In sessions, clients often contemplate important decisions, such as whether to quit a job or whether to end a friendship. We sometimes go into problem-solving mode and consider practical factors, like the pros and cons of their different options. But over time, I have found myself focusing less on the ‘what’ and more on the ‘why’. That is, why they would be making that decision. So often, I don’t think that either of the options they are contemplating is inherently right or wrong, good or bad; but the reasoning behind it can vary in how healthy or constructive it is for them.
Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean:
1. Imagine that you want to stay home and cancel plans to go out with friends over the week end. Again, there is nothing inherently right or wrong about this decision. But the reasoning is important.
a. You might be doing this because you have had a busy week and you find alone-time nourishing, especially when you spend it resting and engaging in hobbies that you enjoy.
b. However, you might also be making this decision because social situations make you nervous and you’d rather not put yourself through that. Indeed, anxiety often elicits the urge to avoid. People struggling with social anxiety often find themselves avoiding social situations which make them anxious (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Importantly, avoiding something that makes us nervous can lead us to feel relieved in the short-term, but may actually serve to reinforce our fear over time (see Barlow & Craske, 2007).
In this example, the same behavior can be performed in the service of self-care in the former instance, and as an act of avoidance in the latter.
2. Imagine that you often find yourself doing more than your fair share in a relationship. Over time, you might find yourself feeling hurt or resentful. You may be tempted to dial back how much effort you’re putting in for a while. There is no clear good or bad choice here, and this is where I would suggest that you pause and ask yourself why; what would be your goal in reducing your efforts?
a. You might be driven by a desire to make things more equitable in order to avoid feeling resentful toward your partner in the future. Indeed, some research suggests that relationship partners are more satisfied when they view the relationship as equitable (Stafford & Canary, 2006).
b. However, you might also be doing this to test your partner, that is, hoping that they’ll notice the change in your behavior, detect your underlying dissatisfaction, and adjust their behavior accordingly (e.g. by expressing more appreciation or doing their fair share). This can be risky for multiple reasons, including that your partner may not recognize the message you are trying to send and/or that they might not appreciate being tested in this way.
As you can see, the same behavior can aim to prevent resentment in one case, or to test the relationship in another case.
The practice of pausing and asking ourselves why may help us to get in touch with our underlying motivations, so that we can make more informed decisions. In so doing, it brings us one step closer to purposeful and thoughtful responding – rather than simply reacting.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Barlow, D.H. & Craske, M.G. (2007). Treatments that work: Mastery of your anxiety and panic (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Stafford, L. & Canary, D.J. (2006). Equity and interdependence as predictors of relational maintenance strategies. The Journal of Family Communication, 6, 227-254.