Are you stuck? Why asking “Why?” doesn’t always help


When talking with your spouse “Why?” or “Why? did you…” is a four-letter word, especially if you add “…in the world…”

Bill Cosby once joked that “Why?” isn’t very helpful with kids because it is usually met with a whiny pathetic “I dunnooooooooo!” 

Have you ever noticed that when you ask your kids something starting with “Why don’t you…?” You don’t usually get the answer you were hoping for?

Clearly, “Why?” doesn’t usually work because a) there’s no good answer b) the question was really a complaint in (partial) disguise and c) it usually results in defensiveness and/or temporary brain-damage/amnesia in the other.

Another arena where “Why?” isn’t usually recommended is counseling. 

When we go though pain though, it’s natural to ask why.

Even Jesus did. The Psalms are full of Why’s. Asking “Why” is a natural response to difficult things in life. We ask Why to make sense and meaning of our negative experiences.

Thing is, there’s a few ways that asking Why isn’t helpful; a few reasons it can even be detrimental to growth and peace. 

One expectation that people have when they first come to counseling is figuring out why they do things. Thing is we can’t always know or figure out the reasons why.  And, one of my counseling professors taught me, insight doesn’t guarantee change.  

In fact, asking Why? can keep you from changing, if you aren’t careful.  
Some folks ask Why? but they really don’t want to know the answer.

The problem is many people ask why as a way of staying perpetually confused.

They may not realize that this is what they doing but they ask and avoid answering the question.
Not answering your unknowns about the past is a great way of avoiding the unknowns of the future. 
(Asking What if? And leaving that unanswered also creates and perpetuates anxiety)
Another reason Why? can be misused is often Why? is way of complaining wihout the risk of admitting how you feel and what you want.
We do this with our kids, “Why can’t you remember to clean up the bathroom?”  
We also do this with God.  “Why does this keep happening to me?”
Here’s another example of what this sounds like: “Why do I always [fill in addictive behavior of choice]?  Is it because I was abused?  Because my parents neglected me?  Because I need medication? Because I really don’t want to change? Is it because I really  don’t trust God?”   
This line of questioning can go on and on, with no resolution, for years.  Asking the next question and piling on the next right on top of the other, allows the person who is asking “Why” to never face down the truth, to dig down to the answers.  It’s a form of self-sabotage because it makes facing the truth, the past, seem so overwhelming.  
The benefits of not answering our unanswered Why’s is we don’t need to take responsibility.
We don’t need to take responsibility for what we don’t understand, what we don’t know.
Asking Why? is a way of staying stuck, feeling helpless and out of control.  We can wait.  Wait for the answers to come. Instead of taking steps to control what we can control and act on what we do know is true.
It also is a great defense mechanism.  If we are constantly questioning ourselves it pre-emptively prevents people from questioning us.  From critiquing us.  It’s the self-deception of seemingly being really self-aware and introspective while not facing the hard truths, deep down.
Asking Why? also gives a lot of power to our circumstances, to our past and to what has happened to us.
We end up feeling like a victim.
So, those are a few reasons…why…I think one of key aspects of counseling is helping people face their Whys.  Helping people answered their unanswered questions, as best they can.  
If you struggle with anxiety and questioning yourself and your past, I hope I haven’t come across as too harsh.  I do actually want to help.
When a series of Why’s? come up, I’ll often say, “I don’t know.  What do you think?  Let’s explore that some more and figure it out.”  Often, folks know the reasons Why, it’s what to do about it next that’s the hard part.
And even if we can’t figure out the “Why”, life still needs to happen.
“If you did know ‘why’ what would that mean? “
“Assuming that’s true, it seems like a good hunch, if that’s the reason ‘why’, what do you do do know with that?”
“In the meantime, until you figure it out, what’s the next best step?”
Here are some ways you can ask a why question without actually using the Why word. Some ways to explore, go deeper to, more self-awareness and understanding about what you’ve been through and what makes you tick.  
I hope these questions will help you if you struggle with being stuck with unanswered why’s.

Some alternatives to WHY

“What was/is going on?”

“What is happening/happens? when you…”

“How is pattern continuing? What fuels it?”

“What did you do? What didn’t you do?”

“Where did this happen?”

“When did you start believing that [core belief or coginitive distortion]?”

“Where did you start doing that [behavior]?”

“Who taught you that [behavior/coping]? Who modeled that in your life?”

“How did you get here? To this place?”

“What if?”

“What did they do/say?” “How did you respond?” (vs. “They made me…[feeling or behavior]”)

“What did that look like? What did you feel? What did you experience?”

“When that happended – What did that mean to you? What did you start telling yourself? About God,others, family, yourself?”

“What was your role?”

add: “What would you do if you knew “Why? How would knowing why? help you.” 

Here’s a few questions to bring all this digging and exploration of the past back into the present, the here-and-now:

How does this affect you?

What are you experiencing?

What will you do with this? What do you want/need?

Who will you share this with?

What are you feeling?

How can you reframe this?

What is the alternative?

What/How can you change/control?

What are the obstacles?

Those are just a few ways to explore, gain insight, get more concrete without asking why – they help support self-efficacy and can help you get unstuck, reframe and think about change.

I’ll end with one I learned from Dr. Earl Wilson

“What did you tell yourself to give yourself permission to act out?”

That one may make you squirm a bit and feel like saying something like “I dunnoooo!”

but if you’re willing to answer that or some of the others above, you’ll be well on your way to making any adjustments or changes you want to make.

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Licensed professional counselor and health coach in Portland, OR Pre-marital and couples counseling. Individual counseling for anxiety, depression, insomnia, sleep disorders, sexual addiction, porn addiction, career, transitions, grief, burnout, personal growth.

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