Asking "What?" to Step Off a Why Spiral
Journaling is like working with an avocado. I just cannot cut up an avocado mindlessly. I have to focus. Avocados aren’t easy to work with. It’s the tough skin, so hard to remove, which is bothersome. It’s the pit, too, so big and slippery, that makes avocados hard work. But if you concentrate, you can free it with minimal waste of the bright green stuff inside.
That’s journaling. Being curious, separating difficult-to-pull-apart pieces from one another, looking at them, and noticing what’s connected to what. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that you have to carve an avocado perfectly without mess and waste. Nor that journaling always has to be intense. But I find that doing it mindfully yields more fruit.
Sometimes journaling is a means to a clear mind, a way to de-clutter and de-stress. Some people do morning pages, a technique taught by Julia Cameron in her timeless book, The Artist’s Way. Clearing the mind with pen and paper has tremendous value. Other times, for me, journaling is a tool for exploring where I’m mentally stuck, trying to see what unhelpful story I’ve somehow begun telling myself. Other times still, my journal is a place to design an action plan to move from a reactive position to a proactive one.
That’s where “what” comes in.
According to organizational psychologist and researcher Tasha Eurich, why questions are limiting, whereas what questions are productive and expansive.
I don't believe it’s helpful or necessary to pit one type of inquiry against the other or choose what over why—both lines of questioning have value.
While I see where she's coming from, I wince not a bit when I read that why questions “trap” us in our past, whereas what questions help us “create a better future.” (That caveat aside, it's certainly food for thought: Here’s the TED article, excerpted from Tasha Eurich’s 2017 book, Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think.)
Here's my take: Once you get everything you can from why exploration or you begin to spiral 'round and 'round in the why, and it's bearing no fruit, then it’s time to move on to what.
Whether or not it's time to step off the why spiral and into what-ing depends on readiness. Willingness, too. So check-in with yourself: “Do I feel heard? Am I ready to transform this why into action? Am I willing to be willing to be ready? Do I need a couple more days or more why-based exploration, first?"
To put this into practice, you could think about a recent challenge and ask yourself what is up:
What outcome did I want?
What do I think?
What do I feel?
What could I have done differently?
What could I try next time?
What do I need?
The fruits of using what as part of my journaling practice are deeply nourishing. For example, one recent Sunday I was wondering why I felt so anxious. Morning stomach snakes had been plaguing me for over a week. And there were a number of possible causes, as it had been a royally triggery week. But using why I discovered the main source: an old letter. In fact, a letter written in 2001 by my mother (who died a year later). Ugh, seriously. Why, why, why? So I journaled. Why did reading the letter trigger me? And, eventually, that became clear. Then, I went on to ask, What might relive this anxious feeling? and it helped me realize that writing a letter back would help.
It's culturally consistent to favor a route that's "productive," industrious, and gets you ahead; however, introspection (especially for writers) deserves its uncomfortable, brooding place at the table.