Of Whats and Whys

This is another entry in my ever-growing list of "therapeutic distinctions", pairs of closely related concepts that contain subtle differences that may initially seem obscure but which can often reveal profound implications. One such distinction is between "what" and "why".

In the classic book "Man's Search For Meaning", psychiatrist Victor Frankl uses his history in a Nazi concentration camp as the basis for his theory that meaning is man's driving purpose in life. A concept I derived from Frankl is that a human can withstand many extremely difficult "whats" as long as he or she has a sufficiently strong sense of "why" to sustain the effort. In essence, "why" is often more important than "what".

I consider this distinction to have profound therapeutic implications. Depression, for example, can be seen not merely as the result of an unsustainable burden or stress but instead as the consequence of a basic fatigue or collapse of meaning. The success of such popular books as "The Purpose-Driven Life" and "A New Earth" (to name only two) speak to the deep quest for a sustaining sense of meaning that is at the heart of each human being.

In many ways successful counseling or psychotherapy is the process of exchanging and enhancing personal meaning. What does it mean that your unique history has taken the course it has to this point? What meaning may be present in your life experience that requires a deeper level of discernment to reveal itself? These are not mere theoretical questions but are deeply relevant and practical for all of us.

I'm not advocating that "whats" don't have their own inherent importance. Past a certain point the search for meaning can't change the reality of the situation. But meaning reigns supreme in the realm of hope and the guidance of human behavior. A tree grows because of its inherent nature to do so, but a person continues to grow as a human for reasons that must be individually compelling.

There are lots of methods for examining your own personal relationship to the meaning of your life. Counseling is one of many methods for engaging in the search for "reasons that fit", and it can be mighty helpful when your view of the world or yourself seems to lack sufficient fulfillment or motivation to your quest of achieving a full and deep life.  

Let me know if I can help you with the "whats" and "whys" of your life.  It would be a pleasure and an honor to do so.


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is a psychotherapist in Atlanta who helps people deal with problematic sexual behavior patterns like sex or porn addiction.