Why Ask Why?
By virtue of the fact that you picked up this book, I know something about you. You're ready for a change in your life. You may want to change something about yourself -- you might want to lose weight, free yourself from depression, or improve your self-esteem. On the other hand, perhaps you feel fine about yourself, it's the people around you who need to shape up -- you might feel your partner is overly critical or inattentive, your kids are driving you nuts, or your coworkers are making your life miserable. Or all of the above.
I also know that when I say, "You're ready for a change in your life," it doesn't mean that you weren't ready to make this change yesterday, last month, or even last year. Chances are, your thirst for change didn't just happen. You've been thinking and dreaming about it for some time now. You've probably even tried to make things better. But, you're still not where you want to be. Real change, it seems, has been extremely difficult and frustratingly elusive.
I know because that's exactly what I used to think -- and that's really scary because I'm an "expert," a psychotherapist, a shrink -- the person whose job it is to help people change their lives. But I confess. There was a time when I was stumbling in the dark, when my thinking about truly helping people was just wishful thinking.
Thankfully, those days are long gone. Through a process of trial and error I figured out what works. I have learned that change isn't nearly as complicated or involved as I once thought.
I want you to know that there is a new way to find solutions -- immediate solutions -- to chronic problems that doesn't require you to analyze the problem to death. In fact, it doesn't require painful rehashing of the problem at all. Although there's a widespread belief that understanding why you are having a problem will help you to solve the problem, you know in your heart that it simply isn't so. Knowing why you overeat or are depressed doesn't help you control your eating or make you feel better. Understanding how you were raised doesn't help you stop fighting with your spouse or get along better with your kids. Recognizing what's at the root of the friction in the office doesn't make it go away. Perhaps you've secretly suspected this all along but were afraid to acknowledge it because, in theory, analyzing a problem is supposed to help. But you and I both know it doesn't! It only makes you an expert on why you're stuck. By now, you probably have an advanced degree in understanding how the problems in your life came into being, but take it from me, there's no future in it.
For the past ten years, I have been observing miracles. An eight-year-old girl, described by her teacher as "the most insecure little girl I've ever seen," experiences perpetual urinary problems and a cough so wrenching that she vomits nightly, problems her doctors diagnose as psychosomatic and stress-related. Within weeks, she is symptom-free and is transformed into a well-adjusted, happy, loving, healthy child, leaving her parents, doctors, and teacher amazed. A woman in her mid-twenties, depressed beyond words over the loss of a boyfriend six months before, regains her zest for life within days. A middle-aged salesman at risk of losing his job attacks his work with an enthusiasm he hasn't felt for years and doubles his accounts within weeks. On the brink of divorce, a couple with years of emotional distance between them put a halt to the legal process and successfully regenerate their love.
If you're thinking that all this sounds too good to be true, I couldn't agree more. After ten years of witnessing countless transformations such as these, I still find them unbelievable. I am in awe of how quickly people find solutions to complex problems or make momentous decisions that radically improve their lives. After all, conventional wisdom suggests that change of any kind is painful and slow. The miracles I see simply defy common sense. They also defy everything I had ever been taught about how people change.
Seventeen years ago, I hung out my shingle as a professional therapist. My training had been fairly traditional. I had learned to be an empathetic listener, to watch closely for telling body language, to explore people's childhoods to unravel the causes of current problems, to encourage the expression of intense feelings of anger or hurt. I had been taught that people really can't escape the stranglehold of the past until they relive sometimes excruciating memories and glean the appropriate insights or "truths" about their lives. I conscientiously and religiously put these principles into practice but soon discovered a shocking fact. They simply didn't work.
For example, a couple I was seeing complained of frequent arguments over the handling of money. Each time one of them wished to make a purchase, the other balked and an argument ensued: "You tell me that I shouldn't spend money on new work clothes, but you go to every sporting event imaginable," and so on. Soon, the arguing about money spilled over into other areas of their lives. They now fought about housework, child care, and how free time was spent.
I had been trained to believe that, in order to overcome problems such as these, people must first gain insight into the ways in which their childhood has influenced them. The theory is that problems are symptoms of underlying issues that stem from childhood experiences and cannot be resolved until the root of the problem is identified and "worked through."
Accordingly, I determined that this couple's arguments were a symptom of underlying issues of power and control in their marriage. We were very thorough in our search for clues about the origins of these problems. They discussed how each of them was raised and examined their own parents' marriages for telltale signs of similar struggles. Painstakingly, we assembled all the pieces of the puzzle, until it was clear to all three of us how their respective upbringings had affected them. Whereupon the couple turned to me and said, "Michele, now we understand why we are having arguments about money, but we still don't have a clue as to what to do differently." Unfortunately, it wasn't the last time I heard that objection.
