The Discomfort of Not Knowing: How to Live with Unanswered Questions

Crystal ball on stand by sea reflects cloud and sea viewUnanswered questions exist in everyone’s lives, and looming unanswered questions are part of what brings many of us to therapy: Should I leave or stay? Is this right for me? Why do I feel this way? How can I change? Who am I?

Sometimes simple and direct answers are available and advice will be a sufficient salve for what ails us. Sometimes advice is all we want. Much more often, however, the trajectory between our questions and answers that will help us is much less simple, and a pat, direct response from a therapist or friend, such as advice, will fall terribly short in helping us learn, grow, and heal.

Even so, unanswered questions can be uncomfortable things to hang onto. They beg for answers, and in living with the unknown we are asked to bear an aching tension that I can only compare to the anticipation of waiting for a child being born. We long to fill our empty hands with newborn knowledge, and for the relief of seeing that our nascent answer is strong and viable. With modern obstetrics, we can set a delivery date to suit our desires and induce birth at our will, but previous generations were forced to tolerate that the baby comes when the baby comes, regardless of our preferences. Have modern advances in the answering of questions given us any more control over the arrival of answers to the inner questions that bring us to therapy?

We live in an age where some answers are quite easy to find. Like me, you may be in possession of a magic phone that answers almost any question in seconds. Science, philosophy, the study of history, and many other fields of knowledge have made satisfying answers easy to find, but any serious student will tell you that for every answer obtained, many new questions arise. And, perhaps more problematic for us seeking answer to inner questions, there is no credible internet database (yet) that can tell us who we are, what we feel, and what we ought to do with our lives.

So, then, what do we do with questions that our magic phones—or our teachers, our friends, our parents, or our therapists—cannot answer? How do we tolerate the fact some answers come when they come and cannot be forced out into the light? Perhaps most importantly, what strategies do we use to avoid the necessarily realistic pain and anxiety of not knowing, and what price do we pay for our efforts to foreclose the unknown with false answers just for the sake of tension relief?

The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

In therapy and in life, we can learn a lot about ourselves, answer some of life’s questions, and increase our ability to make decisions that suit us. Problematically, however, even when we have more answers about ourselves, we will have to face questions that cannot be answered. Sure, thanks to therapy or other life experiences we can feel secure enough in a relationship to decide to move in together or even get married. How wonderful! But then new questions come: Will we be this happy forever? Do they really feel the way about me that they say they do? What if something happens?

Insofar as we still lack a crystal ball (or maybe I have just not yet downloaded the crystal ball app to my magic phone), these are questions that will likely remain questions for some time. The answers cannot yet be known because the answers do not exist. When we decide to enter a relationship, take a job, pursue a degree, move out, in, or away, we step into a mystery. We have made the best choice we can with the data we have—our feelings, our thoughts, our knowledge, etc.—but after that, we, like any good scientist, are running an experiment, awaiting the revelation of new discoveries. We cannot know how our results will turn out in advance.

Living with these unknowns, especially in life-defining matters such as relationships and career, is difficult. I prefer certainty! However, when it comes to questions that can only be answered in the future, any certainty I have now will inevitably be false certainty. To get truthful answers, I will have to bear all my questions about the future until the future. No wonder the feeling of certainty, even if it is unrealistic certainty, is so tempting!

Temptations of False Certainty

Many of us spend time trying to answer questions that simply cannot be answered in this moment. We call this “anticipation” or “planning,” in which we imagine every possible outcome and what we would do. Then we feel “prepared.” Another approach is to accumulate all the known facts we can with the hope of being able to predict unknown outcomes. This is not inherently wrong—it is always good to use our knowledge and power to increase the probability of a desired outcome for ourselves to whatever degree we can.

However, in almost every human endeavor there exist circumstances that cannot be controlled, and our efforts to control the uncontrollable through prediction, projection, conjecture, and accumulating facts cannot change or stop this. More often, these strategies for dealing with unanswerable questions about unknowable outcomes will give us either (1) a false sense of security or (2) analysis paralysis.

Only when we have stopped trying to control life can we begin to discover life. Only when we give up on trying to know what we can’t know in advance can we make our minds available to experience life on life’s terms, and possibly receive answers from those experiences.

1. False Sense of Security

In scenario 1, the fact gatherer has done so much research, and calculated the outcomes so many different ways, they become convinced of their image of the outcome. Sometimes we get lucky and the forces that are beyond our control help push events in the direction of our preferences, confirming our preconceptions and reinforcing a gratifying sense of control. That can be a great feeling, even if it is somewhat illusory.

