“Why” is sometimes not a useful question.


I have plumbed the depths of philosophy academically and personally, enjoying the adventure of following the question “why?” to some sort of conclusion. Probably you are the same, enjoying speculative conversations with friends or colleagues and bantering about various points of interest and disparity. It can be fun and educational. Many in the scientific community look at asking “Why?” as an important first step of curiosity in the exploration of natural phenomena, leading to brilliant discoveries and a greater understanding of the natural world.
However, when I’m looking at human behavior and thought patterns, either in myself or a client, “Why?” can often be a stumbling block to understanding. It can often remove the inquirer from the present moment, rocketing them off into the fuzzy realms of philosophy, and consequently can lead to more questions, many of which are unable to be answered.
In my years of work, both personally and professionally, I have found another question to be more helpful. I prefer asking questions beginning with “What”. It’s much more aligned with the present moment and can be a great help in focusing the attention. For example “What am I feeling right now?” Or, “What did I get from this behavior?” These specifics can help create an understanding by giving particular information- by being direct rather than circular. In short, it’s more efficient. This is particularly valuable when working with depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse issues when time can be a very important factor to a person’s health and well-being.
I’ve also found that “Why?” is often a distraction, my way of pretending to deal with an issue but not actually dealing with it directly. We humans sometimes love to take the long road, but the problem with using “Why?” as a starting point is that it often leads farther away from a solution rather than closer. Many of my “Why?” questions have no answer- it may be fun to explore these questions, but if I’m really looking to get more information in order to make better choices and increase my self-understanding it’s not the most productive.
Most of us want the truth sooner or later- but it’s often much easier to deal with if we discover it for ourselves.

2 comments on ““Why” is sometimes not a useful question.

  1. char says:

    Are you inside my head?……..”what” is harder than “why”……

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  2. Ann McGettigan says:

    My mother told me that I drove her crazy as a child, always asking “why?” to everything…. I agree with you in terms of the here and now, \”what” may be quicker and somewhat easier to answer, but I still like the why questions although I have never had great answers, more of the cosmic shrug/why not is the usual answer I get back…

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