When faced with a problem it seems to be in our nature to explain what caused it. It is as though, in asking “Why?” the solution to the problem will magically reveal itself.

Conflating lines of thought like this is an example of what I call ‘dodgy thinking’. At best it confuses and distracts us, at worst it makes us feel worse.

When we get into a tight spot, say, with the way we are functioning psychologically, or in a relationship, many of us turn automatically to searching for an explanation. “It’s natural”, you might say “to want to understand the reason.”

It may be true that we have a natural inclination to search for meaning and understanding, but it’s false to assume that such understanding will light the way to solving a problem.

Shock! Horror! I’ve seen the reaction to this idea for years. Think about it though, it’s all to do with the difference between cause (why something happened), and effect (the impact of what happened).

The cause is always located in the past. Even if we could identify it and provide an explanation for our problem it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’d also know how to fix it.

For example, I might be depressed because I’m angry with my father or my mother (long since gone to another world, by the way), or arguing with my partner because I was was an only child and she came from a large family (these are just imagined, I know nobody could actually believe things like this). But even if these ‘causes’ could be verified for sure, this is a separate exercise from becoming free of depression or learning to handle the inevitable differences in a relationship constructively.

Cause, of Effect?

What is most urgent for most people when they are suffering is to reduce the pain. When I ask people in distress “Which is most important, to understand why you have this problem, or to be free of it?” after a little reflection they invariably reply “to be free of the problem”.

Speculating on the cause is necessary if you are investigating an accident or you need to attribute blame or responsibility. It’s pretty ineffective in relieving pain or discomfort.

I know I know, I’ve heard people protesting this idea for years. The mistake of confusing cause with effect it is so deeply ingrained that it can be difficult to shift.

Causes and explanations are fine, in their place. I’ve mentioned a couple above. It could also be that you are on a personal mission of self-discovery and you want to understand what made you the person you are. That’s fine too, but it’s still got little to do with becoming a better human being.

It might let you off the hook if you are disagreeable person because you had a tough childhood, but the impact of your behaviour is in the here and now, not back then. The remedy will be found in the here and now too.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.



  1. Philip Carr-Gomm February 6, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Excellent Barry. Now I want to hear Step 2! Or rather more of what then flows from this thought…

  2. hennievangeel February 6, 2015 at 11:44 am

    He is shifting to a new cause. in the example of pain, to know the cause of the pain won’t cure the pain. So you get a cause : I am in pain with the effect : take a painkiller.

  3. Julie Babin Mueller February 6, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    ^(Philip Carr-Gomm) Hopefully positive action: taking that clarity of self and past and applying it for personal growth and a more enlightened future. And hopefully that will spill over into other areas of one’s life (and hopefully that ripple effect is for the greater good? Rather than destructive…). (Personally, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today emotionally or spiritually if I had not taken the time to do this introspection first. It led to the “right” direction and better decisions. And I think it’s made me a better and more balanced person and that, if only in small ways, ripples out.

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