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Why not "Why?"

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.

When things don't turn out as expected or desired we often ask, "Why?" But most of the time the answer won't help. I'll explain in a minute.

First let's examine the different meanings of the word, "why."

For very young children, "Why?" is an expression of curiosity, a way to learn about their world: "Why is the sky blue?" "Why do people die?" "Why does that lady have such a big tummy?"

As kids get older, "why" takes on new meanings: "Why can't I stay up later?" "Why do I always have to take out the trash?" "Why won't you trust me?" Notice that the goal of this kind of why-question is not to get information, but to confront or accuse.

By adulthood we occasionally ask inquisitive why-questions such as, "Why is Product X bad for you?" or "Why do suicide bombers do what they do?" For such queries we really do seek answers.

But most of our why-questions are something else in disguise. They're loaded with underlying negative messages. For example:

1. Confrontation: "Why are you late? "Why did you have that affair?" "Why didn't you tell junior to do his homework?"

People who ask such questions are not usually interested in the answer. The why-question is just a vehicle for expressing anger. To test whether your why-question is mainly anger, see if it makes sense when you substitute, "I'm angry that..." for the word, "why."

2. Disappointment: "Why do I always wait till the last minute?" "Why can't I lose weight?" "Why did I say that?"

This type of why-question disguises the real message, which is "I'm disappointed in myself," or "I'm relinquishing control to my inner brat." You're not really after an explanation; you just want results.

3. Self-victimization: "Why won't anyone listen to me?" "Why did she get the promotion, and not me?" "Why does this always happen to me?"

In this case "Why?" is a form of complaining, where you allow your inner brat to keep you feeling victimized and helpless.

4. Futility: "Why should I even bother trying?"

This is a subset of the victim why-question. But it is more extreme. In essence, this kind of why-question says, "I've lost hope; I give up."

If you frequently find yourself in a mindset of hopeless and futility, you may have a problem with depression, and you should seek professional help.

For the first three options, however, you can probably tackle the "why" issue on your own. Think of "why" as a smokescreen that masks the real agenda. Don't keep searching for the answer to "Why?" -- because either you already know the answer, or else you won't be appeased by it anyway.

Asking "Why?" to other people makes them defensive, triggering their inner brats. Asking "Why?" to ourselves perpetuates the negative mindset of our own inner brat.

Instead, next time you want to ask "Why?" try substituting phrases such as "I'm angry that..." or "I'm disappointed that..." or "I'm complaining that..." Then you'll have an idea of what you're really dealing with.

Next, change your question to begin with the word, "How."


"How will you make sure you'll be on time?"

"How will I stick to my exercise program?"

"How can I get people to listen to me?"

Changing from "why" to "how" shifts your whole perspective from the problem to the solution. And, as an added benefit, you will avert triggering your own and other people's inner brats.

When you directly address the hidden meanings of your "whys" you will find that you won't need to ask the question any more!

Copyright Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. 2005. All rights reserved

About The Author
Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2004)

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