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Inside Therapy: When “Why” Won’t Work

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


It's often the first question that comes up in therapy, but it may be the last question that we discover the answer to. Photo: Ksayer1/flickr.

People come to therapy because they’re stuck. They either want to stop doing something they can’t seem to stop doing, or they want to start doing something they can’t seem to start doing. Whatever the specifics are, something isn’t changing and they want it to change. Usually, the first question they want an answer to is “Why?”

“Why do I keep picking the wrong people?” asks one client.

“I don’t know why I can’t make a decision!” exclaims a second.

“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad…” announces a third.

OK, so that last quote is from The Merchant of Venice. But you get the idea: human beings through the ages have often been at a loss when it comes to making sense of what’s going on inside them.

Seeking the "why"

Nearly a half century of psychological research shows that when it comes to accurately determining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, we are extraordinarily inept. But this doesn’t stop us from trying. Our mind struggles ceaselessly to find explanations when something inside us causes distress. We hope that knowledge will equal power—that once we understand the causes, we’ll be able to deal with things better: maybe conquer them, or change them, or avoid them. We’ll be able to get some kind of control over the big mystery that’s baffling us.

But—as hard as it is to resist—the compulsive quest to understand “why” is almost always a wild goose chase when it comes to finding relief from emotional suffering.

Of course, this isn’t always true—sometimes we find an explanation that does the trick: a perspective or a piece of information that provides relief, that leads to a shift inside us.

What if the "why" doesn't help?

But what happens when information alone doesn’t do it? What happens when we’re genuinely lost and suffering, and no explanation we find causes the situation to change?

Many of us—when we reach that point—find ourselves turning to other people. Some even turn towards—ahem—a therapist. And these are wise moves, but not for the reasons you might think. Your therapist, if she or he is a skilled clinician and a good fit for you, may very well help you make deep changes that benefit you for the rest of your life—but it won’t be because he or she gave you explanations. It will be because you and your therapist will experience something new together, which will create changes in your very nervous system. Let me try to explain.

From the moment we’re born, everything essential to our survival we learn through relationships. It starts in our families, where we get schooled in the basics: how to cope with our feelings, how not to cope with our feelings; what’s OK to ask for, what’s not OK to ask for. As children, we take in an enormous amount of information about how we’re supposed to make our way in a world that has other people in it.

Tacit learning

But here’s the thing: while we’re taking in all that information, we have no idea we’re taking in anything at all. What we learn in our family of origin about how the world works—and about how we’re supposed to “be”—become what the Hungarian philosopher Michael Polanyi called “tacit” knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge which we acquire without realizing we’ve acquired it, and without being able to explain just what it is we’ve learned.

Take language, for example. Children, one day, just start speaking. Then they start getting better at it. They learn the extraordinarily complex rules of language simply by being in relationship with the people around them, and by needing things from those people. A child has no idea that she’s “learning” anything, and even less idea that what she’s learning is a staggeringly sophisticated set of very precise rules about grammar and syntax.

It’s tempting to think that this kind of “tacit” learning ends in childhood. It doesn’t. The most essential learning we do—learning that comes from our experiences in relationships—takes place tacitly throughout our entire lives.

And while this learning occurs beneath the threshold of awareness, its results show up in our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This is why we’re sometimes confused by the things we find ourselves thinking, feeling, and doing—a confusion that sets us looking for answers. But conscious explanations don’t affect what’s been learned unconsciously.

Replacing explanation with experience

So what does help us change these confusing things about ourselves, then? Not new and improved explanations. New and improved experiences.

When we have a novel experience in relationship, our older, out-dated tacit knowledge starts to get “written over” by newly-forming tacit knowledge.

That’s how therapy works. Therapists help people change not by providing new information, but by providing new experiences. After all, every piece of information a shrink can give you, you can already find on-line, or in psychology books, or at a lecture. But when those avenues don’t work, you’re probably going to

need to experience something new in relationship with another human being. Doesn’t need to be a therapist—could be a friend.

It’s just how our nervous systems are designed: knowing “why” doesn’t help us get unstuck, people help us do that. And the quality of our lives is determined less by what we learn from books than by what we learn from one another.

Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence. www.archieroberts.net



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