I saw a psychologist for 3 years as part of my discharge aftercare after leaving Hazelden Treatment Center in 2012. I really liked my therapist. She was an incredibly kind and insightful woman who played a huge role in helping me navigate one of the darkest periods of my life. But I soon noticed that I started to feel kinda shitty after leaving our sessions - anxious and vaguely depressed, so much so that I began to dread going. I was "aware" enough to realize that our persistent attempts to excavate the smelly garbage left behind by my mommy, other people, and life events (all presumed to be locked up in the mental jail of my subconscious universe) were creating my low-grade misery as a result of our efforts to dig a tunnel into my subconscious cauldron to try and unlock the jail where these goblins were lurking and (apparently, according to my psychologist) were still exerting their influence, all without my awareness! Given the implicit expectations and pressure of the therapy setup, I found myself searching for correlations with the uprooted goblins, and if I found a plausible one, great, I finally have the answer! Mommy did this to me. Maybe, maybe not. Even if true, What now? According to Tasha Eurich, the author of the remarkable book Insight, peering down the tunnel and into our deep subconscious recesses and asking Why?? fosters rumination, which fosters anxiety and depression. In the video below, Tasha shows the power of asking What instead of Why.
Time to read - 12 minutes.
- Self-awareness is made up of internal self-awareness (awareness of our values, motivations, beliefs, and our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) and external self-awareness (awareness of how others view us).
- High levels of internal self-awareness fuel a good life: better relationships, more happiness, better job satisfaction, and less anxiety and depression.
- High levels of external self-awareness fuel better relationships and the ability to lead through empathy and perspective-taking.
- There is no relationship between internal and external self-awareness. High levels of one do not mean you automatically have high levels of the other.
- 95% of people think they are self-aware, but when measured it is only 10-15%. Thus, 80% of us have an illusion of self-awareness.
- Introspection (inspecting inside) = asking Why we have specific thoughts, feelings/emotions, and behaviors - can screw you up by fueling rumination, thereby making you more anxious and depressed.
- Asking What instead of Why diverts the rumination by helping us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act.
Summary and Thoughts
"If you spend too much time scrutinizing what's in your rearview mirror, you are certain to crash into a light post."
Or as John Milton said, "The mind can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”
Tasha Eurich and her team reviewed nearly 800 studies and conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with people who had made real improvements in their self-awareness, and in the process, discovered what she calls Self-Awareness Unicorns (a unicorn is something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain) - and she ensured they were real Self-Awareness Unicorns using 4 criteria:
- They had to believe they were self-aware, and their belief was backed up by having them take a self-awareness assessment developed and validated by Tasha and her team.
- Use of the same assessment to determine if someone else who knew them well agreed.
- They had to believe they had increased their self-awareness during their life.
- The person who knew them well had to agree with 3.
Out of hundreds and hundreds of people that were part of their research, they only found 50 who were true Self-Awareness Unicorns - and they were from all walks of life - stay-at-home parents, students, artists, professionals, and entrepreneurs.
Tasha expected to find a clear correlation between high levels of self-awareness and Introspection - the process of inspecting or examining your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors - and found none. None. Zero. It was the exact opposite.
Introspectors were more stressed, depressed, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, and less in control of their lives, and the more Introspectors introspected, the more the negative consequences piled up.
Tasha quotes a study of widowers and how they adjusted to life alone. Those who introspected to find the meaning of their loss were less depressed and happier at one month, but by one year, were more depressed, because they were fixated on what happened instead of moving forward. What you focus on grows.
These days it is taken almost as an article of faith that introspection of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors is the key that will unlock the jail cell and let out the goblins so that deeper insights may finally see the light of day.
Asking Why we have particular feelings, thoughts, and behaviors does not lead us to the truth about ourselves. Picture me on the couch (I was actually in a chair) week after week, talking about mommy and my past and my current thoughts and feelings, and with my psychologist Sherpa trying to find the root subconscious goblins responsible for my various thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The problem: digging the tunnel to our subconscious with Why questions is like searching for a needle in a haystack - and the haystack is the massive pile of memories, emotions, and experiences cataloged and hoarded over time somewhere in that 3-pound mass of 100,000,000,o00 (100 billion) nerve cells.
