The Real Reason Saying “I Don’t Know” is Hard

I don't know

As a kid, I had a reputation for being a math whiz. Whatever problem the teacher put on the blackboard, I already knew how to solve it. I aced Geometry, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Trigonometry; math just seemed to come naturally to me.

Then, I hit Precalculus. 

For the first time, I was getting many things wrong. But by then, I had come to accept the self-image of being a math whiz. I couldn’t imagine being someone who didn’t understand math. So, I began pretending that I knew what I was doing. 

But you can’t do that in math. If you don’t get the right answer, you’re just wrong. That’s why math is humbling. 

My lack of understanding showed up in my midterm grades, and I ended up barely passing Precalculus. Afterward, I was still pretending to know. I blamed teachers, my school workload, and my part-time job for my struggles. I refused to accept that I didn’t understand advanced math concepts. 

I now know what was wrong. I was afraid to say three dreaded words: “I don’t know.”

Why don’t we say “I don’t know”?

I’m not the only one who has a hard time admitting that I don’t know. There are many people who don’t admit to what they don’t know. Why? What’s so scary about it?

It’s not that scary to be wrong about the subject matter—math, in my case. But it is scary to be wrong about yourself, to learn that you’re not the person you imagine yourself to be. In other words, it’s scary to admit that you don’t match your self-image.

A self-image is a description of what we think we are, want to be, or should be. Your self-image could be that you are a conservative—you wear a bow tie and think left-wing people are all out of touch with reality. Your self-image could be that you are a liberal—you wear a Bob Marley shirt and think right-wing people are out of touch with reality. In my case, my self-image was that I was a math whiz, and I wanted to appear knowledgeable. 

When we decide on a self-image, we decide to start thinking, feeling, and acting in ways that match that image. We want to match our self-image in reality. But that can take a lot of work. For example, to match my self-image as a math whiz, I needed to work hard at learning advanced math concepts. But I didn’t do that.

If you aren’t able to match your self-image you have two options:

  • You pretend to live the self-image.
  • You reject that self-image in favor of another.

Pretending to live the self-image

Most people who don’t match their self-image pretend. I used to do the same. I refused to admit that I was actually not a math whiz. As I advanced in the math courses, they got hard. I didn’t want to work hard at math. I wanted the advanced concepts to come easy to me. 

Instead of learning and getting better at math, I began to focus on appearing smart in math. The pretender in me would memorize the advanced concepts, but I wouldn’t understand them. Later my desire to look knowledgeable trickled into other aspects of my life. For example, when I showed up at my first job, I wanted to be known as the most knowledgeable person on the team. My self-image was that I was a knowledgeable employee, that I knew most of the things at work. So at my first job, I went around pretending to know things but barely understood them. 

My case isn’t unique. There are many people who pretend to be someone they’re not. A lot of people want to look knowledgeable as part of their self-image. That explains why they find it hard to say they don’t know: not knowing doesn’t align with their self-image. When they fail to match that self-image, they start pretending to live their self-image.

Rejecting your self-image for another

The alternative to pretending to look knowledgeable is to admit that you have a false self-image. Once you reject the false self-image, you can pick another self-image that’s more realistic. A realistic self-image allows you to actually acquire knowledge. Your new self-image could include that you don’t understand a lot of things, that you are okay with saying, “I don’t know.” 

Self-image is a big driver of how we feel, think and act. For example, if I feel, think, and act like I don’t understand advanced math concepts, then it is easy for me to say I don’t understand advanced math. When we live into that new self-image, we don’t know a lot of things, so that self-image helps us admit the things we don’t understand. 

In reality, I needed to let go of my self-image as the math whiz, and create another self-image. I created a new image of myself not as a math whiz, but as a person who wanted to know and understand math. For knowing and understanding math, I needed to know my limitations in advanced math concepts, to spend extra time understanding them, and to practice them. 

Understanding the difference between false self-images and real self-images helps us pick a self-image that enables us to know and understand what’s true. Most of the people who pretend to know a lot of things tend to have a self-deception. They don’t understand what it takes to be competent. They can’t wrap their mind around the amount of work it takes to be competent in any given field. Pretending is easy but understanding takes a lot of work. 

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