Why Do I Feel This Way and What Am I Going to Do About it?
Updated: Nov 10
Journaling is like working with an avocado. I 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, yet 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, as taught by Julia Cameron in her 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.
The fruits of using what as part of my journaling practice are deeply nourishing. What questions are deceptively simple:
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?
Why vs. what
If you follow organizational psychologist and researcher Tasha Eurich, you may know that she considers why questions to be limiting. She prefers what questions for enabling our minds to think more productively, expansively (Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think):
"Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future."
While I see where she's coming from and its value for career coaching, I wince at the word “trap” and the argument that one form of questioning has more value than the other.
Luckily, we don't have to choose what over why. We can use both types of questions—first why, then what—to gain well-rounded insight. For example:
1. Why am I feeling this way?
2. What am I going to do about it?
Once you get everything you can from asking yourself why and it's bearing no fruit, switch to what.
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. Bu 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.
Trust your gut
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. Take the time to ask why before jumping onto the motorbike fueled by asking what.