So in our zeal to find out why, we dig the tunnel, peak around, and low and behold, our spotlight finds a candidate experience or memory that seems to be IT, The Reason Why, the big insight. Tasha says we end up inventing answers that feel true, but are often very wrong. Correlations are not causation. As I used to tell the surgery residents, assumptions are the mother of all f*%$ ups.
Because my mother was such a problem for me when I was young, my therapist teamed up with me to dig up the ways that mommy was still surreptitiously causing me problems, now, in the present. Though I had learned the hard way to finally have an open mind about my new reality, I wasn't so sure about this mommy project, and furthermore, I didn't care, really. I took it as an interesting observation, but then what?
As Tasha says, thinking about ourselves is not the same as knowing ourselves.
This video below featuring Richard Feynman shows how asking Why questions can be such a complicated, layered, and endless exploration.
The Recency Effect also plays a role in this psychological tangle. Imagine you are in a great relationship with your partner but last night you had a huge meltdown over how to load the dishwasher (dishwashers seem to be the revealer of personality differences in all households). The Recency Effect is when you suddenly give undue weight to a recent event in your overall perspective about something such as: "I am so sick of his sloppy attitude about loading the dishwasher," thereby launching a deep accusation audit of all of his faults, and in a matter of minutes you now conclude that the relationship appears to be on the rocks. Your mind has a mind of its own.
The solution to this? Ask What instead of Why. Examples:
You fly off the handle with someone - instead of asking Why you flew off the handle, which would prompt you to look for some "thing" about you that is either not good, or is bad, and then you start to slather the sticky glue of self-judgment all over yourself.
You get a bad performance review at work from your new boss. Instead of asking Why she sees me this way, or Why the two of you are like oil and water, you can ask What can I do now to show her I am the best person for this job (moving from being a victim to being empowered).
You hate your job, with passion. Instead of asking Why do I feel so terrible, ask What are the situations that make me feel terrible? What do they have in common? Now you may realize that either the job is not a good fit (time to move on), or that you could shift your focus to those things that bring you energy while avoiding as much as possible the things that you dislike so much.
This is at the heart of how I try to help people struggling with the overwhelm of their jobs or lives - winnow down the things we are doing as much as possible to those things that bring you energy/joy/satisfaction/fulfillment/meaning...
Tasha gives a personal example. Her book Insight was a massive success, but despite this, she started to look at her Amazon reviews and, of course, read some mean comments that devastated her. She kept asking Why would someone write such things about her and her baby (the book) she had sweat so much blood and tears over, which led to a downward spiral of self-loathing, until she took her own advice and asked, "What about all those people telling me that my book has helped them change their lives?"
The article below is by Tasha and her team and highlights how powerful it is to have both internal and external self-awareness as a leader.
Now you know Why you should ask What instead. It gives us power.
Bonus Observations for Reading This Far
I want to highlight the distinctions between Introspection, Interoception, and Simple Awareness of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
- Introspection, as noted, is the process of inspecting or examining your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,
- Interoception is the skill of becoming consciously aware, in real-time, of the physiologic and emotional signals your body is sending over your neurologic power lines strung throughout your body, with the goal of being able to discern what the signal is indicating. For example, if I start to feel some butterflies in my stomach, or if I start sticking out my jaw (I know, weird but I do it all the time when I am a bit tense, and of course, everyone in my family points it out all the time) I pause to consider what might be triggering my tension. It is remarkable how often my bodily reactions preced my conscious awareness of what the actual stimulus is.
- Simple Awareness is the ability to step up on your mental balcony, so to speak, and access your conscious awareness, which gives you a broad view of the endless ruckus going on down there (wherever down there is) in your head. The ability to move in and out of Simple Awareness (or conscious awareness) is a superpower that allows one to break the trance of our thoughts, emotions, and the endless stories and drivel being served up by our minds. Meditation is the mental gym where one can strengthen their ability to consciously dip into a state of Simple Awareness, anytime, and anywhere.