It slowly became apparent to me that understanding why someone has a particular problem has absolutely nothing to do with solving it. All the insight in the world didn't help most of my clients improve the quality of their lives. Those who were overweight knew exactly why they were overeating -- to fill an emotional void, to hide, to repel intimacy, and so on -- but they continued to overeat. Quarrelsome spouses recognized how the divergent expectations they brought to marriage were often at the root of their clashes, but this awareness didn't make one bit of difference: the fighting persisted. People plagued with low self-esteem realized how derogatory, and belittling messages given to them as children made them feel insecure and inadequate, but nothing changed: they still felt lousy. Overly permissive parents acknowledged after long soul-searching that their permissiveness was an extreme reaction to their own restrictive upbringings, but this insight failed to assist them in setting limits for their children. In short, the people with whom I worked all had the usual "aha!" revelations -- flashes of tremendous insight -- but when they returned for subsequent sessions their misery persisted, the only difference being that they were now experts on why they were unhappy.
The fact that the majority of my clients left therapy enlightened but unchanged confused me. According to my training, the process of gaining insight should have been more helpful. Eager to make sense of my experiences, I asked other therapists about their "therapy failures" and learned that I was not alone. My colleagues, however, concluded that clients who didn't solve their problems during therapy had only themselves to blame. "They're just resistant," I was told. "She is not ready to change." "He is only window-shopping -- not really motivated." It was tempting simply to agree, but at heart I was not convinced. My instincts told me that most people seek professional help because they are in pain and really do want to change. I resolved to find a better way.
My urgency to find an effective problem-solving method was fueled by other unsettling discoveries about what really goes on behind therapists' closed doors. No longer confident that insight into the past would provide the vehicle for change, I fell back on the other techniques I had been taught to help my clients beyond impasses. One such method is based on the notion that people feel better when they "get their pain and anger out." So, whenever I noticed a wince cross a client's face, indicating fertile emotional ground, I'd faithfully urge, "Let it out, it's okay." I placed boxes of tissues within handy arm's length as an unspoken reminder that tears are good. In no time at all, many of my clients were "letting it out," and when they sobbed I felt proud that I was able to help them do such "intense work." The intensity of the sessions convinced me that I was doing "real therapy."
But I soon became aware that, instead of feeling relief when they spent the majority of a session discussing painful memories or uncomfortable feelings, my clients felt terrible when they walked out the door. I consoled them (and myself) by reminding them that people must feel their pain in order to get beyond it. But the truth of the matter was that, despite their so-called catharsis, most of my clients didn't get to the other side. Session after session they returned, the dour expression on their faces indicating that nothing had changed.
It became clear to me that, although "getting it out" was cathartic for some people under certain circumstances, the relief it gave them was short-lived. For others, it brought no relief at all. Some of my more honest clients eventually admitted that they looked forward to therapy sessions about as much they looked forward to going to the dentist. I couldn't keep from pondering the irony that a tool that is supposed to help people feel better seemed to leave many people feeling worse.
My faith in conventional therapy methods was running thin, but at least I thought I could rely on a principle I'd learned in Psychology 101, that relationship problems can be resolved when people become aware of their "inner feelings" and express them to others. Therefore, I routinely chanted my therapist mantra -- "Look at her and tell her how you feel inside" -- assuming that it would magically bring about a solution. But once again I was disappointed. I discovered that by the time most people come for therapy they are already acutely aware of and have expressed their feelings to others, yet their problems still remain. Exploring these feelings in therapy did nothing to resolve the differences between people.
For example, even when a parent told his child how her irresponsible behavior in school and at home disappointed and hurt him, she continued cutting classes and being fresh at home. Soon after a woman told her husband that she wanted him to spend more quality time with the family, he informed her that he had signed up for a new golf league. A week after a woman confessed to a friend her irritation at the friend's habitual lateness, her friend showed up a half-hour late for lunch. A husband told his wife that he needed more intimacy in their marriage, yet she continued to use every imaginable excuse to avoid his company. Unfortunately, all of these divulgences seemed to fall on deaf ears. No one changed his or her behavior as a result of hearing how it displeased others, even when the feedback was sincere and sensitively stated.
Gradually, and reluctantly, I concluded that the effectiveness of understanding and expressing feelings about relationship problems is drastically overrated. In fact, I noticed that rehashing each party's discordant feelings ad nauseam tends to exaggerate differences, making them more difficult to reconcile.
