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Worried WomanAfter a tragedy like that experienced in Boston yesterday, we often tend to wonder “why?” Why would someone do this? Why did this happen? This natural question, however, can actually hold us back from healing and moving forward.

Why the ‘Why’ is Important

‘Why’ is a very natural response to tragic, scary or hurtful events. It’s actually common anytime we are caught off guard. We use it when our kids misbehave or our partner disappoints us – “Why did you do this? What were you thinking?”

The question ‘why’ is important to note when it creeps up. It lets us know we’re experiencing an event or incident in a certain way, in a way that hurts or frightens or worries us. It’s an expression of a feeling of vulnerability, and, in reaction to that vulnerability, it’s an expression of our defensiveness.

Less concisely put, ‘why’ is an expression of: “This thing/event caught me off guard and emotionally hurt me (scared, disappointed, worried, etc.), thus making me feel vulnerable, and because I don’t like feeling vulnerable, I need to understand the event so I can try to prevent the feeling of vulnerability it caused in the future.”

Herein lies the problem with ‘Why?’

The nature of events that naturally solicit this question are inherently unpredictable and often unexplainable. Even if a motive or reasoning for an event can be offered, we will likely never be completely satisfied with whatever explanation is given. For example:

“Why would someone do this?”

  • “Because she had severe mental health issues and had stopped taking her medication and wasn’t in control of her behavior.”
  • “Because he was a sociopath who does not feel empathy, care about other people, or feel remorse for his behavior.”

While both of these answer the question ‘why,’ they don’t make us feel any better, because they don’t eradicate our feelings of vulnerability. In fact, they may just make us feel worse. “Bad or sick people are all over the place and are unpredictable and never to be trusted, so I can’t go anywhere or do anything.” 

Letting Go of ‘Why’

While the initial acknowledgement of asking ‘why’ is valuable to becoming aware of our emotional experience of an event or situation, actively trying to answer it can do more harm than good. Instead, let go of this initial other-directed ‘why’ and shift it to look at yourself: “Why do I feel this way?” or “Why do I want to know why?”

  • “Because I feel like the world is a scary, unpredictable place and I am worried about what could happen to me.”
  • “Because I feel sad for the people involved and wish there was something more I could have done to help or prevent this.”

Shifting to look at your own internal emotional experience of the event allows you to better understand what you actually need to move forward, not what you think you need to move forward, like an understanding of someone’s motive so that you can better predict it in the future (which is unrealistic). Maybe you need to find a way to be more comfortable with the inherent risks present in the world on any given day, so that you don’t feel stifled or constantly limited by your fear, while also feeling you’re doing what you can do to protect yourself in a reasonable, realistic way. Or maybe you need to allow yourself to feel sad or grieve for those involved in the tragedy without taking responsibility or blaming yourself for not doing more. Or maybe you just need to learn more tolerance for the discomfort that comes with never being fully in control of anything or everything.

Instead of looking to someone else, like the responsible party, to understand an unpredictable event, shift the focus of control back to you. At the end of the day, the only thing we can really influence or control is ourselves. So ask yourself, “Why do I want to know why?” and then work towards getting your own personal needs met so that you can move forward.

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