Questions that make you unhappy

Questions exert a tremendous influence on our personal and professional lives, as questions define our quests; indeed, whatever we seek to achieve, in our personal or professional life, depends on the quality of the questions we are asking, implicitly or explicitly. The art of living a fulfilling life, then, depends largely on the kind of questions that you are putting to yourself.

Given that this is so, it is unsurprising that in the time that I have spent helping many clients move forward with their lives, I have noted that they have become unwittingly expert at asking themselves harmful questions whether they were aware of it or not. Much suffering can be prevented if they can avoid the following kind of questions and replace them with ones that actually serve them. Here are four kinds of unproductive forms of questioning:

Vague, unanswerable questions

All of us have been guilty of explicitly or implicitly asking ourselves questions that are too vague to be answered. One example might be, 'Why can't I ever be happy?'; another common culprit is, 'Why do I always fail?'

These questions can never lead to any productive answers, as they are far too vague: they frame our lives in terms of happiness or success in general eluding us and continuing to elude us. Such questions can never be solution-focused, as they are more like veiled assertions of defeat ('I can never be happy'; 'I can never be successful') rather than a genuine attempt to resolve an issue. Without question - no pun intended - they have a corrosive effect on self-esteem and on self-confidence.

The key to making questions work for you here is to replace vague questions with more specific ones. For example, rather than ask, 'Why can't I ever be happy?' ask instead 'How can I make my relationships more fulfilling?' This latter question encourages you to focus on a specific area of your life, and it is a question that has the potential of being productively answered.

Dichotomous questions

Dichotomous questions are ones that arrange for an answer to take an either/or form. For example, 'Is he happy?' or 'Have I succeeded?' Possible answers to these questions are 'No he is unhappy' and 'No I have failed' or more encouragingly, 'Yes he is happy' and 'Yes I have succeeded'.

Where is the problem here? Well, dichotomous questions unwittingly frame the world in an unhealthy and unrealistic way, as they orientate us toward thinking of things in a black and white fashion rather than shades of grey.

Here is an example: if you are awaiting a university exam result, and you ask yourself, 'Have I succeeded?' then you are opening yourself potentially to feeling depressed and defeated. If you define success as getting a passing grade, then once you see that you've been awarded a 'B', then all is well. However, if you believe that success is an 'A' and anything else is a failure, then getting a 'B' is no celebratory result. Dichotomous questions encourage such thinking, as they presuppose that you either succeed or you fail; to ask such questions, directly or indirectly, is to fall prey to unrealistic, absolutist assessments of life.

A much better way forward is to frame our questions in ways that admit the complexity of reality and therefore allow for shades of grey. To return to our example, if our industrious student asks, 'To what extent have I succeeded?' then they are framing the world in a way that allows for success to come in degrees rather than some all or nothing quality. If such a student gets a 'B' grade, they may be somewhat rueful that it is not an 'A', but they have been at least spared the fate of feeling that they have failed overall.

Hidden assumptions

All questions contain assumptions. If, for example, I ask a bookseller, 'Where is the history section?' I am assuming, among other things, that there is a subject called history and that this bookshop is comprehensive enough in its stock to have such a section. 

So far, so good. Unfortunately, though, assumptions or presuppositions in questions can pose difficulties in some situations. Take, for example, 'How can I become the best employee in my company?' This seems like an innocent question and it is also arguable that trying to answer it reflects a duty to one's drive and to one's talents.

I would not wish to propose that no one ever should ask such a question. Still I contend that a brief examination of the assumptions of this question should highlight that it is wise to examine presuppositions before embarking on answering a given question about our personal lives.

To return to the question, one contestable assumption is this; 'Is it realistically possible for you to become the best in your company?' Maybe it is, but then again, maybe it isn't because of innate ability or some other obstacle. Asking such a question will only then lead to despondency and be a waste of time (a more relevant question might then be 'How do I get better at my job?').

Another potential problem with this question is that it assumes that being the best in the company is a good in of itself. This is contestable because even if you were to become the best in your company, it might require so much time at work that you have little time for other things that you find valuable. Such a question focuses you on a given task but assumes that you want the goal wholeheartedly - something which may not indeed be the case.

So before you embark on your literal and symbolic quests, check the hidden assumptions in your questions. Perhaps you will find that you would be heading in the wrong direction.

Crossed Questions

One of the most delightful experiences is to be on the same page with another or with a group, in the sense of everyone desiring the same positive aim. But, as you know, people aren't always on the same page. In such cases, each party is asking - usually implicitly - a different question to the other and so conflict - or at least misunderstanding - ensues. Crossed questions can indeed create one of the worst kinds of misery: unhappiness with no clear idea of the source of the problem.

Here is an example: if one partner is asking, 'How can we spend more quality time together?' while the other is asking 'How can I get more time on our own?' then any conversation about their relationship is likely to be unproductive unless they make clear to each other (and perhaps even themselves) what they are wanting to achieve. The alternative is to continue a series of conversations that are unclear in their aims and more likely to cause confusion than any kind of resolution.

In general, it is useful to ask what (implicit) questions we are asking about ourselves, and about our relationships and to then consider how much they correspond to the questions that others in our life are asking. When they clash, it can be unnerving to realise that you are not as simpatico as you had imagined, but at least it allows for the possibility of a realistic reconciliation of goals. Or if it doesn't, then at least you know that instead of being on the same path, you were on diverging paths - paths that might have indeed widened over time.

Learning the art of asking better questions

One way of learning to avoid the fate of continuing to get entangled in the above kinds of misery-inducing questions is to reflect on a problem area of your life and see if it has been dominated by at least one of these kinds of questions (writing in a journal can enhance this sort of self-reflection).

Perhaps the most effective way of gaining help in identifying unhelpful questions and misleading assumptions is to work with a trained counsellor, who has the skill and the objectivity to see where you might be thinking in self-defeating ways. In short, a good counsellor can help you to ask better questions, questions which serve you in achieving a more successful, fulfilling life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16
Written by Dr Alexander Fox, (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))
Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.

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