I was at a loss. It seemed that nothing I had been taught about helping people to change worked. That's when I encountered a radically different therapy approach, solution-oriented brief therapy (SBT). At the time, brief therapy was in its infancy. Scattered about were small revolutionary think tanks, pioneers courageous enough to question traditional psychotherapy gospel. Upon discovering these forward thinkers and their unorthodox methods, I sensed immediately that I had "come home."
As its name implies, SBT works quickly, enabling most people to resolve their problems in three to six sessions. The secret to its brevity is that, instead of taking a long introspective journey into the past, SBT helps people to envision a positive future and to identify fail-safe strategies for getting there. Instead of channeling people's efforts into understanding why they are experiencing problems, SBT helps them figure out how to resolve problems. Instead of identifying the causes of problems, SBT identifies the causes of solutions. It is a technology for change, not introspection, allowing most people to feel better about their lives within days, not months or years.
This approach is based on a very simple formula: do more of what works and less of what doesn't. No matter what type of problem people are experiencing or how bad the situation seems at the moment, there are times when things go more smoothly. First, SBT reminds people to recognize what they already know about what works so that they can repeat successful solutions. Second, SBT helps people to identify and eliminate the repetitive, unproductive patterns that lead to failure. The most common complaint I used to hear from clients was, "I still don't know have a clue about what to do to change my situation." I don't hear that anymore. Now my clients leave armed with a plan they can implement the moment they walk out the door.
As I began practicing SBT, several advantages of this focused approach quickly became apparent. Most people felt some relief from their problems immediately. The emphasis on solutions showed people light at the end of the tunnel, which had a powerfully reassuring effect, especially after months or years of brooding about their problems. Often they had become so immersed in their difficulties that they had come to believe that nothing would or could ever change. SBT got them to question that premise. Many told me as they left the initial meeting that for the first time in months they felt hope.
It became clear that, the more hopeful people became, the more they expected good things to happen, and therefore the more energy they put into making good things happen -- hence, many more good things did in fact happen. More than ever before, I began to appreciate the power of optimism and the toxicity of pessimism about the future. Pessimism saps people's energies and prevents them from taking -- or noticing -- baby steps forward. I realized that the traditional methods I had been using, by not offering some instant relief, actually increased pessimism, making positive outcomes less likely. The sixties saying "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" took on new meaning for me. Part of the magic of SBT, I began to see, is that it immediately became part of the solution, instilling hopefulness and helping people to reverse downward spirals swiftly. Here is a message a woman recently left on my answering machine:
I called you last week and I wrote you a letter and I was desperate. I was going to commit suicide. You will never know what you have done with my life. One week ago I had written my goodbyes to everyone. This week, it's 5 A.M. this morning, and I am going to a gym to work out. You have changed my whole life. I just can't tell you. I can't believe that through two years of counseling and thousands of dollars all I ever got was, "You have to change your past," and the patterns in our marriage never changed, not one bit, until I saw you on television. It gave me hope and I just can't believe the person I am this week. Thank you so much.
Nor did SBT require me to drag people through the past, eliciting uncomfortable memories and feelings. It always seemed absurd to me to rub people's faces in the failures of their parents and then expect them to feel resourceful enough to change their lives! Even on those rare occasions when it worked, I felt as if I were pulling people into the middle of a lake so I could save them from drowning.
Instead of probing the past, which is often painful and always unchangeable, SBT helps people envision a future without the problem and to focus on how it will be possible to get there. As a result, clients feel tremendously empowered, a far more useful frame of mind for solving problems.
But here's the most interesting part. Shortly after I began practicing this method, I made a startling observation. It became apparent to me that the vast majority of clients who consulted me had already begun to resolve their problems on their own before they even got to the initial session! Without my help, they had taken important steps to improve their lives. All along I had been attributing the sudden changes in people's lives to the power of SBT in my "expert" hands, but it began to dawn on me that most people were capable of getting the ball rolling without therapy of any sort.
Though feeling some trepidation, I discussed my observations with my colleagues. We wondered if I had just opened the lid to Pandora's box. "What will other therapists think of this?" one colleague fretted. Another said, "Boy, Michele, you really have the tiger by the tail." Intrigued by my discovery, I suggested that we research the prevalence of "pretherapy changes." As I will explain in greater detail later, my own research demonstrated that two-thirds of the people who come for therapy begin to change as soon as they make their first appointment -- that is, before the appointment itself! This suggests that the decision to change is itself change. It also clearly shows that people are considerably more resourceful than they give themselves credit for.
