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Say "what"?

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:51pm
I was reading Dr. Deb's blog the other day when I stumbled across a post in which she asked her readers to examine "what", not "why".

As a writer, scientist, and generally curious (okay, sometimes nosy) person, I think humans have almost an innate tendency to ask why. It's often the first question that little kids ask: why? Why does she get a bigger cookie than me? Why can't I drive the car? Why is it light during the day and dark at night?

Part of our evolutionary success as a species is due to our curiosity and ability to learn, so it's no wonder that, when something happens, we ask why.

Don't get me wrong- why is a mighty fine question to ask. I do it often, frequently in the form of "Why am I always on the commuter train that's broken?"* But it might not always be the most helpful. Especially when you're in the throes of an eating disorder.

I asked myself why I got sick all the time. I wanted to know. I was convinced that the second I knew the answer, I would be cured . Fixed. All gone. Because then I would know why I was starving myself and then I would magically stop and things would get better.

Then I met a therapist who started asking me "what" questions. I would show up in her office every week and she would ask: what happened this week? What is going on right now? What can you do to get through this? What can you do to make it better? What can you say to the eating disorder when it starts bugging you?

It was simple. It was concrete. It wasn't a sturm und drang process of torturing myself with a sort-of schizophrenic Socratic method. I could inch my way forward- even if I didn't know why I was leaving my current destination behind.

As I got to a better place, I could start to ask why. Why am I always so anxious? Why are my moods unpredictable and sad? Why does not eating feel better?

Says Dr. Deb:

But there are times, especially during a crisis, when "Why" is not the best question to ask oneself.

In my work, I always feel that "What" helps to move you out of a difficult moment.

What has a directionality. Why keeps one stuck in circular thinking.

What offers solutions. Why offers no game plan.

So, the next time you find yourself in a bad place, experiencing a difficult moment or overwhelmed with so much, ask yourself, "What can I do to make things better? not "Why is this happening to me?

Once the crisis is over you can search for the psychological or behavioral "Why".

*The answer? They're ALL broken.

**And no, this doesn't make me feel any better.
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