Taking Comfort in the “I Don’t Know Hallway”

Oct 6, 2022 | Identity, Thriving

Like most toddlers on their first day of preschool, I don’t like uncertainty. In fact, I tend to flee from it. A pending lab test that might be serious. Whether I’ll get Covid and be unable to attend that upcoming family event. If I should stay or leave my current job (when I was in practice). Anything that has an outcome that matters to me and is currently unclear.

What I’ve noticed is that I will flee into the worst-case scenario. I’ve seen the same tendency in some of the physicians I coach, while others, like my ever-optimistic husband, Sam, will rush to the other extreme. Either way, we hurry ourselves out of what I’ve come to call the “I Don’t Know Hallway.”

I picture the setting as a long dim corridor with a closed door at the other end. My mind wants to be anywhere but in the unknown, so it will pretend that we’ve already arrived in that room—the room of gloom and doom or rainbows and unicorns, depending on your preferred illusion.

Illusion might be a harsh word, but I think it’s fitting. Almost all the time, things are not as bad as I imagine they will be or as rosy as someone like my husband thinks they’ll be.

The point is, the reality is, that we just DON’T KNOW.

Before I get that lab test back, before it becomes clear if my sore throat is Covid or if the job will get better, I simply don’t know whether things will work out the way I hope they will. We tend to run screaming from that liminal space, even if it means thinking the worst.

What I’ve learned, and what I help my clients to consider, is that there is a relief, a comfort even, in embracing that we’re in the I Don’t Know Hallway.

I think the deeply wise part of ourselves is fully aware that the outcomes we await are not yet knowable. When we rush ourselves to a prediction and hold on as if it’s a conclusion, we cheat ourselves of being fully honest with ourselves. We lose out on a chance to give ourselves a precious gift.

I’ve learned that the trick in these moments is to pause. To sit a moment with ourselves and own that we don’t know what will happen and we’re frightened. I’ve found there is a deeper, more reassuring groundedness that comes from acknowledging and being with the not-knowing until we pass through it and really do know.

Most of the time being in the I Don’t Know Hallway is a temporary state. The lab test returns, and I learn I have or don’t have cancer. It becomes sufficiently clear whether I have Covid to make a decision about attending the family event. Something shifts at work or in me and I know whether to stay or go.

What continues, however, is my relationship with myself. Becoming more honest by embracing where I am allows me to be more present with myself and with others. It allows me to refuel so I am better able to deal with the bumps ahead and energetically celebrate the highs. It allows me to be grateful for the life I have today, whatever comes next.

If you’d like a companion on the journey to knowing, I’m here. 


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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