Want to Move Forward in your Life? Shift your Focus from ‘Why’ to ‘What Now’
Where you decide to go next is far more important than how you got here.
There are innumerable issues that bring people to therapy and coaching. Folks usually want to feel happier, more confident, less angry, and the like. Before diving into making changes to improve their situation, answers to the “why” questions are frequently top of mind, as in:
Why do I get so angry with strangers, or procrastinate on important projects, or turn a positive moment into waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Much as I hate to admit it, those questions often can’t be answered definitively, even after weeks, months and sometimes years of exploration. How would we know if we did get the “right” answer to the source of your anger issues, procrastination or worrying?
A closely related set of “why” questions pertain to the motivations of others. We can spend hours investigating why your wife cheated on you, why your daughter drinks too much or why [your question here].
The thing is, not much is certain when it comes to what motivates us. For a variety of reasons, we can’t even answer the “why” question about ourselves (e.g., Why did I think it was a good idea to go to law school because two years in I’m bored to death?) much less about someone else.
Why, you ask (hahaha)?
Consider how you might answer a question about yourself now, vs how you answered it one or two years ago, vs how you might answer it two years from now. As the end-of-history illusion demonstrates, our understanding changes over time, as do our narratives about our lives, even though this is very difficult to imagine. We believe we are not going to change moving forward, though the data do not support this view.
Instead what happens is that we remember things differently, or acquire more information, or, perhaps due to cognitive dissonance, choose to forget a couple of things. Complex behaviors have multiple determinants — think nature, nurture and culture, just to name a few. Identifying the contribution of each one is a mammoth and impossible undertaking.
There are facts when it comes to things like what color hair you really have, how tall you really are and how much you really weigh. See what I’m doing there? Sometimes we’re dishonest with others about even those seemingly incontrovertible facts. And we may be dishonest even with ourselves.
You can see how extending the “why” question to some else’s behavior would up the ante of uncertainty exponentially.
Another thing to consider is that understanding why, or insight, does not necessarily lead to change. Often, spending lots of time trying to understand the “why” is not sufficient to generate a change in how you’re feeling, what you’re doing that you’d like to stop doing, or what you’re not doing that you’d like to start doing.
It’s not that we don’t need to have a narrative that explains our lives. Consider that your best guess as to why you didn’t stop drinking when all the signs were there, is probably good enough for now. It will change over time anyway. More importantly, if you ask yourself what you want to do now, maybe you won’t make the same mistakes (e.g., ignoring your partner’s concerned questions) again.
The endless search for the truth of some obsessive concern you’re having (Why isn’t my friend Leila calling me back?) is unlikely to reap much in the way of rewards. How you feel about Leila not calling, and what that might suggest for possible action plans, is a more useful focus of attention.
Letting go of the search for the true answer to the “why” question allows you to more easily let go of possible truths. Possible truths often include negative things like, Leila never really liked me, Maybe I haven’t been a very good friend. They also include positive things like, Maybe something’s going on with Leila’s family or Maybe she’s super busy at work. Recognizing there are a range of possible truths often helps us see that we don’t really know what the heck is going on with Leila.
Usually, we don’t have enough information to know what’s true for certain, if there even is a truth. As Shunryū Suzuki said, Not always so.
Given your current narrative, subject to change, the important questions are:
· What will feel good now? When you stop the historical search you can focus on the now. Exploring how you’re feeling now and being curious about what’s likely to lead you to feel better are far more helpful. Allow your current narrative to be good enough to facilitate forward momentum and to consider next steps.
· What do you want things to look like moving forward? Realistically. I don’t mean pretending you never had an alcohol problem, you don’t hate law school, or whatever. I mean what’s your endgame? Where do you want things to go? What’s your goal for today, tomorrow or next year? When we pursue goals and experience meaning in our present lives, we feel good.
· What do you need to be able to move forward? Maybe it seems you need answers, but you’re probably not going to get them. It’s better to spend time thinking about what else you need (maybe finding self-forgiveness or sticking to a strategy to fight procrastination) in order to get things moving in a positive direction.
· What are you ready to do now? What’s your next step? What would be useful? Maybe it’s something as simple as getting back into running, spending 10 minutes on the big project or having dinner with a close friend. Take that step, and the next and then the next.
When you find yourself stuck in an endless “why” loop, consider:
Getting caught up in the “whys,” coming up with plausible explanations and beating yourself, or others, up for real or imagined shortcomings, is likely to make you feel worse, not better.
Letting go of your idea of the “truth” of something is easier if you recognize that there are many potential explanations, many possible truths, and that you can’t know THE TRUTH, because there isn’t one.
Finding a way forward, even if the way doesn’t seem entirely clear, is the best course. Take one step. Be curious. Make a choice. Take some action.
Whether it’s therapy, coaching or a talk with your bff, let go of the “why” questions. How do you do that? Try all those “what” questions posed above. They will change your focus from the then, to the now. They will help you decide where you want to go now, how you’re going to get there and when you’ll start the journey.
Visit me at www.drjudithtutin.com to learn more about me, my work and my writing.