Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life: Part 2

In the second installment of the Introduction to Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life, Arlene Harder shares what this book offers to a person who is ready for change.
You can access the already published posts here.


Where am I? Who am I?
How did I come to be here?
What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world?
Why was I not consulted?
And if I am compelled to take part in it, Where is the director?
I want to see him.
—Soren Kierkegaard

Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your LifeThis is a different kind of self-help book. Here you won’t find an expert telling you what you need to do to change your life. You won’t find three, four, five, or more “easy” steps to success. instead, you’ll find lots of questions.

However, by the time you have finished this book, I believe you will have discovered how important the questions are — and that you already have more answers inside of you than you could ever imagine.

There is no doubt that people have achieved success, or some degree of improvement in their circumstances, by using suggestions offered by success “experts.” The problem is that strategies that may have worked for others — like the secretary who scaled the corporate ladder to become CEO, the injured runner who won an Olympic gold medal, the renowned scientist who holds fifty patents, or the couple who resolved deep differences and lived happily ever after — may not work for you. There’s a good chance that your temperament, motivation, circumstances, relationships, opportunities, education and world view are not the same as these super achievers. You may need other strategies if you are to be successful.

You may also have a slight problem with self-sabotage, for we all carry with us an invisible, expandable “backpack” filled with resentments, grudges, unexamined beliefs, fears, and the minutiae of a lifetime. If you can’t extricate yourself from the past, it’s hard to apply the “secrets of success” that always seem to elude your grasp.

Who are these experts who have the answer to your life? Chellie Campbell, author of Zero to Zillionaire, says you can always identify them because they claim that only they have the answer to your problems. She calls them “sharks” and if you don’t have a strong sense of self, you feel inferior in their presence. Sharks feed on “tuna.” These are the legions of people who are sure someone else has the answer for how to live their lives. So you’ll often see tuna hurrying from seminar to seminar and buying book after book in the belief that the answer to their lives lies somewhere out “there,” any place but within themselves. Being in their presence can be exhausting with their pleas for others to tell them what to do, and their cries of blame when they aren’t satisfied with the answers.

Then there are the “dolphins.” They may also attend workshops, buy CDs, and read self-help books. But their focus is on learning how they can draw upon their own knowledge to meet their needs. Dolphins enjoy playing with other dolphins and helping one another grow. You know when you’re in their presence: You feel good about yourself. May this book help you be more like a dolphin and less like a tuna.

Listening to what others have done to achieve success may be inspirational, of course, but as a recovering perfectionist who’s taken a lifetime to manage the impulse to control almost every situation, I know well that reaching goals isn’t straightforward. it is only in retrospect that change seems easy and quick. Those who are going through a transformative process, if they are honest, will tell you it isn’t simple. Changing a long-troublesome habit, getting a degree, healing strained relationships, or eliminating persistent negative self-talk takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and often a lot of money.

If change were as simple as many claim it is, we could all accomplish our dreams with ease and live in a world of peace. We’d all be millionaires and have perfect relationships. There wouldn’t be a need for therapists, personal coaches, and mentors. We’d merely follow the “simple” path that would assure success.

Questions as Catalysts of Change

If trying to follow the steps to success that others have taken hasn’t worked for you, I suggest you try another way — understanding yourself better. With self-awareness, together with a little inspiration and perhaps a few suggestions from others, you have an excellent chance of choosing and reaching goals that meet your needs.

How can you better understand yourself? Ask yourself questions!

Our brains are programmed to be hooked by questions, like the ones in this book. They are the same questions I’ve raised with many of my clients who wanted to — change something they didn’t like either in themselves, or in the circumstances in which they found themselves. As they considered a question, I could almost see a light bulb go off over their heads and watch their tension fall away as their answers allowed them to see things from a new angle. Whether or not they acted on that insight was another matter, but at least they had an additional piece for the puzzle in their lives.

Unfortunately, there is a good chance that you weren’t taught to ask questions of yourself. from nursery school through graduate school you tried to give the “correct” answers on tests. While those answers may have validity, if they are the only things you learn, your life is limited to what someone else decides you should know or think. When you learn to ask questions, you expand the world beyond school and the limited experience of family and friends.

