Those of us who are of a certain age and grew up in the UK may remember a children’s TV show hosted by Fred Dinenage and if you are even older you may remember Jack Hargreaves who hosted it in the ‘60s.
Apart from its racial stereotyping of first nation Native Americans in the opening credits, it was in fact an entertaining way of helping children understand how things worked. In fact it was a good way of getting children to ask the question ‘how’ instead of their usual ‘why’: how to get a ship in a bottle; how can I walk on custard, that sort of thing.
‘Why’ is really a lazy, negative question and does not often produce a satisfying answer: ‘because I said so’ you may have heard once or twice in your youth. It is also a question that gets us stuck in destructive loops. Asking ‘why am I the way I am’ or ‘why does this keep happening to me’ maybe somewhat rhetorical but somewhere in there is a real desire for an answer. An answer that will probably never come.
A good therapist will generally only work with ‘why’ questions in a session for so long and quickly move to ‘what’ and ‘how’: what are the circumstances when I feel this way? How can I change those circumstances? How would I feel if this issue was resolved? Essentially we are asking clients to ask the question: how do I change the narrative of my life rather than why is my life not like this.
Put another way, if I were to ask you why you feel the way you do, you would probably struggle with an answer. Most people will say ‘I don’t know, I just do’. If I were to ask you what you would feel like if this was no longer a problem for you, you might be able to articulate that more easily. You might say, ‘I would feel lighter’ or ‘more confident’, ‘happier’.
In fact the responses prompted by positive questions like what and how in therapy are usually positive. This is particularly helpful if you are a person finding it difficult to see a way out of your particular dark hole. When you are stuck in a loop of negative ‘whys’, try asking a couple of what and how questions. Allow these to take you to the next question and the next until you find yourself gradually finding your way out.
Being a ‘how’ person is a way of interrupting that habit of hopelessness. As Theodore Roosevelt said “When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.”