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Are you Confusing Cause and Effect?

February 6th, 2015
Freud by his analytic couch c.1932

Freud by his analytic couch c.1932

It is natural to think that who we are is the result of what has happened to us, and to try to get to the bottom of what makes us tick, or why we feel the way we do. This project lies at the heart of the spiritual quest – epitomised in the injunction carved into the temple at Delphi: “Know Thyself’.

But is it then true to say that by knowing more about the past – or about the apparent cause of any difficulty we might be experiencing – that we will be more equipped to solve our problem? Most people would probably now think this is so, thanks to the popularity of psychotherapeutic ideas, ever since the time of Freud. The wisdom of trying to solve the problem of why we might be suffering by looking into our past is challenged here in this latest blog post from Barry Winbolt. Once you’ve read this, you might want to ask yourself “Has understanding my past contributed to solving my problems?” There is much food for thought here – and for disagreement! I would love to hear your opinions on this!

Have a look at Barry’s post first:

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.

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19 Responses to “Are you Confusing Cause and Effect?”

  1. Uh- p’raps my now is the only way to shape or get to my future- so the moment that got typed it became my past, providing a foundation which shapes this next line of letters which is the now, but oh so swiftly flies into the past by the inevitable future barging in from up ahead..and I am left in the now again- like the thingy on a zip which is in perpetual motion along the zipper of infinity, although how do I know whether I am unzipping, or zipping up!?!?!
    Louise Hay has a handle on your postulations from her position of acceptance and curiosity and her mantra goes along the lines of ‘all that I am experiencing is for my greater good- only good will come of this, I am safe’:

  2. Interesting thoughts…

    I’d say (after years of working on problem solving/troubleshooting and being trained on it) anything which gives us more facts and understanding of a situation improves our chances of coming up with an effective fix.

    One of the biggest problems anyone faces in trying to find a solution to a situation is not having enough accurate information.

    But after years of life coaching training, personal development and druidry, I’d say that the point of examining a problem we are faced with is not only to improve the chances of resolving the problem this time.

    We reflect on a problem, or examine a situation also, and in a far more significant and lasting way, to understand how we personally contributed to it, and to become generally more self aware so that in future we can chose whether we repeat the same behaviour, and whether that repetition will likely lead to a similar result.

    An approach which is valid both for problems and for achievements in life. .

    • Coming from a problem solving and continuous improvement background myself, albeit from a commercial perspective, root cause analysis is a big part of what I do too (that and trying to convince people they need to know what they actually need before jumping to solution finding mode!). However it was not until I applied these skills to sorting out my own life (and past) on a personal level that I have been able resolve and understand myself. For those of us who are naturally inclined to want to know what happened (the effect) and why (the cause) I suspect we would not be happy until we find an answer that satisfies those questions because from there we can build a foundation for moving forward. For us it is all part of the process. It would be good to hear the perspectives of others who have a different personal point of view.

  3. for the utterly awful things that happen, the stressors in life- wars and genocide and torture and suffering- mostly been produced/made manifest by human will- apparently we have free will to screw it all up as much as we need/ like/ before we realise the pendulum CAN, and naturally DOES inevitably, swing the other way too….both ways- together/and rather than either/or……kinda thing….

  4. Not to mention careful examination of a perceived problem might just reveal enough further information that it suddenly isn’t so much of a problem as just an unexpected situation which if we handle with emotional maturity and the understanding that we just do not get to dictate in detail how every situation turns out, it can become a non-issue.
    Simply a matter of different but equally good.

  5. Freud died in 1939, and psychoanalysis has evolved considerably! Contemporary psychoanalysis does not emphasise (or even require) insight, and thus has moved away from interpretation in favour of emotional communication, and providing emotionally corrective experiences. Only therapies that privilege consciousness think in terms of “fix”. For analysts, growth is about evolving, not problem solving.

  6. That is an interesting perspective… If I look at where healing takes place in my life, it is in the present moment, when I face and feel the sensations in my body, and hold them in awareness – sometimes I need to ‘be’ them to fully accept them. Thinking about the past has had its place – helping me to get in touch with anger and pain that was connected to being treated unfairly, bullied, etc. Knowing about concepts such as toxic shame has helped me enormously to understand what has happened in my life and to help me face up to my life now and also to hell me to be aware of my behaviour so I do not reinforce patterns. So I would hate to throw the baby out with the bath water. Embodiment and ensuring reflection has its place, seems to me to be important.

  7. Too much head stuff for me in all this – both in trying to understand and ‘solve’ the ‘original’ problem (if there is one). And also in the suggestion of asking the question “which would you rather – understand the problem or ease the pain?”. It is of course understandable that the immediate response might be ‘ease my pain’ . But suppose that might not be the best answer. (more shock and horror! 🙂 ) Suppose that what is needed is precisely not to ease the pain,but rather to open the heart into it (radical I know) and allow it to ‘do its work’. I’m not suggesting that physical pain isn’t appropriately eased by medication, nor that emotional pain not be eased through appropriate witnessing or holding.

    However, come the crunch, it is my experience, it is my life journey. It is for me to take responsibility and own it. Not deny it. My own journey into the depths of darkness and back again has taught me neither to deny my life experience, nor to hide from the pain, but rather to ‘open myself into’ whatever it is that is seeking to unfold in my life. Artificial ‘easing of the pain’ – either through medication, alcohol, drugs, sex or whatever, has only served to compound the problem long term, for the sake of (seeming) short term gain. Psychotherapy can be part of that process too (allowing also that it can often provide valuable help). Why else would some folk still be just as ‘lost at sea’ after years of therapy, than through the collusion (conscious or not) of co-dependent therapists – often as equally in need of ‘fixing’ as those they see. Contentious comments I know; but then so was the starting point 🙂 And all this, offered with a smile rather than a grimace.

