“Why?” Can Get in the Way

“I’m a thinking person and I like to know the reasons why I do things.”

I have mixed emotions about this statement. On the one hand, I only hear it from people who are, in fact, thinking people. That’s a good way to be. The unexamined life is not only a less rewarding life, but can also be a reckless or destructive one. The only alternative to acting on rational thought is to act on impulse. Impulsive decisions are not always wrong, but they often are wrong and self-defeating, and the method is always wrong.

However, we don’t always know why we’re doing something. And it’s not necessary to know this before changing a habit or behavioral pattern you wish to change. For example, “I procrastinate. I want to change this, but until I know why I procrastinate, I can’t change.” This attitude gets in the way of coming up with solutions and strategies for change. For example, “I tend to put certain things off. The solution seems to be to get those things done at the start of the day.” But the self-aware and thinking person sometimes won’t do this. Instead he’ll say, “That’s probably a good strategy for fighting procrastination. But I must first know WHY I procrastinate, before I ever change.”

That’s not so. You can change without knowing why you did the previously ineffective behavior. Sometimes people change, achieve results, and then wonder, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” There might not be an answer to that question, either. But the failure to answer that question doesn’t mean the change wasn’t real or effective. It doesn’t mean the change you made can’t continue.

It’s a false belief to assume, “I cannot change until I know why I’m currently doing something wrong.” The more important question to consider is what are the reasons you consider your current behavior wrong.

Consider an alcoholic. Nobody can change an alcoholic. If he stops drinking because others tell him so, and for no other reason, then sooner or later he’s going to start drinking again. What’s crucial is not that he knows WHY he drinks. What’s crucial is that he knows why it’s important to stop. He has to stop for reasons that he considers rational, valid and applicable to him personally. It’s like this with any behavioral or life change, including anything less dramatic or obviously destructive than alcoholism.

I like it that thinking people want to be introspective. It saddens me that so few people are introspective in our otherwise pretty productive and, for the most part, pretty prosperous society. As the ancient Greeks realized, human beings must be an integration of thought and action. Action is very, very important, and that’s one of the things that has made American and Western civilization so successful. But if you don’t pay enough attention to ideas and thinking, you ultimately get into trouble. You have to know the content of your mind, meaning your emotions, your assumptions, and what’s basically motivating you. Otherwise you’re going to eventually run out of psychological fuel. And your failure to understand yourself, including the practice of self-awareness, will make you less effective, competent and successful.

Yes, I like introspection. But you don’t have to know the reasons for everything in order to accomplish something. People often tell a therapist, “I have to know WHY I’m an angry person.” What they usually mean is, “I have to know where in my childhood (or my past) this problem started.” But is that necessary? And what if you cannot find out? What if you can’t remember? Or what if you do find out? Let’s say you discover, “I’m an angry person because my mother was cruel and unfair.” OK. There’s nothing wrong with knowing that. But how do you move forward? And WHY should you change yourself in the present? And how should you go about it? Those are the really meaningful questions.

Some people use this “why” issue as an excuse. If you find out you have a problem because of something someone did to you in childhood, then you can blame the problem on that person. Or on something else external. People looking for excuses resist the call to focus on solutions and strategies for improving themselves. Finding and implementing solutions means self-responsibility. But it’s self-responsibility for the sake of yourself. It’s not supposed to feel like a sacrifice! Or a burden. If it feels like a sacrifice, to work on solving problems in your life rather than finding excuses, then something is wrong in your thinking somewhere.

“Why do I do this?” is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Explore it. But don’t let it paralyze you.