Decoding “I Don’t Know” in Therapy

I have found it effective to ask the client to ask you a yes-or-no question about what they fear is effective (i.e., “Are you going to think less of me?” “Will you think I’m a disgusting person?”).

Create a Safe Space

As the therapist, you can then provide reassurance and create a safe space for them to disclose whatever they had felt embarrassed or ashamed to tell you (i.e., “No, I will not think less of you,” “no, I will not think you are a disgusting person,” “Given how people have responded to you in the past about this, I understand why you might fear that I would, but the answer is no.”)

Working through this form of “I don’t know” can be extremely healing of past psychological injuries around various topics and promotes a form of unconditional acceptance for a person’s holistic experience.
In sum, exploring the meaning of “I don’t know” provides rich opportunities for patient growth and relationship enhancement. It gently communicates safety and boundaries within discussions that are driven by the patient’s cognitive, emotional and interpersonal experiences.

As a mental health professional, challenge yourself personally to explore your own forms of “I don’t know” and in which situations you employ various forms of it. Ask patients about their motivations and intentions surrounding “I don’t know” and new therapeutic avenues will open—ones that might have been previously foreclosed with those three powerful little words.


Finn, S. Understanding and working with shame in psychological assessment. Workshop presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality Assessment, San Diego, CA. March 20013

Newman, C. F. Understanding client resistance: Methods for enhancing motivation to change. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 1, 47-69. 1994.

Uncertain woman photo available from Shutterstock

Decoding “I Don’t Know” in Therapy

Erin Nicole Donnelly, Psy.D., M.Ed.,

Erin Nicole Donnelly, Psy.D., M.Ed., is completing her postdoctoral fellowship as a Clinical Psychologist and Sexologist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Kansas Medical Center and School of Medicine ( Dr. Donnelly works intensively with individuals and couples at the Center for Pelvic Pain and Sexual Wellness, as well as the Center for Advanced Reproductive Medicine. She specializes in clinical interventions for anxiety/anxiety-related disorders, sexual and reproductive traumas, human sexuality and chronic pelvic pain conditions, as well as personality theory and psychological assessment.


APA Reference
Donnelly, E. (2015). Decoding “I Don’t Know” in Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 5, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jun 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Jun 2015
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