One of the most frustrating things that can come up in therapy is trying to figure out why we feel the way that we do. I’ll even have moments when I ask myself questions, like “Why can’t I do this simple task?” or “Why do I feel so anxious about this?” The problem with these types of questions is that they usually result in me putting myself down with some not-so-nice answers: “Because I am lazy” or “Because I am not good at this.” Such responses aren’t very constructive, and they aren’t really answering the questions at hand. I could go round and round with myself, creating such generalized statements about who I am, but it wouldn’t be very helpful for promoting change. The benefit of exploring “Why”.

Recently, I’ve discovered a problem-solving method widely used by entrepreneurs and business professionals. The method is a root cause analysis tool and consists of simply asking yourself “Why?” five times to get to the root of an issue. Even though this is typically used for creating better business practices, I think it could also be used, and directed at ourselves, for when we feel stuck. The benefit to this process is that instead of focusing on one surface-level answer, we would actually be exploring the origins of what’s stirring up these big emotions. The benefit of exploring WHY.

Here is a hypothetical:

Issue: I’m having a hard time going to the store.

  • Why am I having a hard time going to the store? Because I feel anxious.
  • Why do I feel anxious? Because I don’t like being around a lot of people.
  • Why don’t I like being around a lot of people? Because I fear I will be judged.
  • Why do I fear I will be judged? Because I think people will criticize how I look.
  • Why do I think people will criticize how I look? Because I don’t like the way I look.

In this example, the initial issue seemed to be someone’s struggle with going to the store. While it would be great to problem-solve and discover ways to make trips to the store less daunting, the origins of why they’re so daunting is an essential missing piece to this puzzle. After some digging, the deeper roots of low self-esteem and poor body image present themselves. The real reason for the apprehension about going to the store isn’t because the person is lazy or incapable of going; a poor self-image can evoke feelings of anxiety around others, making it difficult to go to places with lots of people, like the store. Moving forward, putting in the work to build up confidence and a better self-image, as opposed to devising strategies for easier shopping trips, would be the most effective solution for creating lasting change.

Here is another example:

Issue: I can’t ever finish my schoolwork.

  • Why can’t I finish my schoolwork? Because I don’t want to.
  • Why don’t I want to? Because there is so much.
  • Why is there so much? Because I push it off.
  • Why do I push it off? Because I feel anxious when I try to do it.
  • Why do I feel anxious when I try to do it? Because it’s hard and I don’t want to get a bad grade.

This time, it doesn’t seem like the root to these feelings has presented itself yet. This would be a great opportunity to keep exploring and ask “Why?” a couple more times.

Why don’t I want a bad grade? Because I’ll feel like a failure.

Why would you feel like a failure? Because my parents told me that people who don’t do well in school will never be successful in life.

Upon further exploration, it seems that the person in this example is holding some strong beliefs imposed by their parents. These forced “values” can oftentimes foment negative beliefs about oneself. In this case, perhaps poor self-esteem is the reason behind unfinished homework since the idea of not doing well on an assignment means much more than a bad grade; it means the possibility of an unfulfilling future. An intimate therapeutic space would be a great place to explore these deep-seated beliefs about oneself and others, to reconstruct what it means to be successful, and to foster self-compassion while learning new material.

Add to your toolbox

After reflecting on these two examples, it becomes clear that there is usually much more going on internally than what is being presented on the surface. This technique can be used in many situations and does not have to stop at the fifth “Why?” Adding a few extra questions can reveal something that’s been buried very deep. Of course, this technique is not a catch-all, but it could be something useful to throw in your toolbox. In some instances, there may be multiple answers to your questions, and answers may even vary depending on your mood. Exploring the various paths and possible origins of an issue could help you to feel a little less stuck and frustrated.  The benefit of exploring WHY can help.

Remaining in a headspace of playful curiosity during this exercise can relieve some pressure and self-judgment as well. Remember, self-compassion is always essential when doing the deep inner work. Perspective Therapy Services is delighted to be a part of this process with you.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.