‘Why Me?’ and Other Questions Your Therapist Can’t Answer

BipolarYoung woman thinking as a mental health issue is not well understood, but it is apparently caused by a neurological chemical imbalance which can often be managed by treatment with lithium or other medication. In a workshop on bipolar or manic depression, as it is sometimes called, a psychiatrist reported that one question often asked by people who experience it is, “Why me?” He proceeded to give what he thought was the correct answer, which involved a scientific explanation regarding the nervous system, genetic predisposition, and the chemical deficiency which may trigger the symptoms of bipolar.

The psychiatrist, however, had not understood the question. “Why me?” does not look for scientific explanations. Rather, it is a search for some meaning and purpose to any hardship or suffering that people with bipolar may experience. Furthermore, it assumes that there is something unfair about having to suffer, especially when so many others escape suffering. These are philosophical or perhaps even religious questions, not scientific questions. And they are not nearly so easy to answer. Indeed, they have no answer if the only source of knowledge is science.

People ask, “Is my marriage hopeless?” “Why did my child get killed?” “Will my life ever get better?” “Should I get a divorce? Have a child? Take another job? Go back to school?” In spite of the respect, even near-reverence, which many people have for their therapists, none of us can answer such questions. Our answers are no better than their own, and in most cases are worse. We cannot know a person better than he or she knows himself/herself.

Psychotherapy may help a person achieve a sense of autonomy and control over his or her life. It does not, however, provide easy answers for the most difficult questions of human existence. The person who comes to therapy hoping that the therapist will take over his or her life and provide neat solutions to all problems needs to understand that life is difficult, that there are many unanswered questions, and that ultimately one must take responsibility for himself/herself. Learning these lessons while drawing on self-compassion should always be an important goal of therapy.

We do not learn and grow from quick fixes or easy answers, no matter how much we think we want them. And the therapist who offers such solutions is not doing the person in therapy any favor. People instinctively know that another person cannot run their lives. They resist in very creative ways the imposition of such solutions by overly helpful, not-so-helpful professionals.

There are a lot of questions I can’t answer—not for the people I work with in therapy and, in some cases, not even for myself. Life and death are great mysteries. And the best scientific research has not given, and cannot give, answers to these most important questions of human life.

On the other hand, the inability to answer such questions for the person in therapy is not the same as failure to grapple with them. And it does not mean that human wisdom is exhausted by the scientific enterprise. This leads to one final point about the nature of psychotherapy. Therapy of the psyche, the “healing of the soul,” is ultimately a spiritual or even a religious process. At some point, a competent therapist must feel comfortable dealing with these kinds of questions, questions about good and evil, what is the good life, and the meaning of life and death.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by J. Robert Ross, PhD, LMFT

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  • Jenn

    February 17th, 2015 at 6:31 AM

    I think that our natural instinct is to want someone to give us all the answers whereas I think a therapist is there to mainly help you figure out new ways so that you can find those answers on your own. This gives you not just the answers that you need today, but the tools for how to do it for yourself when you need them tomorrow.

  • james

    February 17th, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    this is kind of the direction that so many are looking toward- we want it to be easy, and life ain’t easy

  • Laura

    February 17th, 2015 at 11:40 PM

    I agree it is important to be able address the big life questions with clients. I have grappled with these questions. Personally and with clients. We will all ask these existential questions at some point in our lives. I believe it is important to just be with a client and share in this difficulty, and let her/him know she/he is heard, it’s not so important to have an answer.

  • Catherine B.

    February 18th, 2015 at 5:01 AM

    One thing I’ve always liked in healthcare professionals is when they are able to say, “I don’t know.” And then work with you on the puzzle of the profession. I think this is equally true for our work as therapists.

    Excellent article!

  • Catherine B.

    February 18th, 2015 at 5:23 AM

    Really well done article – nice summary of symptoms and medication options.

    As a neurofeedback trainer, I get a lot of clients for whom medication side effects have been problematic or who have concerns about long term use. Results are typically good. Increased focus and decreased anxiety are common.

  • tallon

    February 18th, 2015 at 12:39 PM

    I hate to say it but I hate having those why me people in my life. They can b real downers, you know, and it just makes me want to say well, it looks like its the things that you are doing to yourself that lead you to this why me type of attitude.
    Most of life is what you make of it, and if you sit around always feeling sorry for yourself, then you can read between the lines… this is going to be a life that is not that happy.
    Pick yourself up and instead of saying why me all the time, how about rephrasing it more as why not me? Good things can come your way too and you deserve that just as much as the next guy.

  • Andrea

    February 20th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    @ Tallon- I think that we all feel that way, that we don’t like having other people in our lives who always question why something is happening to them. But we can be there for them and be a friend to them and possibly help them to get out of that funk that they are feeling. That would actually be something good that any of us can do to try to help someone overcome that angst that they are feeling. I would hope that someone would do that for me.

  • faye s

    February 21st, 2015 at 2:19 PM

    um yeah i am sure that was a pretty hostile room for the person who tried to answer the “why me” question from a genetic point of view

  • Mike

    February 25th, 2015 at 3:39 AM

    THat’s it! That’s the one thing that therapy is so successful at when other things are not in that it gives you that insight into why me that so many of us are searching for. Of course it might be a different answer than what we thought and we might have to be willing to accept more of the responsibility than what we would prefer, but the answers are going to be there when you commit to therapy and see that process all the way through. It can be a tough one for sure, but so enlightening for you on so many levels.

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