why, what and how

clients often want to know why something is happening. one person, let’s call her alice, might say, “if i knew why i keep eating and eating, maybe i could stop.”

let’s look at this. first, let’s investigate “why”.

why is a question about a cause. what is it that makes alice overeat?

put like that, there is a bit of an implication that we are talking about one thing – some kind of “it”. that there is one cause for alice’s eating.i’ve never seen that happen – not in clients like alice nor in everyday life.

for instance, when i wash my hands, we assume that the water comes out of the tap because i turned the handle. that’s true – but it certainly isn’t the only cause (in philosophy, this would be called a necessary but not sufficient condition). if the water main was closed off, i could turn the handle all i wanted, without any result. and there are a number of other conditions that have to be met for water to come out of the tap when i turn the handle.

if the “why” for this relatively simple event of turning on the water is already quite complicated, it gets infinitely more complex for the mysterious events of the human experience such as overeating.

but let’s say that the question of why alice overeats can actually be answered.

moving on to the second part – if i knew why i keep eating, maybe i could stop – we could ask, where lies the connection between the two?

if there were only a few things that came together to cause alice to eat, and if alice knew these things, how would that stop her? would that knowledge be a necessary and/or sufficient cause for her to stop?

i feel quite confident in answering this last question with a resounding “no”. the only thing that will make alice stop eating is her own action of stopping it (or her non-action in refusing to continue eating).

this leads to the question, what would cause alice to stop eating? and since we know that everything has multiple causes, the better question would be, what kinds of things might bring her to stop eating?

if what alice wants first and foremost is to stop eating so much, then i propose that this question is more useful than to ask why she keeps on eating.

of course, it’s possible that for now, alice really wants to shed light on her past. “i want to stop eating too much but first i want to know how i got to eating so much.” that can be a very valuable (and immensely interesting) thing to do.

however, many people in emotional turmoil want to get out of it and move on. in those cases, spending a lot of time on trying to answer “why?” can often turn into a maze of possibilities that brings more confusion than solutions. questions like, “what actions and decisions can i take?” and “how can i be supported in taking these actions and decisions?” tend to be much more fruitful.

when i use words like “action” and “decision”, i don’t necessarily mean running-around-getting-all-sweaty type of actions. everything we do is an action, and everything over which we have conscious control is something we’ve made a decision on. deciding not to take action is a decision. sitting quietly, not doing anything, is an action.

my job as a therapist is to help people take more conscious decisions and actions. and for that, asking “what” and “how” just seems to work better than asking “why”.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

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