Oddly enough, few of my clients ever mentioned the positive changes they had initiated on their own unless I specifically asked about them. But once they heard themselves tell me, "Yes, things have been better since I called," the journey to empowerment had begun. I began to see that, for people to overcome the hurdles in their lives, they need to ask themselves the right questions. I became determined to teach people the powerful questions that could help them discover within themselves the answers for which they are searching.
The more I saw my clients change, the more strongly I believed in every person's ability to create his or her own destiny. No matter how serious or how deeply entrenched their problems were, I felt certain that my clients would be able to find solutions. This faith led to astonishing rates of incredibly positive outcomes. Eventually, I became aware that I approached my practice with a sense that every problem is solvable. There were, needless to say, a few exceptions, but my enthusiasm, together with my clients' newfound optimism and resourcefulness -- and the powerful technology that guided us both -- dramatically increased the positive outcomes.
I know that you are probably thinking, "How is it possible that problems, particularly long-standing ones, can be resolved so quickly?" Believe me, I asked myself that same question many, many times, but in case after case, the results spoke for themselves. Without dissecting the past, my clients were feeling better about themselves and their loved ones and getting more out of their lives in a remarkably short period of time. Still, I worried whether these improvements would last. I asked myself, "Is it possible that this is just a quick fix?" and "If we don't get to the bottom of things, won't other problems develop down the road?" Here's what I learned: In follow-up surveys, people have reported that the gains they made in therapy have continued, and that there has been additional progress over time.
I knew I had in my possession compelling information about how people change, and it wasn't long before I felt a strong need to share what I was learning with my colleagues. I began to offer professional training seminars and co-authored a professional book, In Search of Solutions, to disseminate the information. From the enormous popularity of the seminars and the book, it was clear that thousands of therapists had become equally dissatisfied with their out-dated tools and were looking for alternatives.
Gratifying as it was (and is) to teach my peers, an undeniable frustration began to creep in. I desperately wanted to reach more people. I was well aware that not everybody goes to a therapist (except in Manhattan!), and therefore the vast majority of people had no chance to learn of this amazingly simple but effective method for creating change. I wanted to share my passion about the transformations I had been observing in people's lives with the general public.
Given the astronomical divorce rate in the United States, I decided to focus my energies on what was clearly a problem for so many people. In Divorce Busting, I presented readers with a radically different approach to resolving marital problems and the equally radical notion that most marriages can be saved, if even one partner so chooses. I was deluged with phone calls and letters testifying that the book had restored hope and resurrected marriage vows. Countless people told me how they had made dramatic changes, finding creative solutions to long-standing problems, without the help of a therapist. "My dear Ms. Weiner-Davis," one woman wrote:
I'd like to take this time to thank you from the bottom of my heart. My husband and I were living like brother and sister, sleeping in separate rooms and just waiting to get the money together to hire a lawyer for the divorce. I was totally devastated. I wanted to work things out and he just wanted out. There had been more tears and fights than I care to count. I felt like a loser with no pride left to lose and then I saw you on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something made me tape it. My husband and I watched the tape together and he told me I could get the book "for all the good it would do." The next day I read the book like a woman possessed and I felt like you had gathered your research in my living room. I asked my husband if he wanted to read it and I got a very stern, "No!" Three days later he left for a two week cruise (he's in the navy) and I noticed my book was gone. When he returned, he put our six year old to bed in her own bed where he usually slept and this shocked me because she had been sleeping with me. We sat and talked and we laughed, something we haven't done in a year. He moved back into our room and just last night after making love he asked me to marry him all over again and I very happily agreed. Thank you again for your wonderful book and for saving my marriage.
I began to realize that I had only scratched the surface. If people could so readily learn a solution-oriented approach to marital problems from a book, there was no reason a book couldn't teach them to apply the same approach to any of the problems they might experience -- depression, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, loneliness, grief, panic attacks, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, lack of communication, financial difficulties, substance abuse, poor academic and job performance, juvenile delinquency, and so on. That's how I decided to write Change Your Life and Everyone In It.
So, whether you picked up this book because you feel depressed, your children are driving you crazy, your friendships are disappointing, your spouse refuses to see the error of his ways, enjoyment has gone out of your life, you wish you could lose weight, you want to feel more love, you feel overburdened at work, your relationship is no longer satisfying, or because therapy has lightened your pocket but not your load, you have come to the right place. The very fact that you have picked it up is evidence that you have made the decision to change. You have set the wheel of change in motion, which is the hardest part of the process. Congratulations! Now you just need to be pointed in the right direction.
