The “Why?” Question

Dean challenges Barb with a question: “Why do you feel so strongly about that? Your position is totally illogical!”

Later Barb finds herself ruminating on the exchange with Dean. “Why do I feel so strongly about it? Am I being unreasonable? Am I illogical? My position makes sense to me and I’m totally comfortable with it but maybe Dean is right. Maybe I should change my opinion.”

A student once told me, “You know what I hate? Having someone ask me why I do something! ‘Why do you get up so early? You should sleep in.’ ‘You don’t want to go out tonight? Why not? It’s Friday.’ Or I’m sitting in the cafeteria with some guys and one of them says, ‘Why do you eat all of one thing on your plate before you eat the other stuff?’

“I mean, what the hell, what business is it of his how I eat? Can’t I eat my food the way I want to? Am I here to please others or to do things the way I like?”

That last question really says it all and gets to the heart of the issue: You really aren’t here to live up to the expectations of others and they are not here to live up to yours. You have a responsibility to be authentic and true to yourself. Will you be satisfied with your life if you try to be someone you are not, someone another person insists you be? If you accept that the answer is “No,” resisting pressure to be what others want you to be will be easier. You will feel more personally authentic and be better able to work through the down times.

Let’s return to Barb’s example above. When confronting negative emotions, does asking yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” automatically produce insight and growth? Most people go into counseling seeking an answer to why questions: “Why I am feeling this way? Why do I have these negative emotions? Why do I get so anxious around others? Why can’t I be more decisive?” Common sense says answering those questions should lead to greater insight, learning, understanding, and positive growth. Research, however, says focusing on why questions can be unproductive and even harmful.

Ethan Kross of Columbia University asked undergraduate students to recall an experience when they felt intense anger toward someone. One group was told to vividly reflect on the experience in their minds; another group was told to imagine they were simply an observer watching themselves get angry at the other person. Only students in the second group showed lower anger when thinking about the original experience.

The lesson is clear: Dwelling on, “Why do I feel this way?” is not effective because you are focusing on the emotion and the person who aroused the emotion in you. Instead, you must view yourself more objectively, not as a victim of the emotion but as someone who can exercise some control over how you view your emotion. You must restructure your thinking about yourself (“I can control my thinking”) and others (“I cannot control what others say”). You need to understand that control is something best exercised on yourself, not on others. You need to understand that positive growth requires posing not the question of “Why?” but posing the question of “What,” as in, “What can I do to develop thoughts and actions that bring me more personally satisfying outcomes?”

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