The Liberation That Comes With Asking Questions

I suggested in my how to not fuck up 2018 post that if you want to make any kind of change in the new year, you shouldn’t be afraid of asking for help, and I think part of that is just in general asking questions.

This may only apply to me because I’m a god damned weirdo, or more broadly to people with anxiety, and probably also people who were praised a lot as a kid for being smart, but hopefully some of you will be able to identify with this sentiment: I used to be terrified of asking questions. Like legit sweat dripping, red-faced, fluttering heartbeat, all that bullshit at just the thought of asking someone what something meant or how to do something. With the ability to look back now, I know I was afraid of looking stupid or being a nuisance, not to mention my underlying fear of just speaking up in general, so the thought of doing any of that threw me into an almost instant panic attack.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to ask questions very frequently because I was very well rounded as a kid and inquisitive on my own. I watched a lot of (adult) television so I was exposed to many things that I was lucky enough to retain, and I had access to the internet from the time I was about eight-ish, so I could easily look just about anything up (granted it was significantly harder 20 plus years ago!) From doing my own research and basically never taking anything at face value, I quickly learned that people believe in a lot of things that just aren’t true, and since I was privileged enough to be exposed to so much, I was super judgey as a kid when other kids asked questions that I already knew the answer to, so I had a very “damn, I don’t want people to feel that way about me!” mentality.

That changed when I was in college and tutoring English and writing. I worked with so many different students, kids fresh out of high school, people in their fifties coming back to school, English as a second language students, and students who had a really great grasp on writing but knew a second set of eyes on their work could only help. Sometimes, especially early on in my tutoring career, I’d use words or phrases with students that they didn’t understand, and they would sheepishly ask my to clarify. Almost every single time they would then apologize for not knowing. This kind of knocked me for a loop because while I felt the same way these people did, embarrassed to not know and apologetic to bother someone for an answer, when I was being asked–when I was on the other side of that experience–I very passionately believed they should not be embarrassed or apologetic. See, I knew these people, I knew they were intelligent, and I knew their stories, and for the most part they didn’t know certain things because they never got the chance to know them. I quickly adopted a “no stupid questions” policy, and was always quick to admit to them when I didn’t know something, but we always had a laptop handy to look anything up together.

It still took me some time to cultivate my own ability to ask questions because you cannot reason anxiety away, you just have to fight through it, so while I knew it was okay to not know something, I couldn’t get over that sweaty, scared feeling. I flopped like a fish on dry land over that hump one day when the tutoring lab supervisor, my boss, called me “reticent.” I didn’t know what that word meant, and even though I was in front of him and a number of my tutoring peers, I decided that was the best time to break myself, so I asked. And you know what happened? Nothing.

He thought for a second, defined the word, then we all moved on. I didn’t feel like a moron, and no one tried to make me feel stupid either. Of course, this isn’t everyone’s experience, and since then I have had literally dozens, maybe hundreds of times where I’ve asked “what does that mean?” or “what’s that?” and been met with the dreaded and incredibly unhelpful, “You don’t know what X is???” But let me tell you something: if someone says that to you, you look them right in the eyes and say “No, I fucking don’t.” Chances are they are just being a self-centered prick and are reveling in the fact they’re a gatekeeper to some kind of knowledge and are superior. They probably don’t get to feel that way very often, so just pity them and then google your answer, showing them they really are as useless as they just proved themselves to be.

I find myself now asking “what does that word mean?” most often because I love words and want to collect as many as possible in my tiny brain. I rarely feel stupid asking questions, and I rarely judge other people for asking “dumb” questions. And even if I do think a question is stupid, I work really hard to not let it show on my face and to explain everything. I think I’ve kind of perfected this after working in IT for the last almost two years. And to those of you with anxiety that I just made this worse for: don’t worry. I don’t associate that once time Susan in accounting asked me how to copy and paste with Susan’s intelligence forever especially not if she retains it and uses it going forward. There’s hope for us all!

And now I realize: I CAN KNOW SO MUCH MORE. WHY WAS I SO DUMB BEFORE? The thing I was afraid of being I actually made myself into being by not just asking questions when I should have! And I feel so fucking free.

So ask questions. Don’t be afraid. If someone acts like you’re dumb for not knowing something then chances are they’re actually pretty stupid, or at least mean, and in either case unworthy of you caring what they think about you. Free yourself and learn some shit.

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