I don’t know!!

I don’t know!!


Dealing with the “I don’t know” (IDK) bomb! We call it a bomb because fear and anger usually explode with these words. Word bombs are often delivered in the face of a genuine plea for understanding about why a behavior occurred. These words often drive parents and spouses crazy. Yet in times of stress, all of us will sometimes drop them. They can be said in an offhand way. They can be said in desperation or even anger. Sometimes, they are accurate, solid communication. In other circumstances, if we’re to be honest, we do have at least an inkling of what’s going on. 

Why would we say these words to others when we have an experience of not liking them said to us? I bet the answer to this question differs whether we’re on the receiving or the sending end. When we’re on the receiving end we will always, at some level, have to answer this question for ourselves. We are likely to use our old paradigms—mental maps—to interpret the IDK.  

Here’s some old paradigm answers to why IDK is used:   

The speaker

  1. Doesn’t want to say the reason.
  2. Is trying to disrespect me.
  3. Is hiding something.
  4.  Thinks I am stupid?
  5. Is too lazy to even think about what I’m asking.
  6. Is not present in this communication.
  7. Is lying again.
  8. Does not find this as important as it is to me.

Notice the assumption of negative intent inherent in all these answers. It would be uncomfortable (providing we’ve recovered from our own early trauma) to have any of these answers applied to our personal use of the phrase. Let’s be honest, sometimes they may be accurate! That’s why our brain pull them up as answers.

Perhaps even more important than the negative intent that’s ascribed to these answers is the question, “What do I do about the feelings that have now been passed back to my request for information?” With these old paradigm answers, it’s almost impossible to not become more fearful and thus, more angry. Our tendency is to either break off and withdraw from the interaction or go on the attack by trying to force the other to face the negative implications. Both leaves whatever we were trying to resolve undone. In these responses, we almost always send a “you suck” message to the person who just dropped the “IDK” bomb. The emotional frustration and powerlessness accompanying this “you suck” message can leave the bomber feeling powerful and secure in a circumstance where moments before they were feeling fearful. That is an instant pay off to a traumatized brain and almost guarantees a repeat occurrence for next time!  But what if we had a different set of possible answers to this question?

Here’s some new paradigm answers to the IDK based on viewing the behavior through the Trauma Disrupted Competences (TDC can be found on the website: www.earlytrauma.com)

The bomber:

  1. Feels it doesn’t matter, whatever the answer is he or she will just get in more trouble (Negative internal working model)
  2. Brain is so shut down due to the intensity of fear and resulting anger present. He or she can’t access the answer! (emotional response)
  3. Is thinking at an emotionally regressed level and in the moment lacks the ability to work out the answer. (developmental delay)
  4. Lacks the skills to think about the answer without increasing their internal fear level. (self regulation)
  5. Is responding to the intensity of the increased volume and distorted facial expression of the questioner (or clothing, ambient temperature or background lighting etc…) which has disrupted his or her brain so that coherent thinking is a struggle. (sensory issues)
  6. Has little remembrance of the episode which is so disjointed that it feels like a different person who did the behavior… “How would I know why he did it?” (object constancy)
  7. Was blindly trying to reduce fear without recognizing that emotion. (ECTM)
  8. Was stuck in his feeling part when asked a thinking part questions. (ELEMENTS—parts)

Notice the new underlying assumption, there is some current weakness in the bomber that prompted the IDK.  The Trauma Disrupted Competences generate weakness in everyone exposed to early trauma. While this may not be true in the case of our personal bomb use, (though I wouldn’t bet on it!) the new paradigm almost guarantees the presence of one or more of these explanations. This is literally the definition of “trauma damage.” 

Even more important, notice the increased ability to understand what’s happening without increasing our personal fear and anger. With understanding these new paradigms, comes increased ability to empathize with the weakness (TDC). How awful it must be to do things and have no idea why you did them? 

Additionally, with each of the new paradigm answers there are things we can do to help address the “weakness,” promote growth, and hopefully, avoid this situation the next time. At bare minimum, when we can avoid taking on that feeling of “frustrated helplessness.” Instead, we can label the bomb as evidence of weakness and trauma damage. The “instant payoff” is replaced with increased understanding of the need to heal and hopefully, not mindlessly lead to repetition.

Remember, making internal paradigm changes is done with repetition over time. The goal is always to become more healing and less fearful and angry. It our ability to think differently about what is happening that lays the foundation for our children to make the same change in themselves.

© 2021, Faye Hall. All rights reserved.

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