Do We Always Have to Know? Thinking, Waiting and Not Knowing Part 2 : In Psychotherapy. Written by Dr Linda Berman.

‘It is important to recognise that we must live with uncertainty, with the unknown, the unknowable. Even if we eventually manage to produce a theory which describes the way the universe works, we will never know that there isn’t another chapter in the story, waiting for us to discover it. We can never know whether we have come to the end of the story.’

Du Sautoy



To all readers: Please don’t forget to leave any  comments on this post at the bottom of this page. It would be really helpful to me to have feedback and know your thoughts!


The desire for instant cures and speedy solutions, which we discussed in Part 1 of this post, also precludes the techniques of analytic psychotherapy, which involve a slowing down, a not-knowing.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott asserted that

 ‘…acceptance of not-knowing produces tremendous relief.’


What does this mean? Why does not knowing bring such comfort?

Well, think again about the world outside the therapy room. Think of the pressure to perform, to achieve, to be socially adept, to hurry up, to provide instant answers. Often, if we do not know the answer, some of us may pretend to know, or spout something cliched, just to appear knowledgeable.


In therapy there is an opportunity to escape such societal demands to perform. There is a chance to stay with feelings, to pause, to wait and not have to rush into superficial activity or easy formulaic responses.

Although there are time limits to the session, there are generally further sessions;  there should be no pressure to hurry through the process of therapy.

Not knowing also allows the therapist to be fully there for the patient, a quiet and strong presence, listening and attending to the patient’s needs, rather than to her own theoretical formulations. How often does one experience such authentic support?

Attentive, empathic listening is a skill, one which does not come easily to many people. How frequently do we find that others in our lives do not listen, become distracted, look at their mobile phones, or divert their gaze as we speak?

How often do people hear an initial statement from a friend and then proceed to use this as a ‘prompt’ to manipulate the subject round to themselves and their own experience? Have you, the reader of this post, found this happening?

Yet in the therapeutic space, the therapist is there for the patient, focussed on the patient’s needs, listening empathically. In this accepting atmosphere, it is likely that the patient will be more able to free associate; that is, to speak whatever comes into her mind.

She will feel more able to ‘play.’ In a therapeutic sense, this means that patient and therapist can be creative, in an atmosphere of acceptance and relatively free from social anxiety.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott regarded ‘playing’ in therapy as a way of discovering more about the self. This is achieved through ‘playing’ with and ideas, words, metaphors, thoughts and feelings, in a kind of absorbed, involved state, without self- consciousness.

This is a state of mind described by Winnicott as ‘desultory formless functioning.’ (‘Playing and Reality’)

‘Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together.’



Of course, the therapist has knowledge and skill. It is not this which is withheld during the ‘not knowing’ and the ‘playing.’ What happens is that all is in temporary suspension, so that the therapist is free to be open. Then there is less chance of prematurely seeking conclusions and certainties, before all has been explored creatively in terms of ‘negative capability.’


                  Lee Bul’s “After Bruno Taut (Negative Capability)” Craig Saila. Flickr.

The therapist knows that this kind of un-knowing is an essential part of the psychotherapeutic process. The therapist herself becomes immersed in the mystery, the perplexing nature of what might be unconsciously happening in the room. All of this occurs within the safe boundaries of the therapy session. 

Perhaps the patient might learn from the therapist’s experience of feeling safe and contained in the face of creative uncertainty, so that the patient, also, might explore in this more open and flexible way. The  patient will, in time, come to realise that she does not have to please the therapist with ‘clever’ responses, that she will be acceptable just as she is.

Next week’s post continues this theme. (To make things easier, you can receive a personal email reminder and details about the next post, if you become a follower of this blog, by pressing the ‘follow’ sign.)

If you have any thoughts about this post, please leave a comment below. It would be good for me to get feedback! Thankyou. Linda.

©Linda Berman



  1. So relevant in a self absorbed world. I find it so frustrating when people respond to the chatter in their own head rather than pay attention to what the other person is saying. Wouldn’t it be great if empathic listening was taught in schools! In the meantime thank goodness for special friends and therapy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much. Like you, I feel that the ability to wait and awareness of timing is so important in therapy. Winnicott always inspires me.


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