3 Reasons Asking “Why” Can Fuel Problem Behaviors

Howard Glasser
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As a therapist, I was trained to the gills to believe that investigating the reasons “why” a fellow human being behaves the way he does would enable that person to understand himself, which would promote healing and health. We traditionally believe that knowing the reason for one’s behavior will release him from the root of the problem. It took me years to get out from under this philosophy and practice. Along the way, I met many brilliant therapists who admitted that discovering “why” never yielded them the results they were seeking either.

I was, as a psychology student, required to partake in therapy in order to find my own mental health, but also to best understand the therapeutic process from the inside out. I gave my all and sought to have each new therapist help me make personal discoveries. It became obvious that each therapist had a common, yet erroneous, theoretic base: If the patient reveals the reasons and the reasoning for his acts, emotions, and experiences, to himself and to the therapist, this would clear the way to better, mindful living. Even in achieving this again and again, one thing was evident: My issues and concerns weren’t any closer to resolution. In actuality, these very explorations might have fueled the fire of the problems I was wanting to ameliorate.

Later, I began to look at this in the work I did with others and realized the fallacy of this thinking. I found that what people really wanted was the change they were seeking. Finding a path to that change brought them the understanding, illumination, and greatness they wanted all along. Acknowledging the “problems” was simply the inspiration for taking that next step.

In other words, if I am starving, talking about my hunger and analyzing it, understanding why I am hungry and processing my neediness, will not necessarily bring me closer to the nourishment I am craving.

There are three primary reasons that questioning “why” can inadvertently make things worse.

1. When we do the right things, the good things, and even the great things, we may have some initial excitement and give ourselves some appreciative “good job” kinds of thoughts, but overall, our inner reactions, appreciation, and gratitude run dry very quickly. In comparison, when things go wrong, we go big, perseverating on all the repercussions, our fears, doubts, and misery. If this has become our default setting, then sitting with even the kindest and best intentioned person and talking about our problems will actually deepen our existing belief that we get more out of life through sustaining the problems – more relationship with ourselves and more with others.

This very same thing is so true for our relationships with kids. Asking them why they did something or why they had an issue is like giving them $100 dollar bills for having the problem. Our relationship is the energetic reward. We are so much better off giving them the gift of who we are when things aren’t problematic. And putting that into words and expressing our appreciation is a huge key.

2. When we ask the question “why,” we are holding up a big neon sign that we are exiting the present and going on an adventure in the past. We thus signal the child that the real us is apparently unavailable. But they know the absolute truth. Every challenging child does. We can say we are busy all day long, but we are never too busy for a problem, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to have yet another problem, and another. All it takes is a challenging child.

It reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago who had a huge pile of the Sunday New York Times in a stack near her bed. Her belief was that she would eventually catch up. I believe she believed that, but what was she really seeking? The pile represented nothing but the past. The present was nowhere to be found in that pile.

3. “Why” is the ultimate booby prize. Think about your own life. Even if you think you know exactly why you did something today, if you are a living, breathing, and growing person, which you are, then chances are that a year from now, let alone a month from now, you will have an entirely different outlook and point of view and therefore an entirely different answer for how you would explain the very same problem. And even with the best answers for why we did something, think of how many times in the past that we continued a problematic behavior despite thinking we knew why we did it.

Do you think for a moment that it would be any different for a child? First, what’s the chance that she will sit there and explain to you why she did something? Second, what’s the chance that she will light on exactly and precisely the reason she did it? Even if it sounds right and she thinks it’s right, it might not come close to the real need she was longing to fill. If a child stole something from your purse, she is not likely to say that she was desperate for closeness with you and wanted to spark that connection.

The answer to the riddle is be present, be present, BE PRESENT, and in the process be radically appreciative of everything and anything that isn’t a problem. Do that and you will be far less motivated to ask “why” because you will be so much more pleased with the adventure of what is.

15 COMMENTS

  1. It all depends on the child, the problem, the circumstances doesn’t it? Sometimes it is helpful, even for the child, to understand “why”- I was one of those children: I could not change if I didn’t understand “why” I should or “why” I was acting out. Luckily my grand-mother was a very astute person when it came to child psychology- at least for achild like me.

