Beyond “Why?”: Overcoming the Tyranny of the Infinite Regress

I have noticed how stuck people tend to get when they ask themselves “why” questions, which has led me to do a lot of thinking about the peculiar power of this little word, “why?”. We are probably all familiar with the universal developmental marker that young children new to language hit when they discover the magical power of the word “why.” What is so powerful and revelatory for a toddler at that stage is twofold:

1. They learn that by repeatedly asking the simple question “Why?” of their parents they can constantly forestall resolution of any issue and really annoy their folks. This is probably one of the early experiences of (primitive) self-empowerment for a child.

More important, I believe, is 2. Discovery of the mystifying pull of the infinite regress. (An infinite regress is experienced as a cognitive process that pulls one deeper and deeper in, with no possibility of a final logical resolution. Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, little fleas still smaller fleas, and so ad infinitum.) I think this is a universal developmental discovery, the notion that something can generate an infinite series, and I think is captivates most kids for a time–until they become bored with it.

So I find myself wondering what happens developmentally/neurologically when a youngster becomes hypnotized by why, and then why that, but why that and so on? Might this create a sort of cognitive groove in the mind– and concomitant synaptic pattern in the brain–that tends to enthrall us, even, later, as adults, with the power of this little word? (Why did I do that? Why do I let myself be treated that way? Why do I always…?) What I have noticed with clients is, the sooner they can move from why questions to how and what questions the sooner they begin to engage some sort of change process.

Beyond the inertial pull of the infinite regress pattern there’s also the moralization of our thinking/feeling when we approach something with a belief that we need to find out why something is or was. And overlaying a moral component onto our experience often induces a sort of reflexive shame. Notice the difference in the felt quality of these simple questions: “How did you come to make that choice?” “What was your process for coming to that decision?” “Why did you do that?” In some (not entirely obvious) way, the use of “why” in the preceding example implies the need for some sort of moral justification. When I am asked “why,” I feel I’m being asked to defend. So when I ask myself “why” questions there’s usually an increase in emotional loading. I become anxious about the arising of my own shame. And a shamed process is a stuck process.

So, the next time you notice your mind wondering about in the land of “WHY?” (I call it The Swamp) try reframing the question as “How did x happen?” Or “What happened?” and then “How can I make a better/different choice moving forward?” and “What can I do to take care of myself?”

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