This morning, I woke up cursing. The reason: my feet were freezing. In New York, where I live, the powers-that-be recently decided to cancel autumn. Normally, we have a good three weeks in between the hot garbage smells of summer and the horror of winter for crispy-leafed, light jacket weather. This year, however, we blew past that part entirely. (I mean, who even likes fall anyway?) We went summer-to-winter, zero-to-sixty. Hence, my waking up with cold feet. And hence, my waking up cursing.
Despite my anguish, though, I knew I couldn't stay in bed forever. I threw on my robe, and I headed straight for my office to finish up some grad school homework before class started. For the record, I'm enrolled in an online program at Northwestern University, which means that most of the work I do is done independently. However, twice a week, I gather with twelve other students and our professor in an online classroom, each of our live video streams stacked one on top of the other. It looks a lot like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, which sounds weird, but it's actually wonderful.
Anyway, there I sat doing my pre-class homework, all bleary-eyed and entrenched in the theories of adolescent development, when suddenly I thought to myself -- Okay, self, let's hurry through this so that there's enough time to throw on makeup before class. As someone who struggles with the concept of time on a somewhat fundamental level, I have these kinds of thoughts fairly regularly.
But then, suddenly and without warning, I had another thought, one that I don't think I have regularly enough: Wait, but why do I need to do that?
Why do I need to put on my makeup?
Why especially do I need to rush through my work, which I am really enjoying, in order to do that?
Why does it matter whether I come to class with makeup on at all (or pants for that matter)?
It was in this moment that I realized something semi-profound and wholly embarrassing: for the most part, I have no idea why I feel compelled to wear makeup. In fact, I honestly have little idea why I do a lot of the things I do at all.
This is a startling realization for me. After all, I am nothing if not an overthinking, disaster-expectant meerkat of a person. I ask myself all sorts of questions of the 'what if' variety on an almost minutely basis. (What if I wear the wrong jacket and I'm cold all day? What if I miss the train? What if I tweet something provocative and an entire political party cyberbullies me?)
However, when it comes to the things I do routinely, I tend to be less skilled in asking myself 'why.'
In fact, lately I've noticed myself falling into some weird patterns as a result of this. Not bad necessarily. Just weird. For instance -- and believe me, I'm not proud of this -- I have recently found myself in the habit of obsessively checking Donald Trump's Twitter account, no less than ten times daily. I don't even really know what I'm expecting to find there. I guess I just want to be the first to see one of his crazy inflammatory statements so that I can be the first to be outraged over it. That might not be it, though. Again, I. DON'T. EVEN. KNOW.
I'm positive that I can't be the only who who struggles with these inexplicable patterns in life. Perhaps for you, though, it's less about stalking a presidential candidate and more about mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. Or distracting yourself with crappy TV. Or spending time with people who make you feel like garbage. Or feeling bored when you could easily do something else. Or struggling with negative self-talk. Or eating pizza bagels when you know for damn sure that they have no place in the food pyramid.
These are things people do all of the time. Every day, even. And we don't even know why we do them.
It's somewhat terrifying to realize that so much of life is dictated by implicit, underlying stimuli of which we aren't even aware. It's terrifying because it means we are not in control. Instead, it means that those little Pixar brain bugs from Inside Out are in control, pressing a bunch of buttons on our prefrontal cortexes, and we have no idea if they are even making the right call.
And that's why I think it's important, every once in a while, to ask yourself 'why.' Or to ask someone else why. Or to ask yourself why but in the presence of a licensed mental health professional.
Whether it's about the smaller things (e.g. Why do I check my email first thing every morning?) or the bigger, more existential things (e.g. Why do I feel so dissatisfied?), asking yourself these 'why' questions is the kind of practice that can reveal deeply embedded values that you didn't know you had or fears that stem from a time you can't even remember.
For instance, let's use my silly makeup moment as an example. Why do I feel the need to wear makeup for my online Brady Bunch counseling class? Uuuuhhh probably because I have been brought up with the cultural idea that beauty and agelessness are how a woman proves herself to be valuable, and as such, in a professional setting, I somehow believe that in order to be respected, I have to have blemish-free skin (which, of course, is total bullshit. Still, that does't mean I don't somehow struggle with this archaic concept somewhere in the back of my mind).
That said, if this incorrect, dangerous idea about the value of women is the operating principle behind why I feel the need to cut my study time short to put on makeup -- well, then that's pretty lame. I should probably just keep studying instead.
Still, if these 'why' questions are so valuable, why don't we ask them more often? Why do we accept certain things about ourselves without really trying to understand the motivations behind our actions?
Plain and simply: it hurts to ask 'why.' These are dangerous questions. Through them, you find out that you do a lot of dumb things for a lot of dumb reasons, and for a hot minute, it makes you feel like a real dumb-dumb through and through.
But you're not dumb. You're human. The unconscious mind has immense power over all of us living, breathing creatures in this world. Our job as the most developed species is to bring all of those unconscious thoughts to the surface so that we can evaluate them for what they are. Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, put it best when he said:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
In other words, unless you address your underlying motivations, you won't know how much change you are truly capable of.
(You can tweet that too if you want, but I'm not a famous psychiatrist)
So all of that said, I hope you will join me this quest to ask more questions. Specifically, 'why' questions. Even if it's annoying. Even if it hurts. Even if it goes against your desire to float through this world numb to your pain as well as to all of the things that cause your pain.
Because the truth is this: it's only through asking yourself 'why' that you will be able to ask yourself "What now?"
For the record, I did end up putting on makeup. I started putting together an outfit I really liked, and I just felt that some striking eyeliner would make a great accessory. Maybe it wasn't the best reason, but hey, it felt good to know why.