  2. While I agree with you that spending significant time trying to find the origins of our suffering can actually only perpetuate that suffering, I wholeheartedly disagree with your implied assertion that exploring the pain is the same as seeking the origins of it. Very often our lack of nourishment comes from not being seen and not being heard. If we don’t enter into the inferno with the client, we will suggest to them that their pain is unimportant. Because as biological creatures we are hardwired to identify with our pain (for survival reasons), if we ignore the hunger we also run the risk of ignoring the person, thus perpetuating the lack of nourishment. Before we can learn to transcend our pain, we must first learn to gently be with it. As clinicians, we are in the unique position to help our clients learn this remarkably useful, self-affirming, transformative skill.

  3. From the time I was a small child I always wanted to know “why” about evrything. As I grew older and realized that I obviously had issues, like every other human being on the planet, I believed that if I knew “why,” or what the source was for my issue that I could change it, make everything better. I’m 64 years old. Last year I realized that my quest to know “why” about all my issues was only a smokescreen and a coverup that kept me in the past and deterred me from actually working to change myself as a person. I don’t need to know why. What I need to do is remain in the present and work on making myself a more genuine person. Your post makes perfect sense to me now whereas it wouldn[‘t have two years ago. Being Buddhist kind of helps this along since I think Buddha whould say that wanting to know why is a real waste of time.

  4. As a therapist who trained in uses and teaches Brief Solution Focused and Strategic Therapy interventions , I do agree why is irrelevant. In BSFT, it is identified as the source of problem maintence. On the other hand,When it comes to positive change then why can be explored in light of the intention one has set. Why did you refrain from arguing with your sister? If the child sees in themselves what we have previosuly reflected (acknowledgment) to them of who they are ( you have the greatness of self control) then the child’s explanation why they are acting consistently with their intention , to be kind, to show self control , is a worthwhile pursuit

  5. Hmmm.. I have worked in Mental Health for 25 years. I am not a therapist, but I don’t need to go to a biased school to be one.
    Asking why tells some one what they can change so it things happen differently. They don’t need to ruminate on why. Just find a different path, after they know why , to avoid that why. If you don’t become aware of the why, chances are the why will return.

  6. I think a better question is “how do you benefit from this behavior?” or “What do you get out of doing that?” I agree that asking a child “why” ends up being an inadvertent reinforcement, as well as pretty fruitless, because many times, the child’s motivation isn’t something they are aware of. But in doing therapy with adults, I have found that discovering the purpose of a “negative behavior” enables the client to figure out what need s/he is meeting with the behavior, which makes it easier to find a different behavior to meet the same need. Many times, I am undoing some of that childhood reinforcement of negativity that Howard is talking about.

    That being said, the biggest unused technique in therapy is asking the person when the problem DIDN’T happen. I often asked clients who were, say, depressed, “When was the last time you didn’t feel depressed?” If you follow up on what was going on at the times s/he felt good, you can discover some things s/he may already know that work to alleviate his/her suffering.

    It seems to me that, when working with adults, a combination of “solution focused” therapy (what works rather than what doesn’t) and a very change-oriented examination of reinforcements for the client’s undesired (by them) behavior (which often leads to an examination of “reasons” from the past) is a very fruitful approach.

    —- Steve

  7. My name is Missy. I’m Miss “Y”, Miss WHY.

    When I was very young, I asked a very serious question. I had a need to know. It was almost as if my life depended on it. I asked, “why is there a world?”. I HAD to know. I was very, very serious. I still am. I’ve always been a serious person. Too serious. Too, too serious. “Very”.

    I know the answer to the question now. The answer is “to see you again” and “to have and to hold”. The reason all life even exists is because the Mind wanted to reach out and touch it’s thoughts. I remember this, distinctly.

    If anyone ever questions Miss WHY, they’ll get an honest answer and THE TRUTH AS I KNOW IT. I talk. I tell. I explain. I communicate.

    One reason why asking why can fuel problems is because we aren’t always able to handle or tolerate THE ANSWERS or, scientifically speaking, “the data” or “information”. Once you have the answer (data, information), then you have more work to do.

    The answer to the question “why” is “because” or “to cause to be”. People say, “there is always a reason” and “everything happens for a reason”. Simply replace the word ‘reason’ with the word CAUSE. Apply it to ‘god’ and it is easy to understand: all was created BY god, FOR god … god IS why and why is understanding. Why is the only question that can ever give or lead to understanding. Understanding is MOST HIGH. Knowledge is not greater than understanding. One can know something but not understand it. When one understands something, they cannot not know what they understand. MOST people do NOT understand THIS paragraph.

