How ‘Why’ You Do Something is More Important Than ‘What’ You Do

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In sessions on a regular basis, clients often are contemplating important decisions in their lives, such as whether to remain in a relationship with a significant other or with a friend, change jobs, continue therapy, or make any change to the routine of life. We sometimes go into problem-solving mode and consider practical factors, like the pros and cons of their different options, but I have found that focusing with clients less on the ‘what’ and more on the ‘why’ is where meaning can be brought to life circumstances and can allow for greater growth in understanding the reasons for hesitating when we have opportunity to move in a value-oriented direction. Often, neither of the options being considered are ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘right,’ or ‘wrong,’ but the motives behind them can be telling of how healthy or value-directed the decisions to be made are for them.

A couple examples may be helpful to show what I mean (one individually and one relationship based)

1. Imagine yourself with a decision to cancel plans to go spend time with friends or cancel and remain home. Like I was saying earlier, there isn’t anything right or wrong about the choices, but the reasons (the ‘why’) is important. Think about it this way:

a. You might be cancelling because you have had a busy week and you find ‘alone-time’ something that restores your energy, especially when you spend it engaging in hobbies or other activities that you enjoy.

b. On the other hand, you might be deciding to cancel because social situations are unpredictable (“who’s going to be there?,”what if there are new people there?”) and make you nervous and you’d rather not put yourself through that experience. Anxiety often triggers the urge to avoid (‘experiential avoidance’). Afterall, we grow to equate discomfort with survival and our aim is to avoid death, right? Unfortunately, avoiding something that makes us nervous can give us short-term relief, but it also reinforces the avoidance. How? Well, we avoid and feel better, so it is more likely that we will do it the next time. Our minds make sense of the pattern as basically, “I had to avoid that, otherwise it would have been a disaster (or awful, unbearable, etc).

In this example, the same behavior can be performed (one for self-care purposes and one in avoidance of an experience)

2. Imagine that you find yourself doing more than what you believe is your fair share in a relationship (inequity often causes instability). Over time, you find yourself feeling hurt or resentful. You may be tempted to withhold the effort you’re putting in for a while. Again, there is no clear ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice, but I would suggest that you take a moment and ask yourself why; what would be your goal in reducing your effort? In this case the decision is not whether to decrease effort as much as it is about how it is going to be done (assertively or passive aggressively). Let’s take a closer look.:

a. You might be motivated to make things more equitable in order to avoid feeling resentful toward your partner in the future and you want to discuss it with your partner assertively to let them know how their help can be beneficial to you and the relationship. Partners are more satisfied in relationships when they feel they are equitable.

b. On the other hand, you might be doing it as a ‘test’ in hopes that they’ll notice your decision to do less, interpret your annoyance, and adjust their behavior (expressing more appreciation or doing their equal share). This can be risky...your partner may not recognize the message you are trying to send (assumptions are likely to be wrong) and/or they may not appreciate being tested in this way. The passive aggressive approach is done to avoid potential conflict (experiential avoidance).

The same choice of behavior can aim to prevent resentment in one case, or to test the relationship in another case.

The practice of taking a pause and asking ourselves ‘why’ may help you to get in touch with your underlying motivations (value-oriented or avoidance of an uncomfortable experience), so that you can make more informed decisions. This brings you closer to purposeful, intentional, and thoughtful responding (as opposed to reacting).

If you would like assistance in tuning into the underlying motives for your decision-making, I would encourage you to work with a professional to help you navigate this process.

If you are in the Lancaster, PA area, please contact me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.