When Asking “Why” Isn’t Helping–A Follow-Up Post

Last week, I looked at the tendency I see after people experience loss, trauma, or illness to try to understand why the painful event happened.  In the first post, I explored the reasons that we do this.  I also asked readers to evaluate a list of questions.  Here are those questions:

  • How much of your waking time and energy go into trying to come up with answers to the questions that essentially boil down to “Why me?”
  • Do you find yourself revisiting the questions of “how” and “why” in conversations with your family and friends?
  • Is it hard for you to stop asking the questions?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I have two more questions for you:

  • Is there a possibility that you will find an answer?
  • Would knowing the answers to your questions actually free you from any of your hurt, pain, frustration, or grief?

These last two questions are the most important, because they can guide your choices moving forward.  If there is no possibility of finding an answer to your question, that means that you can choose to focus on coping rather than searching.  If you have honestly evaluated your questions and you think that finding an answer won’t bring you additional peace, you can choose to focus on coping rather than asking.

I think that, for many people, the questions that we ask in the face of great pain aren’t really about seeking answers.  We convince ourselves that, if we just understood the answer, we might not feel as much pain.  I think that may be an illusion.  I think that our pain is only delayed by the search for answers.

Coping with the “Why”

If finding an answer to your questions will not actually free you from hurt, pain, frustration, or grief–then it might be time to let yourself feel your feelings and move forward.  That can be a frightening idea.  My clients have talked about being concerned that those big feelings (anger, grief, sadness) will overwhelm them if the feelings aren’t controlled.  I have used the image with my clients that it takes a lot of energy to try to push back our big feelings.  If we just let those feelings move through us, there is the possibility that they will decrease as they move.

If you return to the first three questions in the post, and your answers suggest that the search for “why” is affecting you negatively, then it’s time to look at some other ways to cope.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Give yourself a designated space to ask the questions.  This might be a support group, a therapy session, or a journal.  Naming clear space can help you take a break from the questions at other times.
  • As a follow-up to the space for questions, give yourself space for the feelings behind the questions.  If those feelings seem too big, make sure you have a therapist or other support as back-up.
  • Ask yourself what would be different if you knew an answer.  Try to act as though you have that answer for an hour, a day, a week.
  • Schedule activities where you’re keeping your brain too busy to ask why.  That may be a zumba class, a night out with friends, or a hike.  Remind yourself to show up in the present moment.
  • Try a mindfulness practice.  One central idea of mindfulness is to work toward accepting the present moment without judgment.

Do you have favorite suggestions for coping with your “whys”?  I’d love to hear them in the comments.


Image Credit: Photo by BuzzFarmers via Flickr

8 thoughts on “When Asking “Why” Isn’t Helping–A Follow-Up Post

  1. I like the idea of designating a place or time for asking the questions and then a place for dealing with the feelings behind the questions. I suspect that the questions are fueled by the desire to avoid painful feelings like shame and guilt. These are great suggestions.

    1. Carolyn,

      I agree with you, I think that the “whys” often serve as a way for us to avoid difficult feelings. And sometimes, that’s a healthy choice. I encourage my clients to be aware of what their questions are doing for them.


  2. Those are all good suggestions. I find yoga to be helpful (when it’s taught by a good, qualified instructor) because of the emphasis of loving your body no matter what it can do on any given day. Also, I love listening to classical music for the complexity of emotions felt and expressed, and the beauty that emerges from that complexity.

  3. Ann, how seemingly contradictory, but really wise to add two questions to the list. They are wise questions that really get to the heart of the issue: will knowing why make a real difference, which leads to the conclusion that if it wouldn’t really make a difference, why do it. Great tips too on how to work that all through. Definately one to share!

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