Ask Judy #4: The Problem With “Why” or Try a Little Tenderness

“Why” is a fantastic question. So, this post isn’t an effort to remove it from our language, or anything remotely like that. Lately though, I’ve been listening to how some of us use Why questions against ourselves, against other people or situations, mostly unknowingly, or let’s say, unintentionally.

For example, I have a client who has just begun to notice the power of her inner critters (critics). She has become aware of how difficult it is for her to accept acknowledgment from others, or celebrate her own strengths and accomplishments – big or small.

I’ll stop here and state how cruddy it is to want to feel good and to then notice the pattern of perpetuating the not feeling good. Ouch, yuck, and – what use is self awareness if I still feel cruddy anyway? Oh yeah, I know this one really well.

Back to my client, call her Teresa. Teresa wants things in her life to change. She wants out of the patterns that she sees are holding her back. And, she’s in that place where she’s sick of the old, but when she starts to get a glimpse of the new (and how to go about taking small steps to change her pattern) the Why questions start.

Why do I have this pattern?” Why don’t I just change already? Why do I always do this? And, my all time favorite, “Why, if I can see what’s wrong, don’t I just act on what I know?”

That last question can be the subject of this blog for the rest of my life, so let’s leave it alone for now and move on to, the problem with why. Don’t get me wrong, finding out  why a pattern began is valuable work. But, have you noticed that the Why questions above (or substitute your own)  really aren’t about loving inquiry into what might be under a pattern, but more of, well, blaming?

Mostly blaming ourselves.

Why, in this context, is about looking for what’s Wrong.  Under the guise of figuring it out, we look for the bad, or really, who’s been bad (and guess who that turns out to be?). And, on top of that, we’ve  convinced ourselves that answering the question will bring us the relief we seek. In my experience, this doesn’t happen. The answer isn’t in the reason, but in the relationship with the reason, but that’s also a subject for a future blog potentially titled, “Needing to Know.”

Back to Why. When working with young children, I learned pretty early that, why, as in, “Why did you hit johnny with that truck?” goes nowhere productive. When you ask why in that situation here’s what happens:

  • Jenna, who hit Johnny with the truck, may not know why.
  • Asking why makes Jenna feel stupid, confused and possibly humiliated that she doesn’t know, ’cause if you’re asking her, the expectation is that she should know.
  • AND, she probably hit Johnny because she was scared, angry, or hurt and she didn’t know how to deal with it.
  • That’s pretty overwhelming as it is, and Why from an adult just scares her more.
  • Scared = flight, fight or freeze.
  • The answers you will get at this point are; stone faced silence, running away, “I don’t know” or some version of, it was Johnny’s fault.

See how that works? This post is too long already, so I won’t go into what might be happening for Johnny.

We aren’t much different from Jenna except that now we get to be both scared child and interrogator.  Asking why, when we’re feeling terrible just adds to the confusion and/or self-loathing we already feel.  We think we “should” know, we “should” be able to do something about it and we “shouldn’t”  try anything new (or fall back while we’re learning) unless we can know why there’s a problem in the first place.  Gaaaah.

The first thing to do here is the opposite of analyzing the problem. Why can’t help us here. But tenderness can.  Finding some intentional practice of listening to ourselves with tender regard, as we would hold a tiny seedling that we need to re-pot, or watch a bird hatch from its egg, can bring relief. From here, we are free to know more about what we might really need to do to move forward.

There are lots of great practices to investigate. You might try Exploring the Perimeter, it’s a good start. When I’m really desperate, I pick a part of my body I feel pretty neutral about – like my thumbs- and I sense them (eyes closed) with as much patient gentleness as I can possibly stand for as long as I can.

Listening to Otis singing Try A Little Tenderness here couldn’t hurt either.

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5 thoughts on “Ask Judy #4: The Problem With “Why” or Try a Little Tenderness

  1. Absolutely wise and relevant post but left me wanting more at every turn. Gentleness, permission. I need those words! Thank you!

  2. Nice article. “Why” followed by positive/constructive actions is one of the mothers of invention, but “Why” followed by negative self-justification/denial/blame usually leads to self-destruction 😛

  3. Pingback: Bear With Me | Move Into Change

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