What’s the most important question you can ask?
You’re already asking it — we all are — but most of us aren’t aware of it. It’s called a “virtual question,” a question that lives outside of our conscious awareness but affects almost all of our behaviors. Our virtual questions shape our experiences and paint the backdrop of our lives, coloring everything. Changing your virtual questions changes your life.
In my therapy practice, I was recently working with a client who is caring for her elderly mother. My client shared with me how she was in terrible pain, emotional pain, watching her mother grow old. She didn’t know what to do to feel better. But after we discovered her virtual question, she experienced great relief.
The virtual question my client had been asking was, “How much longer do I have her?”
And the moment this question came to consciousness, my client said, “No wonder I’m scared all the time.”
I don’t like to frame things as being “good” or “bad,” but some virtual questions are good and some are bad. That’s just the way it is. My client’s virtual question was a bad one, at least for her. She scared and paralyzed herself with her own question.
So, here’s the cool thing: Once you bring a virtual question to consciousness, you can change it. My client changed her question from “How much longer do I have her?” to “How do I make the most of the time we have left?”
In changing her question, she changed her orientation — to her mother, to time — and she found a new purpose. She went from feeling powerless — waiting for her mom to die — to becoming an active player and figuring out how to make the most out of the time she had left with her mom.
When I was a kid, I was shy and introverted and my virtual question was, “Am I safe?” This is a lousy virtual question for a kid. I mean it might have been appropriate if I was a kid living in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in which over 200,000 people died. But I wasn’t. I was living in the suburbs of Boston, in a middle class family in which no one was abusing or neglecting me.
Back then I didn’t know what my virtual question was. I just wore it like a filter that colored the way I saw and experienced my world. My parents knew I was anxious and they used “atta boys” to make me feel better. It wasn’t the best strategy. But, 45 years later, I have no complaints.
What follows are some ideas about what makes good virtual questions and what makes bad ones.
Ultimately, you need to determine for yourself whether your virtual questions serve you well. Ideally, you want a virtual question to feel productive, which means that when you ask it, it stimulates a response that is forward-looking, hopeful and relaxed.
So, here are some clues:
Don’t ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no.” They usually set up a win/lose situation, which makes us anxious because we worry that we may lose. Examples include:
- Am I good enough?
- Will I be successful?
- Does she think I’m a good lover?
Don’t ask “what if” questions. They tend to pull you away from the present and into the future:
- What if she leaves me?
- What if I stay depressed?
- What if I can’t hold it together?
Don’t ask “why” questions. They can’t truly be answered, or the answer changes from day to day.
- Why do I keep behaving this way?
- Why does my life lack meaning?
- Why can’t I find the right partner?
Helpful virtual questions often presuppose a positive outcome. They’re usually questions about what you can do, not about getting other people to do something or to change. They’re generally focused on the present, maybe leaning slightly into the future:
- How can I make the best use of this situation?
- What do I need to do to feel proud of myself?
- What can I do to be a better partner for my spouse?
- What boundaries do I need to establish so that I feel safe?
- How can I help my partner/parent/child know that I love him or her?
- How can I make my child feel safe and loved?
- What can I do each day so that I feel like I’m making a difference?
Virtual questions are not intended to be sugarcoated. These are not affirmations. They are questions designed to help you be honest with yourself, to get in touch with yourself and to be thoughtful. So, if you are depressed, the idea isn’t to ask a question that denies your depression. The idea is to ask a question that helps you work with your depression.
So, what’s your virtual question? Does it serve you well? If not, you can change it. And in doing so, you’ll be changing yourself.
If you want some help, send me your virtual question and I’ll give you a suggestion.