More often, however, reality does its own thing regardless of our fantasies of what we think it should do. If we have bought into our image of how things should have gone (e.g., “I should have gotten that job,” “We should have been together forever”) and felt overly secure in our predictions, it can be painful to accept that reality shows up instead, unmoved by our research and planning. We fail to achieve our secret goal of omniscience and have to face that we are just regular people without crystal balls, vulnerable to the unpredictable and unanswerable questions of life. Ouch. People often come to therapy when they have difficulty tolerating this disillusionment.

2. Analysis Paralysis

Sometimes, our need to answer questions that can’t be answered requires long periods of planning and fact gathering, and the risk is that because the question cannot be answered, we can spend forever trying to answer it and never succeed. Sadly, opportunities to roll the dice on life, take a risk, or run an experiment to collect real data pass us by while we are busy trying to achieve certitude about the outcomes. We hesitate to change jobs, start a family, or buy a new refrigerator until we know we’re “ready,” that it’s the “right choice,” or that things will “work out.”

In our effort to achieve omniscience through seeking possible answers to our questions, we can miss the opportunity to find out the real answers that life experience would provide. In analysis paralysis, we sacrifice the vulnerable potential of the unknown for the stagnant security of rumination, worry, planning, etc. The only way to know if you’ll like your next job is to take it. The only way to know if your partner will say “yes” is to ask. Sadly, many people come to therapy in the grips of analysis paralysis, hoping the therapist will be able to help them make a better prediction about the future. Hopefully, our therapists can help us begin to accept our human limitations and help us begin to live in the mystery rather than avoid it. Only when we have stopped trying to control life can we begin to discover life. Only when we give up on trying to know what we can’t know in advance can we make our minds available to experience life on life’s terms, and possibly receive answers from those experiences.

Living with Questions That Can’t Be Answered

I read many books about psychology and philosophy. They offer many possible answers about what makes a good life or a suffering life. However, despite my best efforts, I have not yet found the “Guidebook for the Life of Maury Joseph.” As a result, I am challenged to accept a life with many unanswered questions.

Believe me, I have tried false certainty, analysis paralysis, and a million other strategies for filling the void of the unknown with some feeling of omniscience, and I will do it again later today, I am sure. But in my best moments, I try to challenge myself to embrace the unknown. I challenge myself to bear the discomfort of holding a question, the anxiety of, “I guess we’ll have to wait and see. We can’t know now.” Though I am no fan of discomfort, I have begun to find the discomfort of not knowing to be far easier to bear than the pressured, overwrought feeling that comes with calculating probabilities; worrying about what I’ll say or do given a particular outcome; or trying to control the future through sheer effort.

So next time you’re faced with a question you cannot yet answer, you have an opportunity to ask yourself: Can I bear this question for this moment? Am I willing to let my mind be the location where an unanswered question lives? Can I accept that this question is unanswered whether I like it or not, no matter how hard I try? What do I notice thinking and feeling as I try to embrace not knowing? Can I be grateful to this question for helping me face the limits of being human: that I can’t predict the future or know everything? Can I thank this question for showing me what I can’t know right now? Can I enjoy the answers that living does provide, and not force life to give me more than what it gives?

Try it out and let me know how it goes! In the meantime, I’ll just be here in Washington, D.C., doing my best to bear not knowing.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, Topic Expert

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

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  • brian

    July 31st, 2017 at 12:04 PM

    We all somewhat felt uncertain after my brother committed suicide and didn’t leave a note or anything. It took all of us by such surprise that I think that in many ways we have yet to heal from that. It’s not that we blame him, but more I guess that we all blame ourselves, wondering if there was anything that we could have done to prevent it. That is an uncertainty that we have to all live with now.

  • Michelle

    August 1st, 2017 at 2:30 PM

    I am in the same boat, my husband took his own life 10 years ago this month and I am still trying to sort out the unknown. I am trying to find acceptance with the fact I will never really now the truth and that is so hard to live with. Most days I know it wasn’t my fault, but there are days I have a hard time convincing myself of that. Stay well. ~Michelle

  • Meghan

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:28 PM

    Do you ever think about maybe we are all better off just not knowing? That living with a little bit of uncertainty would actually be healthier for us overall than knowing it all. And would knowing really make things any better?

  • Ashley

    February 5th, 2020 at 5:05 PM

    3 Months ago my husband was driving us home late at night from my parent’s place when his heart stored. I woke up to my car hitting the guardrail on the high way. he’s ok but the doctor don’t have any answers for us right not as to why the only thing we were told was that it might be genetic so our 3 yr old daughter might need testing too. My husband returned to work at the end of the month and I still have so many questions and fears, will this happen again? will this happen to my daughter? dose this mean I can have the career in the military I wanted…?etc It’s like my whole life is on hold in this pit of what if’s and fear. However, it’s calming to know I’m not alone.

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