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Which Gives You Power? Knowing What You Do or Why You Do It?

The benefit of a simple "what am I doing?"

Key points

  • Our culture teaches that getting to the root cause of a problem is the way to solve it.
  • Human thoughts and feelings are too complex to find their many roots.
  • By saying "what" your mind is doing, rather than "why," you can achieve greater clarity and take action.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
What am I doing or why am I doing it?
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Recently, I was arguing with someone in my head. Even though I kept winning the argument, the debate repeated over and over further stoking my anger. I was reluctant to take a step back and label what I was doing, as that kind of distance felt like I was giving in. After all, the person I was arguing with had been extremely rude. This was a fight I had a right to win.

However, I eventually became tired of my own mind and labeled it for what it was. I was arguing with an imaginary version of a real person in my head. Soon after, the fighting stopped, and I felt much calmer.

We have a bias in Western thought that in order to change anything in our personal psychology we must understand its origins. We can trace this all the way back to Freud. But much has happened since the dawn of psychoanalysis. Searching for the roots of a problem, or the why, may be fairly common, but does it really help?

When I was still practicing psychiatry, this issue showed up in an interesting way with new patients. My new patient would tell me a story of how their problem came to be, but I did not know what the problem was. Were they describing the cause of depression, anger, anxiety, or failing at life‘s demands? I would be forced to interrupt and ask them to tell me what they were explaining before telling me how they got that way.

This backward explanation process is not merely an inconvenience for clinicians. It is a problem in how we understand ourselves. There is never one cause for human experience. It is always a rich confluence of many different threads. By telling ourselves one defining story, we often halt the learning process whereby we come to understand ourselves.

Another common example of searching for the root of a problem is the practice of finding what type of message you have “internalized” from growing up, in relationships, etc. If you were treated a certain way and internalized it, you continue to act as if it’s so. This is a good example of over-dependence on the why. Such narratives may indeed be very important, but “internalizing” is tossed around to the point of vastly over-simplifying peoples’ lives.

No one is fully clear-cut in their make-up. When we are looking for a way to explain ourselves, we find stories that appeal to some part of us. Some of us want to feel like a victim, others a success story, and still others rather intellectual. These needs become part of our personal stories and are difficult to exclude.

In the past 50 years, two schools of thought have changed the way we go about self-reflection: cognitive psychology and mindfulness. These apply directly to the fight I was having in my head and the thoughts most people struggle with.

The cognitive revolution in psychology, briefly put, entails understanding that our thoughts—the "what" of things happening in our minds—strongly influence the "how"—how we feel. Therefore, looking at the "what" and therapeutically challenging it can change how we feel. What began with Pavlov’s dogs has matured to help people respond skillfully to negative thoughts and relieve depression in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and to recognize complex mental patterns and learn ways to overcome them in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

The other alternative to digging into explanations is mindfulness practice. Mindfulness teaches calm observation of the mind and labeling of mental content. For example, in mindfulness practice (usually a form of meditation), when you see yourself cycling through arguments or negative thoughts, you silently say “angry,” “arguing,” or whatever applies. This seems very simple, but with practice, it eventually leads to mental clarity and decreased intensity of the thoughts or feelings that troubled you.

Both cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness are techniques that necessitate some learning and practice. Neither are difficult, and within a matter of weeks most people feel distinct benefits.

Although I did not formally teach mindfulness or cognitive therapy in my practice, I often discussed the fact that knowing what is going on in your mental life is half the battle. I also discouraged premature discovery of the ”reason” someone felt or thought what they did (unless there was a psychiatric disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder. In this case there was a distinct reason for someone’s experience.). In general, I’d advise we just let it be and worry about the what. The why would make its appearance on its own time. No amount of rationality could rush it along. What happens over time in a therapeutic relationship or in the journey of self-discovery cannot be achieved by logical deduction.

Once reached, true understanding does not yearn to be announced. It is a deeply held privacy. Understanding has contour and depth, not the linear mode of a standard sentence.

Think of the people you know very well. If I had a simple sentence such as “they are the way they are because…”, would it really explain who they are, how they act, or what motivates them? You understand people because you know them. Knowing takes time, many interactions, and much lived experience.

But how do we know that by saying the what instead of the why of what we do we are not entering the same trap of telling ourselves stories? There is no way to know for sure. Stories are very tempting. My advice is to keep it simple, brief, and as frank as possible.

As a psychiatrist, I would be hard pressed to oppose personal exploration. But we must keep in mind that although understanding has all the drapings of an end in itself, it is one step in a process. We believe that we will be able to change once we understand why we act, think, or feel as we do. This is not usually case. Even if you know the why, you still need to learn how you go about changing. One does not immediately lead to the other.

We deal a lot with "stuckness" in mental health work. We are stuck in how we feel, our thoughts, our repeated actions. We can’t help but feel that if we understood what was going on below the surface, we could control it. Finding the “root” of the problem is a tempting goal in dealing with our problems. But we usually do not need a deep dive into our psyches when we find ourselves stuck. What we need is to plant our feet firmly on the ground and face what we are doing, thinking, or feeling. We are surprisingly reluctant to just say what is happening in our heads. We seek justification.

Naming the what may not be the end of things. But it does put us squarely on the path of controlling what was previously automatic in our minds. Rather than struggle with why you're doing what you're doing, be simple and honest. Say what you're doing, and you will begin the process of change on solid ground.

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