The Humility Of Not Knowing Is Necessary Both In Therapy And In Culture At Large
Both in our NYC therapy practice and in our culture more generally, there is a powerful need for the humility of not knowing. Not knowing can be humbling, and also opens up the possibility for getting help from the outside and reexamining foundational principles. Even smart, caring and capable people sometimes just don’t know what to do and that’s an important step in learning new things.
We See This In How The Press Handled The Shock Of The 2016 Election Without The Humility Of “We Got It Wrong”
One major example relates to journalists’ handling of the surprise of the 2016 election. The next day, all the pundits were on CNN explaining what happened with a profound lack of humility and a staggering inability to say, “We got it wrong.” Massive, billion-dollar institutions that are filled with brilliant people and resources were significantly off. And to be clear, the Trump election itself was a failure of journalism. At the heart of his election was misinformation–his manipulation of the press and the press’s incapability to present themselves as credible to huge portions of the country who, instead, embraced hack or fake journalism.
Where Trump really got it right was how we give The New York Times so much benefit of the doubt by virtue of being The New York Times that we haven’t forced them to reckon with the election with the depth of self-reflection that is so obviously needed relative to how profoundly they got it wrong. With journalists’ decision to not admit, “We didn’t know and we got it wrong,” Trump benefitted off it like crazy.
Both Research And Clinical Psychology Also Need To Embrace Humility, Particularly With The Construction of Mental Illness
There’s a parallel here with psychology, which is going through something of its own insincere inadequate reckoning with several landmark psychological studies, cited in major textbooks, being reevaluated. But my concern here is not just with the need for research psychology to look deep in the mirror, but for clinical psychologists as well, particularly regarding the construction of mental illness.
Every few decades psychology and psychiatry has a sort of “oh, shit!” moment when they realize they’ve been unfairly pathologizing a group of people. They, then, update their clinical playbook (the DSM) and immediately go back to claiming that the playbook–and the methodology that underlies it–is as rock solid as Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics. The best example of this is the characterization of homosexuality as a mental illness, which was only finally removed in 1973. The psychiatry community admitted this was wrong, but did nothing to examine the underlying methodology of how they define mental illness.
When Suffering Without Adequate Resources For Recovery, The Next Step Is To Issue A Declaration Of Not Knowing
On the more individual level, a declaration of not knowing is essential when we are suffering and don’t have the tools to recover. We come to suffering by virtue of operating under a set of beliefs, assumptions and also a methodology of change that has failed. How we see the world and how we understand what’s needed to get better hasn’t worked.
To be clear, most instances of human suffering are resolved by the humans who are suffering, as well as those around them, just fine. Take, for instance, a child that has experienced a loss of a classmate, a near death experience, an untimely passing of a grandparent, or a diagnosis of dyslexia. In most of these cases, the child, with the help of parents and community, grieves, adapts, recovers and makes it out okay.
Suffering is common and it is not suffering that brings people to therapy or that causes lifelong distress. It is suffering plus an infrastructure–both internal and external–that is not adequate to manage the recovery from that distress. So when we aren’t able to recover, when the resources of our community and loved ones prove insufficient, the necessary step is to issue a declaration of not knowing.
Why Is Issuing A Declaration Of Not Knowing Important?
We say a lot as therapists that there’s the thing that’s not working and then the thing we do to fix what’s not working. Often by the time someone arrives at therapy, the latter is perhaps the bigger problem. In a sense, we need to wave the white flag and say, “Mercy! Uncle! I give up. I’m lost. I don’t know.” Why? Because not knowing is a precondition for learning something new, as well as a precondition for letting someone else in. It’s also a precondition for introspection (“I need to look at what I’ve been doing carefully to better understand how I got here”).
One product of this that’s instantaneous is that after admitting not knowing, you suddenly become both curious and humble. There’s an immediate openness. It also puts more on the table, meaning that maybe you don’t need to change just one thing. Perhaps a discrete area of suffering is caused by something more foundational, which can be a terrifying realization but also essential.