We live in an answer-focused society. There’s no shortage of experts telling us how to make money, lose weight, get more sleep, have a better marriage, or just be happier.
Answers are a convenient way to manage anxiety. You might feel calmer when you get a diagnosis. A family calms down when they have a scapegoat to blame. And it’s reassuring when your therapist hands you a worksheet and says, “Just do this.”
I think answers fail us when they shut down our thinking. When they don’t allow us to be curious. These are answers like:
My relationship will only get better if my partner stops doing X.
I’m an anxious person and there’s no changing that.
I’m burned out because people expect too much of me.
I have low self-esteem because my father was too critical.
My relationships have failed because I’m unlovable.
Cause-and-effect thinking fails to capture the complexity of human relationships. We’re quick to slap labels on ourselves and others, because seeing the bigger picture, the patterns of actions and reactions, takes a lot more effort and discomfort. It’s easier to ask, “Why?” and fill in the blank with the most obvious answer.
Here are some non-why questions that can jump-start your thinking.
People often tell me things they have never told anyone. It’s quite useful to talk to someone who won’t criticize, lecture, or panic. What people don’t realize, however, is that it can also be useful to talk to the very people who might.
After people relay their challenges to me, I ask them whether these challenges have been shared with family members. Here are some common replies:
When anxiety hits, we turn on our autopilot. We find the quickest way to calm ourselves and everyone else down. For many of us (*cough* me), the fastest strategy is to become over-responsible for family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
Overfunctioning for others can be effective at managing anxiety or tension, but it can prevent both you and the other person from becoming a more responsible human. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone you love is to step back and let them function for themselves. If you don’t believe me, clearly your spouse has never told you how to load the dishwasher, or your mother has never tried to drive your car from the backseat.
Morgan came to counseling because of her boyfriend. He’d been seeing a therapist for the past several months, and she was impressed with his improved focus on his mental and physical health. When I asked her what she wanted to be different, she said that she struggled with low self-esteem when it came to her career and her appearance.
When I first talk with potential therapy clients, I have two favorite questions that I like to ask:
How would you know that things were getting better?
How would you be functioning differently than you are right now?
Most people can do a pretty good job at listing their complaints, discomforts, and symptoms. Describing a higher level of mature functioning, however, takes some thinking. In a few weeks I’m giving a presentation about how I’ve worked on my overall functioning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have measured my own progress as I work on myself. I’ve asked myself those two questions—how do I see things improving, and how have changes in my functioning contributed to this?
I sit up straight in my chair in the small office, nudging my glasses up the bridge of my nose and hoping my new client doesn’t realize we’re the same age. Yet her comfort level with these new surroundings appears seamless as she tucks her legs underneath her and explains why she is dressed for gym. Yoga is the only thing that lightens her depression.
“I’m not interested in being medicated,” she asserts, even if that means lying awake all night. She admits that the nights are the worst, when her fear of the future waits by her bedside like a dog wanting to be taken out, tail thumping anxiously. Read more