Peace Partnership

The Terrible Secret of Too Much Counseling

Posted by on Sep 4, 2018

Let me get right to the point: Too much counseling can drive you crazy. Settle down, let me explain.

Emotional Excavation

That’s weird. I wonder why I did that?
Why did what s/he said hurt my feelings so much?
Why am I so mad about this?
Why do I always seem to assume the worst?
Whoa?! Why on earth did I say that!?

If this sounds familiar don’t feel bad. Most people gravitate toward asking why questions because they provide explanatory power. We want the motivation; we want to know why. Here’s the problem: there is an infinite number of answers to most why questions. Ask 10 people, get 11 different answers. Getting several different explanations to the same problem can deepen our uncertainty so we keep digging, hoping to find the core of the issue, something that really strikes us as true, the ultimate answer to our why question. But oftentimes we never feel satisfied with the answers we find. This presents a problem of biblical proportions.[1] We can understand certain thoughts and motivations – but only to a certain depth. You risk unhealthy emotional excavation any time you ask too many “why” questions.

Think of emotional digging like peeling layers off an onion. As a counselor, here’s how I see the process going: You find a good counselor and begin meeting weekly. What you thought might take several weeks has turned into a year (or more). As you strip another layer off you’re “making progress” and, “becoming a more integrated person” and that feels good. Your counselor praises your “courage,” “bravery,” and capacity to look inward. You continue counseling. Stripping off layer after layer, always looking for something deeper, thinking someday you’ll stumble upon some profound existential truth no one has ever thought of. You’re so close to getting to the real heart of the issue. Oh what a glorious, self-enlightening day that will be! But you don’t need a counselor; you can do this on your own too. For example, here is what this process looks like in my head:

1. I’m anxious over an upcoming speaking engagement.
2. I’m aware of my anxiety about this. Why am I worried? I’ve done this a ton of times.
3. Hmmm. I’m judging myself in an unhealthy way by being too hard on myself and placing unrealistic expectations on myself.
4. Now I’m frustrated and depressed that I was placing unrealistic expectations on myself. Why haven’t I grown past this?
5. I’m now aware of my emotions and emotions about emotions, but I haven’t really answered any of my own questions about my emotions.
6. This sucks.
7. I just realized that layer #5 is barely comprehensible.
8. Now I’m frustrated I can’t form these emotions into an intelligible thought. I feel incompetent. Why am I so inept?
9. Am I up to this task? Why can’t I figure this out? Maybe I should call and cancel.
187. Why didn’t David Hasselhoff ever win an Oscar? Baywatch was amazing.[2]

Sitting around trying to uncover the core of the issue sounds like a good idea. It sounds like a good idea because more often than not it doesn’t really require us to do anything. Thinking we’ll get to the bottom of all this can keep us from doing, well, anything. It keeps us safe and sound, curled up on the vintage leather chair at the coffee shop, warm latté in our hands, discussing deep issues that might be true with our BFF.[3]

But many times in therapy there is no core issue that is within your understanding. Researchers have found that no matter how hard you try you can’t completely excavate your unconscious thoughts, motivations, or emotions.[4] Because so much is locked away in your subconscious, you end up creating answers that feel true, but simply aren’t. You essentially dupe yourself into believing what feels good. (Don’t feel bad, I do it too.) Here’s why:[5] You are a finite being. You had a beginning, and you’ll have an end. When you step into examining deep, intrapersonal motivating factors (i.e., asking why) you unintentionally step from a finite mode of thinking into an infinite mode of thinking. Of course, you are not infinite, and even though you can comprehend of the concept, you can do little else with it. In therapy many people ask why questions, and counselors can help answer these questions – but only to a certain point.

Turtles and The Wise Old Man[6]

There’s an ancient Hindu parable from 16th-century India that describes a bright young protégé. The young man was very smart and wanted to know what held the world in place. But living in a small village has its disadvantages. He searched and searched but could not find anyone to answer his question. One day he heard of a wise old man who lived in the mountains. The young man was told that the wise sage would know the answer to his question. So he climbed the mountain and after several days of searching found the old man living in a cave. The wise old man praised the young protégé for seeking him out, and offered to answer his question as a reward for finding him.

The young man thought hard. “Wise Sage, we stand upon the world, but what does the world stand upon?”

The Sage responded, “The world rests upon the back of many large elephants.”

The young man thought for a moment. “Yes, but what do the elephants stand upon?”

The wise old man immediately responded, “The elephants stand upon the back of a giant turtle.”

Not satisfied, the young protégé pressed on, “Yes, but what does the turtle stand upon?”

“The turtle stands upon an even greater turtle,” the Sage responded.

Growing frustrated, the young man began to ask, “But what does – “

“No, no,” the Sage interrupted as he shook his finger back and forth at the young man. “Stop there, son. It’s turtles all the way down.”

Drilling for bedrock and trying to find the rock-solid why of a situation feels important, but past a certain point it’s mind-numbing, self-indulgent narcissism. This is the danger of too much emotional excavation. Ask why only to a certain point, then shift your mental energy to answering “how” and “what” questions. (As in, “How am I going to deal with this?” or, “What am I going to do?”) So finish your latté, stop continually digging around in issues you’re never likely to fully understand, and start doing something about what you already know.


[1] Seriously, it literally does. Read Jeremiah 17:9, or the entire book of Job.
[2] Who’s with me on this? If you decide to petition Hollywood let me know, I’m totally on board.
[3] Of course, if it might be true it is equally accurate that it might not be true. For more on this logical fallacy do some reading on special pleading.
[4] Eurich, T. (2017). Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. Crown Publishing. New York, NY.
[5] Ironic, isn’t it? I’m writing an article about why asking too many why questions is a bad idea and here I am answering a big, fat why question. The hypocrisy of the situation isn’t lost on me. Read on, I promise to redeem myself.
[6] For an overview on the concept of infinite regression see:



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