Most of us are accustomed to feeling like it’s a bad thing when we don’t know something. We don’t like not having answers, and being in a place of uncertainty can be scary. This blog is for those of you who have trouble with boundaries, struggle with saying no, or who find yourselves often having agreed to something that, in retrospect, you wish you had said no to. If this sounds like you, I want to introduce you to 3 words that will change your life: I. Don’t. Know.
The beauty of saying “I don’t know”
There is deep relief that comes from telling the truth when you just don’t know. You can add qualifiers, like “I don’t know yet” or “I don’t know right now, but I’ll get back to you”, or you can simply use those three words: “I don’t know”. The beauty of saying “I don’t know” is that it is not only a true and complete sentence in itself, and it can be used as a bridge practice for those who have trouble saying “no” to people.
Everyone I know can recall a time when someone has asked them to do something, and in the moment they said yes, but it was a rushed decision, and it wasn’t long before they regretted saying yes. I imagine you’ve been in situations before where you felt pressured into having an immediate response, and even if you knew in your heart that your answer should be no, you said yes anyway for fear of disappointing the other person, or because you didn’t know how to say no. Sometimes there’s some version of a freeze response,or an internal fight we have with ourselves when we’re asked to do something, and we don’t want to do it, but we are unable to give the person a flat-out “no”, and we truly don’t know at that moment what the right decision is.
This practice of saying “I don’t know (yet)” in those moments is truly invaluable because it buys you time. It gives you a middle ground that allows you to stay uncommitted to something or to someone, without having to be definitive in that decision. And it also gives you space to think about, and learn more about, your own “yes” and your own “no” — and what those mean to you. The truth is that, despite the cultural push to ‘know your yes & your no!’, many of us actually need time to discern which is which. ‘‘I don’t know (yet)’ is a beautiful response because it allows people to go from a place of not being able to tell what is a yes and what is a no, to a place of growth and understanding and learning.
The words “yes” and “no” represent too much of a binary; rarely do we feel like we fit one or the other perfectly. There is nearly always some element that makes it less clear of a decision. Without options, we are stuck either needing to be a “hell yes” or a “hell no”, which is simply not how life works. Most of the time we’re not exactly sure how we feel, and we need time to tease out our true feelings on the subject. Saying “I don’t know” gives us space to relax and breathe, and then we can realize what is actually true for us, rather than simply reacting in the moment. Your “I don’t know” is invaluable because it gives you space to grow as a person and understand yourself better.
Having that time to think before committing to something stops you from having to go through that process of regretting, and trying to figure out to how make it work, or how to find the time for that commitment, and it saves you feeling potential resentment towards that person, or towards yourself, when the commitment takes up too much space in your life. Our time is so valuable, and that’s what makes “I don’t know” such a beautiful phrase. It literally gives you time.
“I don’t know” is usually the truth
It is absolutely true that we can discover and know our truth. Most of the time, in the moment, an ‘I don’t know (yet)’ response is actually the most truthful. Even if we do know 5 seconds later – or ten minutes later – in that initial moment it’s very often true that we don’t fully know (yet).
A woman from a group I lead recently sent me a text showing an invitation from somebody, and asking me, “how do I say no nicely to this person?” We’ve all done it – sometimes we know we want to say no, but the “I don’t know” is actually “I don’t know how to say no and still be kind or friendly”.
Sometimes what we need is just to sit with it ourselves and discover what is true for us. Sometimes we need to go ask a friend or our partner what they think we should do, because they may have a clearer perspective, having just heard us lay out all of our concerns to them.
You don’t have to give a timeline
Where you may run into trouble with this is when you feel pressured into giving them follow-up information. If someone asks you to do something and you say “I don’t know”, more often than not they will respond with, “Well, when will you know?” You may feel pressure to give a specific time by when you will have a definite answer, but remember this: you don’t have to give them a time, a day, or even a date range. You can simply say, “I need to sleep on it”, or “I have to check my calendar”, or “I’ll get back to you when I’ve been able to think some more.” Since they are the ones wanting a response, you can also put it back on them to reach back out to later that day, next week, or in a few months.
Remember that the purpose of saying “I don’t know” is to give you more space. By pressuring yourself to give them a timeline, you are just putting yourself back in that same position that saying “I don’t know” originally took you out of.
Practice, practice, practice
If you have trouble saying “no” or distinguishing between your true yes and your true no when put on the spot, chances are you might have trouble saying “I don’t know”, too. I actually highly recommend just saying it to yourself in the mirror, so you get used to those words automatically coming out of your mouth. If you make it a habit to always say “I don’t know” automatically, you can always follow up a few seconds later by saying, “Actually, I do know.” If you commit with a yes or a no from the get-go, that’s much harder to go back on.
Saying “I don’t know” is so much simpler and cleaner than a partial yes or no. It’s much more honest, too, because the majority of us truly don’t know the answer on a dime when somebody snaps their fingers and asks us a question they want answered right away. Of course, every once in a while we’re very very clear, but more often than not it takes a moment. The cultural norm that we should always know if it’s a yes or a no is simply not true to most people’s experience.
I hope this practice changes your life; it has certainly changed mine.
To go into this a bit more in depth, watch my video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1USbCm9yTnI
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