3 Layers of 'Why' - Getting to the Root of a Problem

Our bodies and emotions let us know when there’s something difficult or harmful happening in our life. Just as when we’re driving along a road and pass signs that indicate warnings such as ‘road works ahead’, ‘speed bump’ or ‘stop’, our emotions and bodies give out warnings when we need to make a change. If we speed ahead instead, ignoring the signs, we can become both physically and mentally sick, and our relationships can suffer as a result.

Feeling uptight, flat, constantly on the brink of crying, tired, or sick in the stomach are just some of the many signs we may see. Maybe we’ve started arguing with the people we love, or we just can’t stand to be around anyone right now. Maybe we can’t get to sleep, or the thought of eating anything makes us want to throw up. These are all indicators that something’s not quite right in our life.

When we drive past a warning sign, usually we adjust the way we’re driving to keep us and other drivers safe. We stop at stop signs. We slow down over speed humps and for road works. If we don’t, we risk damaging our cars, getting a fine, or having an accident.

In the same way, when we notice a warning sign within ourselves, we need to make a correction. The first thing is to get to the bottom of why we’re feeling a certain way, as that gives us the power to make a change. If someone walks across a paddock without knowing there are minefields there, or they realise and don’t know how to defuse them, they are suddenly in a lot of danger. In a similar way, if someone is stressing out and doesn’t know why, they aren’t empowered to deal with the problem before it blows up.

Of course, hopefully we have someone in our life (a good friend, family member or counselor) who are also paying attention to the signs, know when something’s wrong, and help us get to the bottom of it. Often we need an objective third person to help us get perspective and realise what we’re doing. But self-reflection can also help. One technique that can be useful in both cases is the ‘Three Layers of Why’.

Three Layers of Why

As a general rule, it usually takes asking ‘why’ three times before we get to the root of the problem. We may be asking a friend, or we may be asking ourselves. For example:


‘I feel stressed today.’


‘I tried to call my boyfriend last night and he didn’t answer or return my messages.’

‘Why is that stressing you out?’

‘I guess I’m afraid we’re drifting apart.’

‘Why are you afraid of that?’

‘Because it would mean he doesn’t really love me.’


‘I feel really flat today.’


‘I feel like I’m the only one who cares about doing the job properly.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because everyone gives me their stuff to do, and I work late fixing their mistakes.’

‘Why does that make you feel flat?’

‘Because no one appreciates me.’


‘I’m really upset.’


‘I made an appointment with my brother and he cancelled at the last minute because he was "too busy".’

‘Why does that upset you?’

‘I was really looking forward to it. He knew it was important to me, but he let me down.’

‘Why do you feel let down?’

‘Because something else was more important to him. He doesn’t care about me as much as I thought he did.’


Usually fear is at the root of a stress or depression-related problem. In the above examples, the fears could be simplified to:

  1. ‘I’m afraid he doesn’t love me.’
  2. ‘No one appreciates what I do.’
  3. 'He doesn’t care about me’.

And if we simplify them further, we can see that, as with most fears, they all relate to self-worth:

  1. ‘I’m not loved.’
  2. ‘I’m not valued.’
  3. ‘I’m not cared about.’

(For more about fears and self-worth, check out my earlier article: Fear & Anxiety (Part 1): 5 Fears Rooted in Low Self-Worth).

Of course, some things are more tangible: you may know you’re stressed because of an assignment that’s due tomorrow, or because your mother’s going to hospital for an important procedure, or your friend said something that was hurtful. But when you’re experiencing ongoing tension, feel uptight or angry without an obvious reason or are simply ‘battle weary’, then going through the ‘three why’ process can help.

The Next Step

Once you’ve gotten to the root of the problem, you can plan steps to become mentally, emotionally and physically healthier. It may mean communicating with other people involved and finding out if our fears are real (often they’re only perceived!). It may mean some personal work on self-esteem. It may mean changes to our schedule, saying no to things that are overloading us, or realising that the fear is the result of a past hurt. It could be that we need to stop looking to others to give us a sense of worth or making them responsible for our happiness. At the end of the day, we can’t change the way people are – we can only change how we respond to them.

So the next time you realise you’re feeling sick in the stomach or constantly worrying about a particular thing, listen to the warnings, ask yourself why you’re feeling that way, and take steps to reduce the stress.

For further reading:

10 Ways to Tell if You’re Stressed

10 Ways to Reduce Stress

Do You Have Low Self-Esteem?

Accepting Yourself as a Work in Progress

Trudy AdamsComment