3 Simple Words That Signal You May Be Copping Out

A girl looks up at a blank wallWhen working with people in therapy (or even talking with friends), three words function as a red flag when they’re used frequently, peppering every statement or explanation like a kind of punctuation.

“I don’t know.”

Some people use this phrase so often they appear unable to finish a sentence without it. It’s become a habit. They may say it as a means of demonstrating innocence, lack of clarity, or overwhelm, but often what it conveys when overused is the inability to take ownership of the thing they are discussing. “I don’t know” becomes the means by which they absolve themselves of responsibility, as if to say, “If I DID know, I’d do something about it.”

Obviously, we all find ourselves in situations where we have questions, when there are things we truly don’t understand or don’t have enough information about in order to draw appropriate conclusions. Our job is then to FIND the answers to those questions and to determine what it is we have control over so we feel a little less adrift. The phrase “I don’t know” often signals a passivity, a willingness to let a situation have the upper hand and the choice to simply sit back and wait to see what happens next. It can represent one’s decision to identify as the victim, or it can serve as a claim of ignorance.

Ignorance is not always bliss. Unfortunately, it often promotes remaining stuck.

In the therapy room, when it becomes clear that a person’s catchphrase is “I don’t know,” I often find myself challenging this in one of two ways:

1. I ask the person to refrain from using that phrase during our sessions from that point forward.

Just shifting your language from “I don’t know” to “I’ll find out” can change the way you feel about yourself and your situation.

We laugh at first as people begin to catch themselves in the act of saying those three words. It creates an awareness. Often, people don’t know they’re doing it. As they become more cognizant, words are spoken with more accuracy: “I DO know, but I don’t like it,” or, “I know how it works, but I don’t know what to do about it.” Then we have a space in which to work. The issue hasn’t been shoved under the rug. We end up with something we can sink our teeth into, and people begin to understand what it feels like to try to uncover what it is they might be able to do to either change their circumstances or how they react to them.

2. I might also respond with the question, “Is it possible that you DO know?” or, “Are you being honest with yourself and with me about that?”

Often, after a little bit of thought (and maybe some frustration as well), people find a way to rephrase what they said. They begin to take more ownership of what’s happening and how they choose to describe it. We end up with a scenario more grounded in fact and reality. The situation becomes less “out of the person’s hands” than originally assumed.

“I don’t know” is a kind of cognitive distortion that promotes the idea of relinquishing control. Just shifting your language from “I don’t know” to “I’ll find out” can change the way you feel about yourself and your situation. We don’t always have to have the answers, but if we really want to know them, we do have to come up with a plan to discover them and see that plan through.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Laurie Leinwand, MA, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Owen

    January 21st, 2016 at 7:52 AM

    One of most important things that you can ever do to heal yourself if you are in therapy is to totally acknowledge your role in why you are there. Don’t run away from responsibility. I know that it may not all be on you, but to move on it can be sort of freeing and liberating really to own up to what is yours and go with it, make any necessary changes that have to be made, and then acknowledge this is in the past, you now are ready to move toward your future.

  • Tia

    January 21st, 2016 at 11:07 AM

    Yeah that phrase I don’t know is a cop out for sure

  • Les

    January 21st, 2016 at 3:26 PM

    Do you find that you actually have a great deal of success when you ask them not to use those terms?
    If so then I am installing a new house rule with the kids!

  • Laurie Leinwand

    January 21st, 2016 at 6:25 PM

    @Les, I work with adults. :) However, I think a rule around it does help people (adults AND kids) begin to notice how often they actually use the phrase. Only then can they begin to make an effort to reduce it. Good luck!

  • Julie

    January 21st, 2016 at 6:32 PM

    I absolutely loved this article. It puts things in great perspective. I sent it to a friend of mine who’s catchphrases I don’t know I don’t know followed by tears. After 41 years of friendship I’m not judging, I’m just so happy to be able to show her an absolute through therapy;

  • saylor

    January 22nd, 2016 at 7:19 AM

    The one that I hate the most is when you know that there is an obvious problem and issue and yet someone will still tell you that they don’t wanna talk about it.
    Why not? Do you really think that things will get better by just not saying anything at all?

  • Kristy

    January 25th, 2016 at 8:12 AM

    I can see myself starting to say those words and then tripping over them as I know that I can’t say them in that session anymore! It must be pretty enlightening as they begin to see just how reliant they are on those phrases.

  • Layne

    January 26th, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    I understand that this must feel like it is the safe way to confront your issues. After all if you bury your head in the sand and choose to ignore those problems then there is nothing that can hurt you. The problem becomes when the issues that you have been running from then one day come to confront you. Then what? You are not prepared to play host to those things because of all of the time you have spent in fear.

  • dennis

    January 27th, 2016 at 2:59 PM

    funny how saying that you don’t know actually indicates that more than likely you do know but are just not open to admitting it

  • Creighton

    January 28th, 2016 at 1:54 PM

    This is like asking your kids who broke the lamp and they all look at you and shrug their shoulders even though they are the only ones who have been home! Very frustrating to be on the outside and always receive that answer when all you are looking for is the straight out truth. But there are people who honestly can’t handle the truth (yeah I’m stealing movie lines now) so they avoid it at all costs.

  • Morgan

    January 30th, 2016 at 2:46 PM

    I am sure that you have an awful lot of people who get mad after they are reminded that they probably do know what you are asking but that they are choosing to not see it?

  • Sammi

    January 31st, 2016 at 5:47 PM

    That’s it. The key is having a willingness to take full ownership of the situation. Until you are able to do that then it is going to be a losing battle.

  • Irma

    October 31st, 2017 at 6:41 AM

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