This three-letter word, so small yet so powerful, is among those most often expressed in my counseling office. This little word comes in many forms. Why did this happen to me? Why is he like that? Why did she do that? Why won’t he change? Why can’t I change? Why am I addicted to this?
What do we do with the Why questions? Here are some ideas that I find myself returning to in many of my counseling conversations…
I’ve heard stories about a man named Jim Kelleher who, as director of Grant Hospital’s Alcoholism Treatment Program in the 1970s, played a big part in bringing substance abuse treatment to the Northside of Chicago. As legend goes, in his office at the hospital there hung an embroidered plaque, the kind your grandmother might make for you. Except on this plaque read the words, “There is no f***ing reason” (minus the asterisks). Jim was so tired of having to say it, he had the plaque made so he could just point to it.
Whether the sentiment of the plaque – that reasons behind problems don’t exist or don’t matter – is accurate is probably debatable. I’ve seen cases where answering the “Why?” question unlocked important clues that were needed to solve a problem. I’ve also seen many times, however, where chasing that answer became an endless rabbit hole of a distraction. What I know for sure is that this little word echoes like a resounding bell in the minds of many as much today as it did back in Jim Kelleher’s day.
So what do we do with the Why questions? Here are some ideas.
Would you be OK if this problem got better and we never answered the Why question?
This is worth asking yourself. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say no to this. The urgency of wanting to find the reason behind a problem really stems from our burning desire to find relief from the problem. Despite our long-held assumption that to solve a problem we must understand its cause, many times we can take practical steps toward bettering our lives without ever knowing a problem’s cause.
If you’ve been in an abusive relationship, for example, you may be plagued, wondering why this person treated you that way. More than likely the abuse you suffered had nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. “Why does he do that?” might not be nearly as important as “How do I avoid toxic, unsafe people?” or “How do I recover my sense of self-worth in the aftermath of what happened?” Even if you never get a concrete answer on why he did what he did, answering the latter questions can lead to recovery and healing.
Focus on How instead of Why
Asking “How?” rather than “Why?” immediately puts us in a more proactive position. Sure, it’s helpful when the answer to the Why question reveals itself. But despite “Why?” being unanswerable in many cases, “How?” is almost always answerable. How do I move forward now? How do we repair trust in our relationship? How do I stay sober? How do I stay safe? These questions almost always move us toward action whereas “Why?” often immobilizes us.
If you could answer the Why question, how would it be useful?
This is a very specific How question that can be very effective. It can provide important clues to what’s really behind the Why question. If you feel tyrannized by a Why question, ask yourself how it would be useful to know the answer. One of two things is going to occur. On one hand you might realize that answering the Why question wouldn’t be very useful at all. I’ve witnessed the relief wash over the face of many of my clients, probably much like those who read Kelleher’s plaque, as they realized the futility of the question, thus nullifying its weight over them. But the other possibility is that this will lead you to something more important than the Why question, itself.
For example, I remember a woman saying to me that she needed to know why her ex-husband had been so abusive. She knew enough not to blame herself anymore, but she felt this burning need to know why someone she loved so much could do such awful things to her. Why did he do it? Why is he like that? As we talked, and as we looked for the usefulness of the question, she said, “I thought I was safe with him, but I wasn’t. I need to know how to stay safe.” All of the sudden she tapped into much more answerable questions. How do I recognize a toxic relationship? How do I set healthy boundaries? How do I regain trust in my own intuition after being hurt like this? None of these questions rely on answering her initial, sincere but distracting, question, “Why did he do that?” But it was this Why question that led her to the important How questions.
Spirit, Time, and Purpose Revealed
I received a card once that read, Gain is not more than loss. Only time can tell what each is for.
I don’t know the origin of this saying and a Google search didn’t help. But I love how it puts gain and loss on an equal footing. It suggests that they both have value in our lives. It also suggests the purpose for each is not revealed right away, but over time.
For many, the pursuit of purpose – including the reason behind a loss or a problem – is spiritual. In my pragmatic suggestions above, I don’t mean to negate the importance of this in any way. Often, understanding the spiritual purpose behind hardship motivates one toward healing of self and compassion for others. Rather, as we pursue both the spiritual and the practical answers, it’s important to not let the differences between the two questions – How and Why – undermine the process of healing and change.
Andy Young has been helping individuals and families around the Chicagoland area for over 25 years. He specializes in couples counseling, parenting, substance abuse, anger management, and domestic violence.