This is something that I’ve believed and practiced for a long time, and also have been telling people that I sponsor for a long time. Much to my delight, I have recently discovered that it also has been confirmed by research. That is, when in a difficult situation, in your self-talk (or your conversations with others), don’t ask why. The way I often put it to people that I sponsor is “Why is an awesome intellectual question, but it’s a shit personal growth question.”
My suggestion is that when you’re in a crisis (large or small):
- Don’t ask “Why is this happening?”
- Don’t ask “Why did they do this to me?”
- Don’t ask “Why does this always happen to me?”
- Don’t ask “Why do I think this way?”
- Don’t ask “Why can’t I just be calmer about this?”
Or indeed any other possible question that starts with “Why …”. Instead, ask yourself something like:
- What’s the best thing I can do now?
- How can I move forward in this situation?
- How can I best be of service to the people around me?
This was a particularly hard lesson for me. I am a bit of a geek, I’ve always had a strong interest in science, and I actually did go get a PhD. Because of this background, I know that basically all scientific advances come from someone wondering why, and then going and doing the hard work to rigorously figure out the answer. So, it made perfect sense to me to apply the same principles in my life. If I’m struggling in a situation, I just need to rigorously figure out why I’m struggling, and then the reasons will naturally lead me to a solution, right?
Wrong. One of the major lessons I’ve drawn from my experience is that why questions are problem-focused, but what or how questions are solution-focused. Along very similar lines, Tasha Eurich, in her book Insight, talks about the hazards of asking why and summarizes them like this:
“The bottom line? Why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.”
In the course of my recovery journey, I have on multiple occasions done some digging into the origins of how I think and feel, and discovered that large parts of it come from my experience growing up with the parents that I did. Both of them were sick in their own way for large portions of my childhood, and their illnesses affected me in some profound ways. Okay, now what? Can I go back and undo that? No. Does it help me to be able to cast blame in their direction? No, and it wasn’t even their fault anyway. Does that knowledge lead me to a solution? No, it does not.1
Instead, what I’ve found to be helpful is to ask “What can I do now?” For me, in this situation, that has involved acknowledging that my parents did the best they could have with the tools they had—it’s just that the tools they had weren’t all that great in some areas. It has involved consciously deciding to be the parent to myself that I wish my parents could have been to me. It has involved forgiving them for their part in nurturing my issues, and acknowledging them for their part in nurturing my strengths. And, it has involved taking responsibility for my own life and moving forward to create the life that I want to have.
This is just one example, of course. There are plenty of other areas in my life where I have found that asking why is not as helpful as I used to think it would be. Instead of asking myself “Why do I always do this”, I try to ask “What can I do instead, and how can I support myself in doing that?” Instead of asking “Why can’t I be more outgoing,” I try to ask “What can I do right now to reach out to people?” Instead of asking “Why don’t they like me,” I try to ask “What kind of people most appeal to me, and how can I spend more time with them?”
If you’re anything like me, the why questions can be seductive and alluring. Surely better understanding why I am the way I am can only be helpful, right? Ehhh, probably not. Give the idea of focusing on “What can I do now?” a try. It definitely takes practice, but I think you’ll be happy with the results.
- It could, in some cases, lead me towards figuring out where to look for a solution, but that knowledge is more easily come by in other ways, in my experience. ↩