Most of all, questions that change your life are particularly potent when you switch the pronoun from “you” to “I.” for example, imagine i tell you, “I like the shape of the leaves of the tallest tree on your block.” If you hadn’t particularly thought about it before, what I think doesn’t affect you one way or the other. on the other hand, suppose I ask, “Have you noticed the shape of the leaves on the tallest tree on your block?” Your brain perks up a bit. it becomes curious. You are being asked something you hadn’t thought about before. So when you next leave your house, there’s a good chance you’ll check to see which is the tallest tree and pay attention to the leaves.

However, you are even more likely to notice the leaves if you change the pronouns in the question. instead of me asking the question, “Do you notice…?,” turn the question around and ask “Do I notice…?” That is why the questions you will encounter in this book are written as though you are asking them of yourself, for all change comes only from a personal engagement in the process of change. You don’t change because you read about or watch people change their lives. You have to find a way to make a shift within yourself for change to occur in your life.

How to Use This Book

There are several ways in which questions are presented in this book. each chapter title is a question, with the contents of the chapter explaining why that question is important if you want to change your life. Within the chapters are sidebars for additional questions that reinforce the basic questions, as well as suggestions for “taking action.”

The questions you will encounter cover a broad range of topics, beginning with chapter one, in which you explore what you already know about the process through which we all go when making a change in our lives. Then you ask yourself questions about who you are today, because that’s where you have to start. Since who we are today is influenced by where we’ve been, you’ll have a chance to delve a little into questions that allow you to discover in your past both strengths and stumbling blocks to change. Next, you will ask yourself several questions to help clarify what it is in your life you’d like to change and why you want that to happen.

Other questions encourage you to explore the barriers that keep you from moving forward, identify your skills and inner resources, and recognize the qualities you will need as you work toward a particular goal. With other questions, you will be able to test your willingness to reach your goal and discover how to find support when you get stuck. finally, you will discover that by responding to these questions you can not only change yourself, you can make a real contribution to changing the world as well.

it doesn’t matter whether or not you write down your answers. Personally, i’m not a journal writer, unless i’m required to do so as an exercise in a workshop. However, if you come to a question that seems particularly apropos, and if you think writing would help, then write as much as you’d like.

In any case, whether you write the answers or only consider them in your heart, don’t expect an easy answer for most of them. To go beyond the boundaries within which you ordinarily operate, you will need to move out of your comfort zone, which means you may find resistance in even considering the questions.

If you reflect on the questions in this book with genuine curiosity and thoroughness, it will take time. You’re unlikely to know all the answers when you first encounter a question, although you may want to skim the chapters to get an idea of what lies ahead. I suggest you notice your reaction to questions that spark your interest — or, equally important, those that appear “unnecessary” or make you uncomfortable. These may be the very ones that can lead to something important for you to understand.

Rainer Maria Rilke expresses this well in Letters to a Young Poet:

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

Most importantly, remember that behind every question you answer there will be a reason why you answered that question the way you did. in fact, it is “why” and “how” we have reached our conclusions that determine whether one person puts effort into reaching one goal and another person strives just as hard for something quite different. understanding the “whys” and “hows” of your life can yield important insights.

Just as questions cause your mind to shift a little from automatic pilot, metaphors draw upon different parts of the brain and allow you to see things in a different way than you normally would. So you’ll find a number of metaphors that describe the process of change.

I have included several stories to illustrate how answering questions can lead to the eventual achievement of a goal. With the exception of Patricia, a friend, I have used a composite of clients to present several aspects of the journey to change.

In the appendix you will find a questionnaire on perfectionism. I have added this because it was not until I acknowledged that by trying to be perfect (or close to it) I accomplished less than I do now that my standards are not out of reach.

If you are unhappy with your life — or simply suspect things could be a whole lot better — and if you haven’t gotten very far when trying to follow the advice of experts, become an expert on yourself. i am sure you will discover what a wonderfully capable person you are, and that you have the ability to become even more capable, lovable, and self-confident.

I invite you to begin your journey of achieving your next goal with questions.

Arlene Harder, MFT
January 2008

Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life is reprinted here by permission.

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