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Self-Awareness: Why vs. What

Updated: Mar 13

Self-awareness is an important part of being a healthy, functional adult. The more aware we are of our needs, what motivates us, and how we are perceived, the better we can move through the world.

However, according to Dr. Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist who studies how to improve leadership effectiveness, people who are attempting to be self-aware are asking themselves the wrong question.

Often, when trying to understand ourselves, we ask why. What Eurich found was that people who instead asked themselves what had higher levels of self-awareness and self-improvement.

Why vs. What

When we do something we do not like, say, that is out of line with our values such as yelling at our kid or partner, we might ask ourselves why we did this. Often, what we conclude has more to do with our own fears and limited perspective than the reality of the situation.

We might tell ourselves, “Well, I yelled at my kid/partner because I’m a bad parent/partner, ” because that’s our fear. However, in actuality it’s more likely it was because we were hungry or frustrated about something else. Asking why invites subjective, fear-focused, and more ruminative thought patterns.

Our brain invents answers that reinforce our biases. Instead, a better question to ask is what. What about this situation made me want to yell? What happened the last time I yelled, and what did this have in common with this most recent time? What purpose did yelling serve and is there a better way to get that? Asking what is more objective, future-focused and empowering.


Don’t Get Rid of Why—Use It

Asking why, especially in a therapeutic setting, is still helpful. It can give us a window into our negative self-beliefs and fears. However, it’s important to remember that just because we feel a certain way does not make it true.

But we can use that why insight to notice when we are leaning into our biases or using them to excuse bad behavior or to beat ourselves up for acting outside of our values.

Ask Yourself What instead of Why

The next time you are seeking to better understand yourself, ask what. What did that action do for you? What were the circumstances? What did it make you feel?

Using that information, you can start to build a more complete understanding of yourself that can then be used to change behaviors. The why connects you to emotional beliefs, the what to change and objective understanding.

Works Cited

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