The Danger of Why
Why is a great word. A few years ago in his ground breaking TEDx talk, Simon Sinek shared the importance of ‘starting with why’. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. He explained the power of why and how it inspires people. Indeed, motivation, purpose, vision, drive, mission are all products of asking why. The question why is a phenomenal question to ask. Except when it’s not.
In the field of NLP, my mentor, co-author and friend Dr Richard Bandler would always explain that why often wasn’t the best question to ask. Why gets you theories about what’s going on as opposed to how or how do you know when to do that which help you understand what the person is actually doing inside their head.
I would go even further. Often the question why can become the problem. One of the patterns I’ve noticed in many people is they have a very specific way of catastrophizing. Instead of asking and answering the question: what if the worst case scenario happens here?, which is bad enough, they consider some emotional challenge they have and ask: why is this one thing going wrong? They start to hunt for reasons as to why they have an issue in the first place.
Their why causes them to spiral and take an ordinary event and turn it into something huge. This, in turn, gets them to start doubting much more about their life.
Many years ago I had a client who was worried that she was going crazy. She was legitimately scared that she was having a breakdown. When we discussed what she was doing inside her head that made her feel that way, she shared some crazy thoughts she was having. She had crazy thoughts and she asked herself why am I having these crazy thoughts? As a result of this question, she started to believe that she was going crazy.
I explained to her the kind of stuff that I think about every single day and she was shocked. She said that she felt normal compared to me and enquired if I wasn’t worried I was going crazy myself. I said when I have a crazy thought I simply say to myself ‘Wow. That was a crazy thought.’
The explanations that you give to yourself as to why you have a problem can become your beliefs about your problem and, indeed, the wider elements of your life. If you believe the reason you’re angry with your friend is because they don’t respect you, you might find yourself soon going down the rabbit hole of questioning the friendship as opposed to simply thinking your friend annoyed you. Asking why something is wrong can lead to you doubting the entire situation.
You’re depressed. Why? Because your life sucks. You’re angry at your partner this week. Why? Things aren’t working out anymore. Maybe they’re not right for you after all. You had a stressful week. Maybe this job was a big mistake and you were foolish to take it all those years ago.
My point isn’t that sometimes these things can’t be true. It is that most of the time they’re not. When you have had a bad day you’ve had a bad day. When you’re depressed, that doesn’t say much about your life. People with incredible lives can be pretty miserable too. When you and your partner have an argument, that’s part of being in a healthy functional relationship. Indeed, the health of your relationship is related to how you argue not how often.
The emotions we feel are often the product of a bunch of elements, many of which we aren’t aware of at the time of feeling. The experiences of being hangry, tangry or tanxious are examples of how our hunger or tiredness messes with our feelings. When we ask why and we don’t recognize factors such as these, we fall into the trap of assuming that something much more terrible is going on.
The question why can transform the world. It can also ruin your life. Be mindful how you use it.
P.S. This week’s podcast on how the mental game works is a good un! I explore a comprehensive framework for how we experience life in three worlds. Really hope you tune in and let me know what you think. You can get access to it here.