“I don’t know”

I say “I don’t know” in therapy a lot. This isn’t a very good thing. It’s equivalent to someone in improv saying “no”. Everything comes to a halt. It messes up free association pretty badly.

The majority of the time I legitimately don’t know how to answer the question. Sure there are times when I say that to get out of answering something I don’t want to talk about, but most of the time this isn’t the case. Unfortunately people don’t tend to believe me when I say “I don’t know”.

There are certain types of questions I have trouble answering. Broad generalized questions that I hadn’t considered the answer to before.

For example I would have trouble answering “What was your favorite thing about yesterday?

Things from yesterday might pop into my head while I strain to try to figure out the answer and they’d feel just out of reach. My mind goes blank and gives up.

But if the question was rephrased to “What was one thing you found enjoyable about yesterday?”  I could answer that. It’s a similar question, but not the same thing. The first requires accessing all of the memory about yesterday’s events and examining it in a new way to come to a new conclusion. This second question only requires accessing my memory and finding one that is already associated with being enjoyable. There is no manipulation of the old information.

If yesterday you had told me “Tomorrow I will ask you what your favorite thing from today was“. I could go about my day making mental notes as I went of a hierarchy of favoriteness. Then when asked “What was your favorite thing about yesterday?” I’d be able to answer the question. The problem is with accessing the old information and manipulating it into something new.

This is not a problem in my day to day life. Generally when a person responds “I don’t know” to a question the conversation is able to continue. In therapy however it is a problem, because it is a mostly one sided conversation. Just one of the many reasons why I’m a pain in the arse to work with.

One therapist suggested that it was a problem with executive function. Unfortunately executive function is a very vaguely defined term. I do think this is an interesting idea though.

I’ve taken many neuropsych tests and one of them is a test where the person needs to name as many words as they can all beginning with a certain letter within a time limit. This is one test used to assess executive function. I never do well on it.

The context of where I take the test though impacts how I score on it. I would do worse in an empty room than one with more items in it.

Supposed the letter I am trying to find words for is “W”. I would look around the room for visual clues when I get stuck. If I see something that begins with that letter I’ll say it. The more interesting part is how I can use the visuals to get to words that are not in the room. If I saw a computer keyboard I could use that to get to the word “write”. The visual information can act as a launching pad. Clues can help me find information that I had all along but couldn’t access.

This same concept can be applied to answering the generalized questions. Suppose I’m asked series of specific questions that hover around the topic of a question I can’t answer. This can help me gather enough information to answer the original difficult question.

In my first week of college I had a class where the prof decided to start off with a icebreaker game. Ew. The game she chose was for her to pick a color and each person had to come up with as many things that were that color as he/she could. She wasn’t aware that this was similar to a popular psychological test. I got orange. The only thing I came up with was the fruit orange. I had a panic attack when I got stuck. Not really the greatest way to start off college.  Of course after class on the way home I spotted orange traffic cones.

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