    WHY is the world? WHY are we here? WHY do we exist? By god, for god. WHY?

    To have and to hold, and to see you again.

  8. Reading the post, it doesn’t sound like the argument is that asking why? is inherently a bad thing without value. The problem is that when explore why something is occurring there is a tendency to often get to focused and wrapped up in finding insight and understanding while neglecting how do you change the situation.

    I have many times come across the belief that in order to make a change in behavior, thought, etc. that a person must have “insight”, (I am sure I do this at times as well). Insight is such a loaded concept as people have different beliefs and view things different and people put their experiences / beliefs on others and say that a person doesn’t have insight because the other persons viewpoint doesn’t match their own. When ever I encounter this I try to point out that change does not require that the person has a vast understanding of the target belief or behavior they are changing. Understanding of why seems to have become this prerequisite for making change in many peoples eyes, unfortunately that can lead to people staying in a certain situation they could change longer than needed.

  9. I realize this article is in reference to children, but I have to share my experience – as a young adult experiencing extreme emotional states and receiving therapy and medications, exploring the questions of “why” were the ultimate key to my own recovery.

    I even had a therapist who wanted very much to avoid the “why” questions in favor of a more present-oriented CBT approach. Thankfully, she was willing to listen to me express my own sense of what I needed most.

    About six months later, the understanding I gained and the sense of my own personal answers to the “why” questions were, I believe, the predominate factor in my own healing and recovery.

    In short, asking “why” saved my life. And I’m glad I had a therapist who was sensitive enough to the diversity of context to adjust to my needs.

    • Each and evry person deserves to find their own unique path to wholeness and well being. Thanks goodness you found your way through to the other side by finding out why. Thanks for sharing your story and kudos to a therapist who listened to the one person who is the expert on their own life.

  10. I wonder how many kids out there are starving to spend *time* with their dads.

    Not only mom.
    But dad.

    Time.

    Not five minutes every week.
    Not *quality* time, on the weekends.

    But time.
    Real time.
    Every day.
    Every day.

    Time to listen.
    So the kid feels heard and understood.
    And appreciated.

    Not just with mom.
    But with dad.

    If that were taking place, we would have a lot less need for family therapists.

    Duane

  11. If only things were that great and that simple. Of course it is much much easier for a person to not ask WHY. It is much easier to just blame the child, or blame the person and tell them to stop being defective.

    I was sexually abused as a child. I was constantly referred to psychologists and other therapists as they could not understand my behaviour. They never once tried to find out why I was acting as I was, as it was totally and utterly irrelevant. I was living a pedophile ring and therapists like you claim to be able to fix my problems, WHILE I remained living in the pedophile ring?? If you asked WHY then you might have found out why and been able to remove me from it.

    Then came the supposed help I got when I left. I was referred to recovery oriented services, as I needed to learn to cook and clean. Again why I did not do those things had nothing to do with anything. It was all just a part of my chemical imbalance in the brain.

    Why not consider it from my perspective. I had been cut and threatened with knives, so dissociated at the site of them. I had had my hands burnt on stoves and so dissocaited at the site of one. I had a vacuum shoved up my vagina and for some reason could not cope with them either. But no one asked why. Even when told WHY they told me it had nothing to do with anything. My issues were all caused by a defective brain. The solution was to teach me where the ‘on’ button was on the vacuum, when I run outside, dissocaited and was not able to respond, after the 6th session, they threw me out of the service, as I was treatment resistent.

    When someone bothered to listen to my story, make me safe, and slowly allow me to explore those things for myself, I began to recover. I could not however recover without someone acknowledging the WHY.

    To say that one does not need to know why is just incomprehensible. Of course it is much much eaiser to just blame the child, than admit the realities of the live the chilren are living and what adults are doing to them. Blaming a child is much easier than admitting the crimes adults commit against children. Dwelling on the past does not help anyone, but not knowing what is causing the problems does not help either. That does not mean using the past as an excuse for the present, but it does mean that one cannot help someone, without knowing the origins of the behaviour. But of course, it is much easier to blame the child, than to admit what adults do to them.

    How does living in a pedophile ring, not affect a child. How does it not matter what is happening to the child??