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Why Did I Do That!? How To Switch That Question And WISE Up

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

"Know thyself” - well-known philosophical maxim originating in ancient Greece

How can we be wiser? Particularly how can we be wiser with how we conduct ourselves? It was an encounter with my ten-year-old granddaughter, Anna, that got me thinking.

It started with a couple of skits which I had written for people to perform. In the first one all the characters were kids. Anna played a part and did quite well.

We discussed the upcoming performance of the second skit as we were driving to do a little school shopping. Anna seemed irritated. “I haven’t heard anything about this second skit.”

“Well, the characters are mostly adults. I imagine that adults will be cast in the parts.”

Anna thought for a moment. “I hope you aren’t insulted, but I don’t like your skits.”

I was insulted and let her know it. “I’m not angry with you, Anna, but my feelings are hurt. It’s probably how you might feel if someone said they did not like your art.”

Anna started to cry. “I don’t know why I said that. It isn’t true. I thought and thought about what to say just to cover up that I felt bad that no one talked to me about being in the next skit.”

She was genuinely perplexed and dismayed. Of course, I was blown away that Anna had such insight into what was going on internally for her. She continued reflecting on her conduct even after I assured her that our relationship was all good. No worries.

“I know you say that, but I’ll go to bed tonight and I’ll be haunted. ‘Why did you say that, Anna?’ You didn’t mean it?’” She kept looking out the car window in distress.

We finally got it smoothed out, but the question is a good one (and the encounter gives me some insight into the mechanisms at work when hurt people, hurt people). How is it that we say and do things that don’t fit with the truth, our thoughts, feelings, and our values?

But before going there, notice the switch up from a “why” question to a “how” question. “Why” questions, in these sorts of scenarios, seem to provoke judgment and defensiveness, rumination, anxiety, and depression rather than curiosity. A curious approach leads to richer information. Richer information leads to better understanding. Better understanding leads to wiser actions.

Maybe a more useful question might be, “How can we get better at noticing (with curiosity, some might call that mindfulness) what is truly happening inside of us, then authentically expressing our feelings, thoughts, and needs in ways that have a chance of producing the outcomes we seek (rather than hurting others or negatively affecting our relationships)?

One trick…I am trying it more and more these days, has a fancy name. It’s called “illeism.” Illeism is referring to yourself in the third person. For example, Anna might say, “I notice that Anna is sad and also mad about not being included in the second skit.”

It’s weird sounding I know, but it does seem to work. AND there’s research on wisdom coming from Canadian researchers (headed by Dr. Igor Grossman, University of Waterloo) which reports that the practice of referring to ourselves (and talking about our situation) in a self-distanced way makes us wiser.

The research came out of what is known as Solomon’s paradox. Solomon was a biblical character who was known as the wisest man to have ever lived … when he was solving OTHERS’ problems. Not so much in his own life.

We are much wiser when we think about others’ situations and what can be done than when we are dealing with our own … UNLESS we step back. Talk about ourselves in the third person for example.

I heard a woman do this last night. She was talking about a boating trip she had taken. At one point she was asked to do something dangerous, she recounts talking to herself in the third person, “Lady, you need to pass on this.”

Once I met a dentist who was perturbed about his situation. “I just don’t know what to do. I am totally stuck,” he said.

“What advice would you give another dentist in your situation?”

Suddenly, he had a head full of wisdom which he expounded on in depth.

Same situation with a teacher I met who claimed he had no options at all in a family predicament. When we explored what advice he would give to a friend in his situation. He spouted off three pages of ideas (I stopped mentally counting after he came up with what seemed close to 100 ideas!).

So how does this work? Perhaps it is simply that we get better perspective, less judgment, less defensiveness, richer data, more wisdom by self-distancing.

When you consider that, according to researchers, we have about 50,000 thoughts per day. Over half of them are negative – critical, judgments often aimed at ourselves. Ninety percent of them are recycled the researchers claim. We aren’t getting anywhere good or helpful or wise without a little intervention.

I'm learning to use “what” questions instead of “why” questions and practice a bit of illeism. Expecting some wisdom.

How might we journey together to the Good Life by using questions and self-distancing which provoke curiosity, understanding, and wisdom - and keep a lot of us from hurting ourselves and others?


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