    • Yes!- Lovin it JJ- taking me ages to get through the pain and struggle of co-dependency (insert smiley) – it’s like going through the eye of a needle for the oh so caring, yet inwardly hurtin therapist- and wow! is that stinkin suffering worth embracinng! Alice Miller got a handle on it, but her son’s recent book(still only available in German) indicates how depth of cellular memory/collusion can outwit open-hearted awareness…. way to go! More enlightened witnesses to accompany each sufferer on their individual journey, purlease!

  8. What if “Why?” is the wrong question?

    Often, as the case with emotions and how it effects cognitive thinking, the question may be more of “What” am I experiencing? Unfortunately “Why” only represses the emotion you’re feeling, taking it into the realm of judgement and problem solving.

    When the pain and trauma finally runs its course and no longer has the emotional charge, and you do this by answering the “What did I experience”, then it will no longer cause cognitive disturbances that clouds judgement and decision making.

  9. It may well be important to understand your past in order to become a better person. The roots of a tree are essential to the branches, and the leaves, and the trunk. We are one wholeness in our beings. My past informs both my present and my future. To become a better person, for example, I may wish to reflect on how I handled adversity in my past. When picked on, what did I do? How could I do differently? How can I grow?

  10. If we look to the past for excuses, then nothing changes. If we look to the past for something or someone to blame, nothing changes. I’ve found asking why really helpful. In trying to find the patterns behind my experiences, I have become able to challenge my own assumptions and beliefs, change my beliefs and change my behaviours. I’ve become able to recognise and move away from people who were doing me nothing but harm. I’ve been able, through understanding, to let go of things I had carried needlessly. For victims of pretty much anything, coming to a place of understanding that it is not your fault is a critical step towards healing. Sometimes it is in seeing where we fit in our wider cultural narratives that we can understand why we have come to feel in certain ways. If you truly seek change ‘why?’ is a helpful question to ask. If you don’t want to change, any method given you will be quietly subverted to maintain things as they are.

  11. Taking a physical example: if I have a headache I might want a painkiller and it may alleviate my symptoms for a while but, if the underlying cause of my headache was a brain tumour, I think the question “why?” might have ultimately been a more helpful question. The blog you quote seems to be advocating the “take an aspirin” approach which can only bring short term apparent solutions not true remedies.

  12. I think Barry in his post was trying to tease out the fact that there are two questions to be asked, and that if you wish to alleviate pain, it may in some cases be appropriate to not to go straight to attempting to determine the etiology of the problem. This is, after all, what the Buddha famously said about suffering: ‘If an arrow were to strike you, would you enquire as to who shot it and why, or would you set about attempting to remove it?’

    • My personal response to the arrow scenario is:

      step one – fast first aid assessment of arrow and if appropriate, remove arrow and staunch bleeding immediately, or at least stabilise it.

      step two – know where the hell the arrow came from
      because if you are standing on top of a parapet wearing a target t-shirt with a whole army of archers lining up shots on your back then turning round and seeing them and stepping down from the parapet, or at least taking the target t-shirt off is at least as useful as removing the arrow, and may be essential if you want taking the arrow out to be anything but wasted effort. After all if another 50 arrows hit you shortly after, then having carefully removed the first one will be pretty futile.

      It becomes a task, or coping mechanism, which you are likely to have to repeat continuously until you understand the background cause.

      I guess the larger problem is somehow imagining there is only one right action, that there is a perfect and singular solution to a challenge you are faced with.

      In reality there are many and varied possible responses, all of which are a positive contribution. Therapy and coaching, self help, CBT, avoidance, suppression, are all tools we can chose to use, all have advantages, all have weaknesses, the better we understand our world and those around us the more effective our choice of tool is likely to be.

      I totally agree that “the only way out of the pain is through” (and love Anne Listers song “spreading rings” which says just that, it also says “hearts are strongest where they’re mended” which I also have come to believe, not just where they are broken, but where they are well mended after a break).

      I do however think that if you know yourself well from previously having been through some challenges and exploration, then you can make the most of that by choosing to open up to it at the most positive time to process it, choosing, where possible a time when you are best equipped to deal with it and it has least negative impact on others, or on yourself, choosing the most appropriate approach which will give the healthiest healing.

      I also totally agree that any case of avoidance of pain, distress or frustration or anger, by suppressing it, will sooner or later end up acted out in another way and will almost certainly have a negative impact on the suppressor/avoider when it happens. Though self-knowledge does sometimes give us the gift of being able to put something caringly to one side to be dealt with at a more appropriate time.

      Very enjoyable seeing the different approaches, varied but generally consensual to some degree, clearly reflecting the multitude of possible “right” answers

  13. …That´s the difference between Therapy and Coaching, in a nutshell! Therapy says: Try to remember (re-member, an Osirian Quest!) where you came from, and maybe you will find the Archer. Coaching says: “And what are you going to do with the damn arrow?” …

  14. I both agree and disagree with Barry Winbolt. Learning ‘why’ something is happening (or has happened, or continues to happen despite our best efforts), can definitely make you feel worse, in the short term. If you stop there, nothing will improve. It is a wonderful moment of potential, however, even if it doesn’t look that way at the time. The question then becomes, what do you do next? Once you understand what that source is you can make better choices, because you have more information. To say it another way, today you are more powerful. Today you can choose your path with more precision. If you don’t have a solution, you can seek out resources; take a class, or hire somebody that has specialized training, for example. However, you have to do both. Digging into a problem in order to find the reason that it exists without responding to the knowledge gained will just leave you miserable.

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