We’d all like more insight about ourselves. Gaining greater self-awareness can allow us to make improvements in our relationships, career, and life in general.
When we’re trying to figure out what makes us tick, we typically ask ourselves, “Why?”
“Why do I hate my job?”
“Why do I always fall for the wrong person?”
“Why can’t I lose weight?”
“Why do I lose my temper?”
“Why am I depressed?”
People can write hundreds of pages in their journals or spend months in therapy trying to answer these types of “why” questions without ever coming to any satisfactory or helpful conclusions.
And there’s a reason for that: “Why?” isn’t a very useful question to ask yourself if you’re looking to enhance your self-awareness.
Below we walk you through why you should stop asking yourself “Why?” and what you should ask yourself instead.
Why Asking Yourself “Why?” Can Get You Nowhere
You may not be able to find the answer. The biggest reason you should stop asking yourself why you do or don’t do something is that you probably don’t know the answer to that question. And won’t, even with strenuous introspection, be able to completely figure it out.
Which seems counterintuitive. Why wouldn’t we know why we do the things we do? Don’t we know ourselves well enough to access that insight?
Several studies in consumer psychology have shown that when we’re asked why we like something, we often don’t really know. We might think we know, but we’re frequently fooling ourselves.
For example, in one study, researchers laid out four identical pairs of pantyhose on a display table. The study’s subjects were then asked to pick any pair they wanted. People chose the pair on the far right — the one their gaze would have taken in last — to the tune of four to one.
When the researchers asked subjects why they picked a particular pair, of what were, again, identical pantyhose, they’d say things like “It’s the best color” or “It has the best elasticity.” The subjects gave eighty different reasons as to why they’d chosen the pair that they did, but not one of them said that its position on the table had influenced their decision.
Even when the researchers pointed out that the pairs were all the same, the subjects still stuck with their reasoning.
Similar studies have generated similar results. We often make a decision quickly based on emotion, environmental factors, and the like, and then create a seemingly logical, rational explanation for the decision after the fact. We may pick the car we buy because we like it on a gut level, but when we’re asked why we chose that car, we’ll say things like “It gets good mileage” or “It’s a smooth ride.” We never say, “I just liked it.”
The reality is that we do things for a mixture of complex reasons that can be hard to grasp and articulate. Dwelling too heavily on the question of why we do what we do can thus lead us in fruitless circles.
Asking why puts you in victim mode. In her book, Tasha notes that there’s something about asking yourself “Why?” that puts you into a victim mindset.
“Why” elicits a lot of emotional reasoning, particularly negative emotional reasoning that can send you down a death spiral of rumination.
“Why is my life terrible?”
“Why don’t people like me?”
“Why do I keep getting fired?”
Notice how all those “why” questions frame your life as something that just happens to you?
Maybe the why doesn’t matter. There’s a popular idea that if we know why we do something or why we have a psychological hang-up, we’ll be able to solve the problem. It likely comes from Freudian psychodynamic therapy. There’s an idea that if you can figure out that the reason you’re depressed is, for example, that you had a bad relationship with your mother, then the depression can resolve itself.
The idea has been called into question by more modern therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT argues that pinning a “why” to maladaptive behavior probably won’t do much to change future action.
“So your mom wasn’t affectionate to you when you were a kid. Now what?” asks the cognitive behavioral therapist.
Sometimes figuring out the why of you will be helpful. But often it won’t.
What to Ask Instead of “Why?” for Better Insights
So if asking “Why?” doesn’t consistently lead to greater self-insight, what should we ask instead?
The answer is simple: ask “What?”
“What” questions provide more helpful information than “why” questions. “What” questions are less emotionally fraught and force you to use the cooler, more logical part of your brain. “What” questions also provide actionable insights.
For example, instead of asking yourself, “Why can’t I lose weight?” ask yourself a series of questions like these:
“What’s holding me back from losing weight?”
“What is it about my diet that’s contributing to my weight gain?”
“What’s a diet that I’ll actually stick with?”
“What’s getting in the way of me exercising regularly?”
“What small changes can I make in my diet to help me reduce calories?”
See the difference?
Asking yourself, “Why can’t I lose weight?!” will elicit vague, emotionally-based, victim-mode-creating responses (“I’m a lazy slob!” “It’s my genes!” “My mom used food to express her love!”) that aren’t very helpful.
Whereas asking “what” questions will provide rational, proactive, and specific responses.
I’ve also noticed that asking “how” questions can be an excellent supplement to asking “what” questions.
“How can I make exercise a habit?” “How can I make better food choices?”
Like the “what” questions, “how” questions provide actionable, specific insights.
The next time you catch yourself asking a “why” question, try to reframe your introspection as a “what” question. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised to discover the valuable and productive insights this little change will garner.
For more advice on how to increase your self-awareness in healthy and effective ways, listen to our podcast with Tasha Eurich: