make my clients feel more comfortable. Most of the time it does, and most of the time I do have an answer. However, always having the answer isn’t my reality. It isn’t my clients’ reality either. Acknowledging that this is true for me helps them feel less shame when they don’t know what to do.
In Buddhism there is the concept of the beginner’s mind. This means going into a learning situation without judgment or preconceived ideas. When we have a beginner’s mind we go in with an openness and acceptance of new information. I recently started a three year training program in a new-to-me therapeutic approach called Somatic Experiencing (SE). In SE we do a lot of “sitting with our feelings” and “being present” to the experience (right about now you may be thinking, “Why would anyone voluntarily sign up for that?”). On the first day of training as I was trying to be present to the experience I realized that I felt uncomfortable. I also noticed that I was having some negative thoughts and judgment. Later that day I realized that my discomfort was with being a beginner. I wanted to start this intensive three year training already knowing how to do it. Crazy, huh? I’m used to feeling comfortable and competent with what I do. Some of this was foreign information. There would definitely be times when I would make mistakes or not know what to do. When I realized that this was the source of my discomfort I was able to move towards acceptance of being a beginner and making mistakes. It’s made my learning process much more enjoyable, and the information richer. When my cup is already full of what I think I know, there’s no room left for something new.
When my cup is already full of what I think I know, there’s no room left for something new.
Some of you may read this and think, “Well heavens to Betsy, of course you don’t know everything.” And you would be right. If you’re someone already comfortable with their own areas of inexperience I salute you. The fact that you got there before I did, well, I embrace that. Or at least I’m learning to accept it openly and without judgment of myself.