If you’re an introspective person like me, you probably spend a lot of time asking yourself why you do certain things.
Why did I just drink two cups of full-strength coffee, even though I know that it will probably give me the jitters and make me feel like crap? Why does feeling anxious make me want to eat every salty and/or sweet food I can get my hands on? Why did I not stick up for myself in 9th grade, when a mean girl was threatening to kick my ass for a reason I can’t quite remember? Why, why, why????
Asking yourself why is a great way to learn more about the reasons behind your behaviors. But if you truly want to get to the bottom of why you do the things you do — and ultimately change them — it also shouldn’t stop there.
The Problem with Why
The problem with asking yourself why is that the answer is usually fairly superficial.
For example, when asking myself why I chose to have a second cup of coffee this morning knowing that it would make it harder for me to sit down and concentrate, my answer is that I thought it would give me more energy. Does this tell me a whole lot about myself? Not really. The only thing it really tells me is that I am tired and wish I was back in bed.
Some personal development experts suggest that you can make asking why more powerful by asking it several times so you arrive at a deeper answer. This process looks something like this…
Why did I drink two cups of coffee this morning even though I know it will give me the jitters?
Because I feel tired this morning and wanted more energy.
Because I haven’t slept good lately.
Because I haven’t stuck to my diet and exercise plan as well as I normally do, which is affecting me when I lay down to rest.
Because I felt bored with the foods I eat and the exercise I’m doing and needed a break.
Because I quit being creative and focusing on variety to keep myself motivated.
Because, during this whole coronavirus lockdown, I feel more isolated and alone.
The more I ask myself why, the closer I get to the real reason behind my behavior. I wanted an extra cup of coffee this morning because being stuck at home all of the time has me feeling isolated and lonely, which has affected my desire and ability to be creative and stay motivated. That’s a much clearer explanation than just feeling tired this morning.
This process can be an effective way to get to the bottom of our behaviors. But I also think that just asking yourself why isn’t good enough if you want to change those behaviors in the future so they are better for you. You have to go one step further.
What to Do After Asking Why
After doing a deep-dive into why you took a specific action, the next step is to ask yourself what you can do next time that helps you achieve the same results but in a healthier way. This involves coming up with alternative actions that meet the same need.
In the case of my one-too-many morning coffees, I now know that my real issue is that I feel isolated and alone. Especially since my husband travels a lot for work, which means that I can go days without seeing another face. What can I do to overcome this and, subsequently, feel more inspired to stick to my normally healthy diet and exercise plan, which also means that I’ll sleep better at night?
One option is to make it a point to check in at least once a week with close family members and friends. I usually feel better after chatting for a while, which pulls me out of my doom-and-gloom mood. Another is to get out and walk outside a few mornings a week, giving me the opportunity to at least wave and say hello to other human beings who are doing the same. I could also chat with my husband via video when he is away so I don’t feel quite so removed from society.
Coming up with ways to satisfy whatever has triggered the behaviors you want to change can help you change them more effectively. In fact, research shows that replacing behaviors is more effective at changing them than trying to change them without an alternative action in place.
The next time you find yourself asking why you did something, after digging as deep as you can go to figure out the true cause, come up with other actions that can satisfy the underlying need that is not being met. This gives you something you can do the next time that same need arises that is more in line with the behaviors (and results) you want in your life.
Following your “why?” with “what can I do instead?” gives you more choices, increasing the likelihood that you’ll make one that is more beneficial to you in the future. A choice that decreases the likelihood that you’ll have to ask, “Why did I do this to myself…again?”
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