It usually means one of two things—”I really do know, but there is no way in Hell I’m going to tell you” or “I really don’t know how to describe what you’re asking about.”
The first is relatively easy to deal with.
Give the client better words to use. Teach them it’s okay to say something like “I’m not ready to tell that to you yet” or “This topic really freaks me out.”
Help your clients understand the that words are powerful and carry meaning. Saying “I don’t know” when they really do know actually makes things harder for them overall because they’re lying to themselves and to others.
The second response is much more difficult.
How To Describe Things That Don’t Have Word
Your client may not have the words because the disturbing thing they are trying to describe happened to them when they were pre-verbal or overwhelmed them and they ended up shutting down during the experience.
They’re not being stubborn or stupid. They have all the feelings for what is happening, just not the cognitive resources to be able to articulate it.
When this is the case, you have to build their vocabulary. You have to teach them the appropriate nomenclature for thoughts and feelings. You have to help associate the physical feelings in their body with the correct terminology for the feelings.
How To Teach About Feelings
Start with concrete experiences.
Use neutral events and experiences such as movies, music, or food. Anything where they can describe they’re experience and what is moving or evocative for them.
Teach them to be mindful of the current experience. Start with “Do you like or dislike this experience?” Then move to the “Why do you dislike the sushi? What specifically is unpleasant?” Focus more on details. Give them new words to describe “yucky” or “icky”.
Once they become comfortable with those terms and their library is more expansive, slowly move into the painful experiences or abuse. They’ll have different resources at their disposal this time and they’ll be able to process the experiences differently.
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