When someone disappoints us, lashes out, or otherwise bewilders us with their negative behavior, it’s only natural to want to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” We want explanations to help understand the people around us.
The What’s wrong with you? question, however, usually serves to alienate, rather than build understanding with, the person struggling to make sense of their past. The essential question we should be asking is, What happened to you?
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study, co-founded by Dr. Vincent Filletti and Dr. Robert Anda in the 1990s, asked over 17,000 people about their health and adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, family addictions, and other dysfunctions in the household. They found that traumatic experiences that start early in our life and continue over time can have a powerful impact on the way we handle stress and respond to life’s challenges. These adverse childhood experiences very often turn into problems later in life, including physical ill health, mental health issues, and addictions.
When you ask someone this question, they often hear and internalize the following judgments, causing a continued cycle of shame and possibly destructive behavior.
When you see someone who makes positive life choices as “good” and one who makes poor life choices as “bad,” you simplify the complex personal histories that may have led to these choices. Most people who use drugs, for example, are trying to manage the effects of a painful life event or a history of adverse experiences.
When you reframe the question, you change the message you send, which in turn helps you learn about the person and change the way you view them. What happened to you?, rather than What’s wrong with you?, communicates the following:
When you focus on the “why” of a person’s health and behavior rather than the “what,” you validate their emotions and experiences, which opens channels to healing.
The importance of knowing the difference between these questions—and asking the better one—impacts not only your relationships with close friends and family, but also with people you encounter in our community. When you frame your view of people this way, you are more likely to treat them with compassion. And compassion, we know, is an integral part of helping people to open up, to make positive changes, and to heal.
Together, let’s continue to make a difference in Ashland County. You can learn more about the ACE Study, and what it’s taught us, by watching the video on this page.