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The Problem of Why: How to Avoid the Trap Excuses Make

Steven Topper, LCPC

When telling people you’re feeling down, or anxious, or just not quite right, how often are you responded to with one specific, difficult question: Why? This can feel like a ridiculous, uncomfortable question mostly because of what it is really asking. When people (parents, siblings, friends, significant others, coworkers) ask this, underneath it is a request to prove it. When people ask us why we’re feeling a certain way, on a deeper level is a statement: validate to me that a situation warrants this kind of emotional response. When the world asks us why we are experiencing an emotion or struggle, we are automatically on the defensive, putting us in a position to side with our pain. This can lead to choosing to stay in our pain rather than let it go. If I’ve got to prove my distress to the world, maybe I have to prove my diagnosis to the world. This can quickly lead to self-sabotage and other unhelpful behaviors. Think of what answers you can give to the question of why:

  • Things have been overwhelming at work
  • I haven’t been getting along well with my significant other
  • I’m worried about (insert any future event that we all agree is anxiety-provoking)

What this seemingly benign question is asking is that we prove that our emotional state is valid. However, for anyone that has struggled with depression, anxiety, or many other psychological challenges, there don’t seem to be good enough reasons. In fact, our brains will often battle with us about the validity of our emotional responses to things: See, you’re overreacting again, you can’t handle anything… This is too much distress…

In my practice, I do what I can do to avoid asking people why. If an environment can be created where the proof of an emotional experience is the experience itself, we are less likely to require external validation and reassurance. And through that, we can begin to decrease our judgments around these experiences. Instead of asking why someone is struggling, maybe we can ask these questions instead:

  • What have you found in that struggle?
  • In what ways do you need support?
  • Have you been open to giving yourself compassion and self-care?

All of these questions orient us to the more workable problem than the distress itself – what we choose to do with that struggle. Life is full of struggling, in fact if our pain and discomfort was taken from us, many of our most meaningful moments would be taken as well. And if a friend or loved one responded with one of these questions instead of “Why?”, How might that change things for you? All of our behaviors impact others, and we are impacted by the behaviors of those around us. Being more mindful, open, and intentional about how we respond to people in our lives sharing their pain can lead to decreased judgment and increased willingness to continuously choose healthy behaviors.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with depression and anxiety, or if you’ve been frustrated with people asking you why you’re struggling, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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