Ask What (Not Why) For Better Mental Health

Fraser deans
By Fraser Deans on May 7 2020

Grumpy cat

We all have those days when we feel a bit like grumpy cat. When we’re mad or pissed off at the universe.

You’ve recognised you are in a funk. So you ask yourself “why?” “Why do I feel like this?” You list a dozen reasons. Your boss gave you more work to do; a friend cancelled your coffee date; a colleague sent you a critical email.

You start to ruminate as you remember all these negative events.

The anger doesn’t subside. It builds.

Why leads to rumination

Asking ‘why’ leads to rumination. Rumination is “the focused attention on the symptoms of one's distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions”. These thoughts aren’t helpful and often put us in a negative spiral. There is no end to the “Why” questions. Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel like that? Why do I do that?

There are even management practices such as the Five whys technique for trying to get to root causes. But Five whys doesn’t get us to root cause. We can still go further. You can always ask why one more time. This is a fast way to an existential crisis.

And worse, why questions don’t provide us with insight or solutions. You simply have a list of things that annoy you.

Dr Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, proposes a different approach.

Asking what gives us solutions

Instead, what if we asked: “What”.

Eurich evaluated thousands of people. They found a stark difference between those who score high in self-awareness and those who score low. Self-aware people ask themselves “What” questions.

Eurich writes about Jose, an entertainment industry veteran, who hated his job:

“Where many would have gotten stuck thinking “Why do I feel so terrible?,” he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” He realized that he’d never be happy in that career, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling one in wealth management.”

From asking “what am I feeling?” you can ask “what made you feel this way?” and then “in what other situations do I feel like this?”. Forcing yourself to think critically and specifically leads to insight.

Further questions like… “what would make you feel better?”, “what do I need to do to get there?” offers up actionable solutions. From these questions we can plan and take steps to fix the negative triggers within our environment. Perhaps even changing the environment completely to put us in a better mindset.

What questions keep us open minded and curious to solutions.

What gives us a way out.

If we ask what without judgement, we open ourselves to a world of possibilities.

Emotional labeling

Consider these two questions: “How do I feel?” vs “What do I feel?”. There is a very subtle difference. In the former, you are your emotions. In the latter, you have separated yourself from your emotions. You’ve added distance between yourself and the feeling. As I said, it’s very subtle. Asking “What do I feel?” forces you to explicitly name your emotions in a process called emotional labeling. This is powerful. By translating emotions into language we step toward recognising we are not our emotions.

Give it a try next time you feel like grumpy cat.

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[1] Rethinking Rumination [PDF]

[2] What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)

[3] Insight, Dr Tasha Eurich

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