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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.