But how? Unlike most self-help books, this one does not offer checklists and step-by-step routines for dealing with specific problems. Why not? Because real change doesn't work like that. What works for you may not work for your neighbor. What works one day may not work the next. What works with your oldest child might bomb with your youngest. What appeals to you might be unappealing to someone else. Out of enormous respect for the complexity of the human race, I believe that each person's path to solution is unique.
For example, if you have ever had trouble getting over the loss of a loved one to death, divorce, or a breakup, perhaps you have been advised to talk about your feelings with other people, to help yourself grieve. Although this is often a viable suggestion, it doesn't work for everyone. The fact is that we all grieve differently. Some people need to share feelings with friends and family, some need more private meditative time, whereas others just need to keep themselves busy. Some folks feel better after crying, others feel worse. Some people need a great deal of time before getting involved in another relationship, others want companionship sooner. No single method works for everyone in every instance.
What this book offers instead are powerful formulas that will enable you to assess your situation and what you need to do next to improve it. By applying these proven formulas to the dynamics of your situation, you will be able to devise a plan to change your life. If you've come to believe that you were raised in a dysfunctional family or that you're codependent, a woman who loves too much, a compulsive rescuer, an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, a food-, sex-, shop-, work-, or fill-in-the-blank-aholic, but that nagging little voice inside your head is still asking, "So what should I do about it?," read on. This book won't help make you an expert at diagnosing the causes of your problems, but it will certainly enable you to diagnose their solutions. Doesn't that make more sense anyway?
If you have ever found yourself saying (or thinking), "I'm so tired of talking about this situation," "I've told you a million times," or "I've analyzed this problem to death," it's time to stop living and breathing your problems and start solving them. Trust me, it will be a good deal less difficult. And I promise you, once you start thinking solutions, you will never want to go back.
I recognize that what I am suggesting may sound heretical or even outrageous, but the evidence I have seen is overwhelming: it works. I encourage and challenge you to let go of your old notions about change and open your mind to a completely different approach. If this is hard for you to do, consider this wise Zen saying: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." In other words, a beginner's mind is open to possibilities the expert can no longer see.
I heard a parable that may help to explain what I mean: A teacher went into a kindergarten classroom and drew a large dot on a chalkboard. Pointing to the dot, he asked the students, "What's this?" One little boy raised his hand. "That's a squashed bug." Another said, "That's the top of a telephone pole." A little girl disagreed: "It's a piece of candy." "Oh no," said her friend, "it's a bird flying way up in the sky."
The same teacher then went into a high-school classroom. Again he drew a large dot and asked, "What's this?" This time, though, he was met with dead silence. Moments passed before a girl finally raised her hand. "That is a dot on the chalkboard." The whole class seemed relieved that someone had finally stated the obvious.
It seems that we begin our lives with question marks but all too often end up with periods. That's unfortunate, because we learn so much more about ourselves and others when we approach life with an open mind. I've noticed that, when I embrace my work with a beginner's mind, people persistently teach me new and better ways to help them change. The day I start believing I've discovered the definitive answer to life's dilemmas is the day I stop doing what I do.
Perhaps solutions have escaped you because your expert mind has clouded your vision; you've seen only dots when you could have been seeing birds aloft in the sky. Maybe others have helped train you to think periods instead of question marks. That's why I'm inviting you to give your expert's mind a rest and rediscover the beginner in you as you read through this book. Once you do, you'll open the door to a world of possibilities. You'll discover commonsense solutions that will enable you to take expert control of your own life.
Seeing your way to solutions is a relatively easy endeavor once you give up on the idea that you must first know what caused your problem. I know that it's hard to relinquish that idea when practically everyone you know believes it's true. If you are someone who has been searching your past for clues about what's caused your dilemma, blaming the people in your life, reading self-help articles to diagnose your problem, or you've been chasing your tail in therapy, the next chapter will show you why you've been wasting your time. If you already know why "cause-hunting" isn't productive or you simply don't care, just fast forward to chapter three which will get you moving toward solutions immediately.
parCopyright © 1995 by Michele Weiner-Davis
Change Your Life and Everyone In It
If you're tired of being told why you have problems instead of what you can do about them, if you're tired of examining your feelings and are ready for action, then Michele Weiner-Davis has good news for you. Whether you're attempting to improve a difficult relationship, struggling to overcome depression, trying to establish a better relationship with your kids, or coping with a stressful work environment, Change Your Life and Everyone In It is filled with inspiring examples of people who have made real and enduring changes in their lives. Focusing on the simple actions that make change possible, Weiner-Davis offers a step-by-step, no nonsense program for discovering and implementing practical solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.