The “why” questions we ask ourselves are often rooted in victimhood and ego, centered in our insecurities and fears. Mine certainly are. These aren’t “whys” we’re asking because we want answers, even though we might say them out loud. I’ve said (and heard) things like: “why did this happen to me again?? why am I so unlucky?” or “why doesn’t she/he love me? why don’t they like me?” or “why am I always wrong? what’s the matter with me?” Honest answers to these kinds of questions could help us gain insight on ourselves, assuming we had a wise, accepting space to discover them. But I’ve learned that there are more valuable, powerful, positive “why” questions we can ask that arise from the conscious, sincere desire to uncover a truth. The answers aren’t always obvious, but I believe the process of answering can lead us to greater self-awareness and to making healthy, authentic choices.
I learned to reframe my “why” questions last year. I began with “why do I want —?”—a simple and revealing question, though the answer can be complex. I wrote down: Why do I want to be in a relationship?, took a deep, centering breath, and then allowed myself to work through all the various angles and baggage until I found the answer that was most authentic to my life right now. The true reasons I want to—eventually—be in a relationship have nothing to do with ticking clocks or societal pressure or even the occasional bout of loneliness or longing (which I’ve learned are far easier and kinder to feel outside of a relationship than inside one). Once I was able to let go of those side issues, I could see the full, true answer, and knowing it has empowered me to feel good about where I am right now and confident in the choices I’m making.
I’ve found that often this is just a matter of turning a statement around, making “I want a better job,” or “I want to do more with my life” into a question. Why do I want a better job? Why do I feel I’m not doing enough with my life, and why do I feel the need to do more? These aren’t easy questions to ask ourselves, but I believe that the practice of defining exactly what’s motivating us to want something can be really effective, giving us a clarity of purpose that could easily be lost in focusing on the lack of what we want. We might find we don’t actually want that particular thing right now, it’s just become a part of our automatic narrative to think we do.
Even more difficult “why” questions are the sort a therapist might ask—Why do you believe —? Why do you feel that way about —? Big, important questions, questions we may need to have answered. My problem is that I tend to freeze up in therapy. Having even a trusted, licensed listener expecting me to struggle with verbal responses to this stuff makes me on edge and fuzzy. I believe it’s extremely valuable to be asked such things, but I find that the answers come with much more honesty and fluidity when I ask them of myself. The trick is being able to ease or drag out the truth—at least the truth as we know it.
Defining these answers for ourselves isn’t necessarily the whole truth forever and ever amen, but it’s a really good place to start, a place to challenge our automated patterns and outdated beliefs. It requires honest reflection, with an open mind, knowing that we aren’t perfect and may have to face some disturbing or uncomfortable things about who we are and the choices we’ve made. But again, that’s just a place to start.
I also find that it helps me prod myself into writing in my journal if I pose a question to answer, rather than try to force out “deep thoughts” on my brief lunch hour or while dinner is cooking. One question alone could lead to pages of insight written over weeks or months, perhaps opening into a dozen more questions, if we give ourselves the opportunity to fully answer. The beautiful thing is that nobody is going to read this document, this scrawled page in a notebook. Grammar and spelling and linear thinking aren’t required. It’s a way for us to have conversations with ourselves, and what better way to start a conversation than with a meaty, introspective question?
This past year, through a required work exercise using a surveyed list of adjectives, I discovered that several people close to me don’t perceive me as I perceive myself. I saw myself as much kinder and warmer and more giving than they did—one respondent believed I was self-centered and ruthless. These are people I see every day, people I consider to be good friends, who genuinely like me. It was startling and upsetting, and at first I was in hot, angry denial about the results. The survey wasn’t terribly scientific, so I could enjoy that rationalization for a day or two. But then I started to open up to the possibility that maybe I was kinder on the inside, in my own perceptions, than I was on the outside. I spent some time thinking about why that might be, what behaviors or actions might be resulting in that disconnect. It led me down some very unexpected paths, and allowed me to discover deeply hidden truths about the story I’ve been telling myself my whole life. Rather than ignore what happened, or decide that it meant I was unworthy and wrong (believe me, I had moments), I went inside the why. Why was there such a disconnect in the survey results, however trivial the exercise? Why did I feel such a strong need to see myself as sweet and giving, when clearly that wasn’t necessarily the whole truth of my personality?
I remind myself often, when faced with something complicated or challenging, to look a little deeper at the quandary or situation. Why am I resisting this? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why am I reacting this way? And no matter how tricky the answers can be, they always teach me something constructive and empowering. When applied with large doses of self-acceptance, endless compassion and as much detachment as possible, asking ourselves “why” can be a powerful tool for growth.