When you don’t know what you don’t know

Occasionally a therapist is forced to fire a client.
It’s called therapeutic discharge.   Had to do it myself not long ago. Always sad.
But sometimes there’s no avoiding it.  This particular man’s therapy was going nowhere.
He was stuck at the first stage of learning.
There are four stages:
  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence.
Unconscious incompetence is where you don’t know what you don’t know.  Imagine a four-year old watching Daddy drive.  “I can do that,” he says, and sits at the wheel and yanks it back and forth.  “Look, I’m driving.”  He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  He’s unconsciously incompetent.
Conscious incompetence is where you know what you don’t know.  Flash forward twelve years: the kid’s sixteen, starting Driver Ed.  “Parallel park over there,” the instructor says, and the kid panics.  He knows what he doesn’t know.  He’s consciously incompetent.
Conscious competence is where you know what you know.  Now eighteen, the kid’s passed his road test.  He drives proudly down the street, knowing he can park if he has to.  He knows what he knows.  He’s consciously competent.
Unconscious competence, the last stage, is where you don’t know what you know.  Now the kid’s forty, a driver for decades.  While driving he plays music, eats fast food, makes phone calls or daydreams.  Driving’s so familiar he forgets that he’s doing it.  He’s doesn’t know what he knows.  He’s unconsciously competent.
Acknowledging ignorance always is the first step towards ending it.
But some people can’t or won’t take that first step.  They stay stuck in that first stage of learning.  So they learn nothing, and their therapies go nowhere.
Often, though, the real problem isn’t what they don’t know.
It’s that, deep down, they really don’t want to.
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4 responses to “When you don’t know what you don’t know

  • leb105

    this makes you sound like a real jerk of a therapist! I guess it was his failure, not yours. “Therapeutic” discharge, my eye.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Yes, I expect that’s about how the client saw it too.

      Then again, if you were that client, and your therapist no longer believed he could help you, would you prefer that he keep taking your money?

  • leb105

    had to give this some thought! I’m not qualified to say whether you should have terminated with this client, and your question as to whether I’d want a therapist who doesn’t ‘believe’ he can help me is a stumper.
    The issue I have is narrower.

    What I react to is the attitude in this post. The know-it-all, have-it-all-under-control, set-you-straight-or-else guy. It makes it seem as if you might have jettisoned this patient because you didn’t like feeling frustrated and powerless. You say “it’s sad”, but it’s not a sad post, it’s not a self-reflective post. You’re essentially blaming this client for not taking the first step – whatever that is. Seems like the first step would be to seek help – and he did that. Since this is a blog about your issues with controlling – maybe there’s something relevant that could be said about that.

    You can’t know whether you could, or were, helping him – you don’t know (either) what you don’t know, you don’t have a crystal ball – and you MADE it a certainty only by quitting.
    thanks for the blog, Steve.

  • Steve Hauptman

    Yes, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is my approach to therapy.

    But as one of my first supervisors told me, “You can’t help everyone.”

    Over twenty years I’ve been able to make peace with that.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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