“I don’t know” has been such a dirty word in my life until recently. I grew up in a family where intelligence was valuable. I was the first child but the second smartest out of two siblings. Saying “I don’t know” was a death knell or a quick ride to ridicule.
So I faked it a lot, stayed quiet and nodded, or acted out. Being a beginner at anything, even being a baby human, seemed mostly misunderstood by my parents. I remember going to friends houses to spend the night and they brushed their teeth before bed. That seemed so odd to me- wait, once a day isn’t the way everyone does it? I would brush along in the bathroom light pretending this was modus operandi while I wondered if I was missing something.
It seems like such a small little tiny thing, but this is how many basic life instructions got passed to me. I would hide my surprise and then pretend like I’d done things that way all along. How to meet a new person and what to say. How to say thank you, respond to an invitation, politely interrupt in conversation. Or bigger things I’m learning lately: how to ask for help, how to stand up for myself, how to let someone touch me with tenderness and care without sexuality. It feels ridiculous to be learning how to get help at almost half a century in but there it is. It’s kind of like I’m a me in this body, but I got frozen in time somehow when life instructions got handed out, and then I had to stop drinking to thaw and begin learning.
It’s disconcerting feeling like a fourth grader in a 47 year old human experience. People expect that you know how to make small talk, that you know how to command presence, that you can talk to a doctor without being too polite to mention what’s going wrong, or that you understand that you don’t sit in pain in yoga because it’s not rude to move. They don’t believe you when you earnestly say “I really don’t know how to do this” because you come across as capable and then they think you’re maybe a liar. Capable, but not credible.
Knowing stuff has always been the way I protected myself. It’s why I have excellent intuition and I’m a really good listener- I have always had to gather as much information as possible without actually being told what’s happening. It’s also why sometimes I have a view of situations that’s off, I haven’t been instructed in the ways of the world and so what others consider normal I see as confusing. That’s not to say my parents didn’t try, but they didn’t get taught these things either.
Not looking stupid has been one of my lifelong top priorities. I do not like being ashamed, embarrassed, making mistakes- even small ones. It took two years of therapy before I could drive in traffic and not replay events over and over again trying to see what I’d done wrong. I had such an emotional attachment to being seen as a good and worthy driver that I couldn’t just drive. If I forgot to get into the proper lane I would overshoot my exit or miss my turn so a stranger in traffic wouldn’t get annoyed at me. Last minute changes of direction in a car meant everyone could see me not knowing what I was doing. Mortifying.
Which then means I didn’t educate myself. I spent so much time avoiding looking like I didn’t know what I was doing that I didn’t actually learn what I was doing. Which passes for okay when my biggest worry is not dying of a hangover, but now that I’m sober I just can’t tolerate the bullshit of it.
In walks “I don’t know”. In yoga class: I don’t know. In conversation: I don’t know. As a parent: I don’t know. As a wife, a friend, a life coach, a daughter, a runner, a question answerer: I don’t know.
It’s so fresh and refreshing and feels like I finally took off those shoes that are just too damn small. My brain wiggles out into the blankness and my words spill out and I let them. My brain and words have freedom now because they don’t pretend to all know. And then what I do know for certain is hand in hand with curiosity- there’s always more; another way of seeing it, or hearing it, or add on information that grows the idea in a new direction. I let it.