One very typical fear that I talk with my clients with a lot is the feeling that we have to know everything. Or, at least, the feeling that we have to seem to know everything.
Have you ever pretended that you knew something when you really didn’t? I’m raising my hand here. I’ve done this a lot! Someone talks about something I’ve never heard of, and I just nod my head knowingly. Thanks to the internet, I can quickly look it up once I’m alone. (How did I even survive pre-internet?!) Does this sound familiar to you?
Feeling the need to be perfect is closely tied to this fear, also. Maybe someone points out something that you did wrong, and you get defensive and try to convince them you did it perfectly, just with some other standard in mind. Or, you try and blame them somehow. There are lots of ways that we try and overcome this feeling that there’s something wrong with us for not having done something perfectly.
Rationally, you know that no one knows everything or can be perfect, right? We’re all human, everyone makes mistakes, blah, blah, blah. We have many ways of trying to talk ourselves out of feeling bad when this fear gets triggered, but it still feels bad, doesn’t it?
If any of this rings a bell, it’s one of the pieces of Learned Distress that you share with me and many others.
Early in life, we all absorb this feeling that there’s something wrong with us being just the way that we are. Along side that, we develop a survival mechanism that lets us move forward in life, despite this Learned Distress. For many of us, it includes the feeling that in order to survive, we need to know everything or be perfect, or at least try and pretend that we are. Learned Distress and our survival mechanism for handling it are developed before we are capable of thinking at all. So, we’re unable to talk ourselves out of it with what we know rationally—that it’s impossible to know everything or be perfect.
There are a couple of themes that I have my clients use to unlearn this fear of needing to know everything. One is about enjoying their own uniqueness. They may not know everything, but their uniqueness adds something to the world that no one else can add. When we all really contribute our uniqueness and collaborate, we create something more wonderful than is possible when we’re just guessing at knowing everything.
Another theme I have them work with is about allowing their natural well-being to speak through them. One feature of this piece of Learned Distress is feeling that we have to work hard at knowing things or being perfect. But, the harder we work at that, the less our natural well-being (you might call it intuition or inner knowing, in this case) can come through.
Just today, a client told me she had the weirdest experience at work. She told her supervisor about an intense interaction she had with another co-worker about a shared project. Her supervisor pointed out that my client didn’t know some element of it. My client said she was just shocked as these words came out of her mouth: “Oh, I didn’t know that. Well, it is still a new job, and I’m still learning.” She said to me, “Sara, who am I?! It was so bizarre that I was comfortable with not knowing everything!” This kind of surprise is common with the personal transformation work I do with my clients. Because we don’t cause this change to happen with our rational minds, it sneaks up on us and surprises us in good ways.
Speaking for myself, life is so much less anxiety-producing when I don’t have to know everything about everything. If you share this piece of Learned Distress with me, I wish you the same kind of relief I have found in just being able to be myself.