A psychologist explains the right way to be introspective, and why most get it wrong

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While it’s true that introspection can give us valuable insight into ourselves, there is a right way to go about it.

Organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author and TEDx speaker Dr. Tasha Eurich writes that the problem with introspection isn’t that it’s categorically ineffective, but that we don’t always do it right.

“When we examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — which we often do by asking ourselves ‘why’ questions — we tend to search for the easiest and most plausible answers. Generally, once we’ve found one or two, we stop looking.”

Asking why can sometimes cause our brains to mislead us because our brains tend to come up with the first plausible explanation. You may be feeling miserable and trying to find out why, remember that you have just had lunch with your neighbor and then blame the interaction with her for your feelings, which might be quite misdirected.

Asking why also tends to keep us fixated on our problems and placing blame instead of moving forward, says Eurich.

So if asking why isn’t helpful, what should we ask?

According to Eurich asking ‘what’ would be better because it could keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if that information is negative or in conflict with our existing beliefs. Asking why might have the opposite effect.

So when it comes to developing internal self-awareness, Eurich has developed a simple tool that she calls ‘What Not Why’.

She explains that ‘why’ questions can draw us to our limitations while ‘what’ questions help us see our potential; ‘why’ questions stir up negative emotions while ‘what’ questions keep us curious; ‘why’ questions trap us in our past while ‘what’ questions help us create a better future.

“In addition to helping us gain insight, asking what instead of why can be used to help us better understand and manage our emotions.”

Eurich illustrates with an example we can all relate to: “Let’s say you’re in a terrible mood after work one day. Asking “Why do I feel this way?” might elicit such unhelpful answers as “Because I hate Mondays!” or “Because I’m just a negative person!” Instead, if you ask “What am I feeling right now?” you could realize you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, exhausted and hungry. Armed with that knowledge, you might decide to fix yourself dinner, call a friend or commit to an early bedtime.

Many people find it hard to define their feelings. I am one of them. I can always tell you what I think but rarely what I feel, so Eurich’s next point is helpful for people like me.

She says that asking ‘what’ can force us to name our emotions, which is important for understanding ourselves better.

“Evidence shows the simple act of translating our emotions into language — versus simply experiencing them — can stop our brains from activating our amygdala, the fight-or-flight command center. This, in turn, seems to help us stay in control.”

Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology explains the effect of putting feelings into words like this: “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

‘Why’ questions do have a place though.

Eurich cautions that in the workplace ‘why’ questions stay relevant. If a product or a project fails, you have to find out why it happened in order to avoid future failures.

“A good rule of thumb, then, is that why questions are generally better to help us understand events in our environment and what questions are generally better to help us understand ourselves.”

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