Avoiding the Introspection Trap: –
When “What” Is Better Than “Why”

In last week’s blog post I talked about the importance if identifying “your thing” – a particular blind spot that gets in the way of you reaching your full potential. Once you have uncovered “your thing” (or one of your things!) and begun actively working to increase your self-awareness, you may find yourself asking, “Why do I do that thing?”  That’s certainly the question I was asking myself.

But today I’d ask you instead: Is “why” even the right question?

The Endless Spiral of “Whys”

As Dr. Tasha Eurich’s explains in her TEDx Talk, the surprising truth is that thinking about ourselves in a vacuum rarely leads to better knowing ourselves. Instead, it often leads to preservation and an endless spiral of “whys” (“Why me?” “Why does this always happen?”) that I call the introspection trap.

This trap is isolating and disempowering. Even worse, it can actually lead us to create alternative “rational” realities that appeal to the head (e.g., “I am a victim”) – rather than processing actual “irrational” and unconscious thoughts, emotions, and motivations that stem from the heart (e.g., “I feel so disempowered when this happens.”)

So, it’s even clearer how so many of us can think we are self-aware when the reality is that so few of us actually are!

Why the Introspection Trap is Dangerous

What makes the introspection trap so dangerous? First, it exacerbates a sense of false confidence that actually increases with time/prolonged introspection. A 2004 study at Columbia University found that less experienced managers were more accurate in self-assessing their effectiveness as leaders than more experienced managers. Other studies show similar patterns in leaders’ self-perceptions of their own skills and abilities, relationships, and more over time. Second, the trap directly impacts our health and well-being. Studies by the National Institutes of Health and other academic institutions show that introspection actually increases anxiety and depression.

So how can we avoid the introspection trap? By turning from our instinct to ask “why” to asking the far more constructive question, “Why?”

Looking at a Mirror Versus Looking Through a Window

A metaphor I find useful is the idea of looking at a mirror vs. through a window.  Asking “why” is the mirror.  It’s one way (self-focused) and backward looking.

“What” is the window.  It’s two way (allowing input from self and others), and both backward- and forward-looking. Clearly, the two-way lens offers more possibilities for increased self-awareness and growth.

This week, see if you can extricate yourself from the introspection trap. Think of a challenging situation (either at home or at work) or even better, a pattern you find happening in your life where you get stuck on “why?” “Why do they always treat me like that?”

It might be a recent interaction with a client or colleague, a feeling about or attitude towards a decision, or anything else.

This Week: Reframe “Why”

Reframe your natural question “Why do I feel NAME THE FEELING?” to multiple “What” questions. One helpful way to break up the task is to think of different types of “Whats.” For example:

  • Assessment: (e.g., What are the stakes of this situation? What values am I honoring/neglecting in this situation?)
  • Perspectives: (e.g., What is another way of looking at this situation? What is the other person’s perspective)
  • Options/Actions: (e.g. What could I do differently next time? What can I learn from this?)

Finally, jot down your questions and answers. Journaling is one of the most effective ways to get out of our heads – literally. Put it on paper. When the same situation or feeling occurs, refer back to your journal and ask more “What” questions.

Discuss this concept with your colleagues and your cohort. Ask for feedback – especially from your cohort members. As always, I’d love to hear from you on this!

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