What’s the Most Important Question We Ask? ~ Jake Eagle

Via Jake Eagle
on Oct 30, 2013
get elephant's newsletter


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 said that she was in 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 she 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 or not 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:

Virtual questions should not be binary. 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?

Virtual questions should not begin with “what if.” “What if” questions 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?

Virtual questions should not begin with “why.” Too many “why” questions 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 you—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.

Here are some examples:

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?

Please realize that virtual questions are not intended to be sugar coated.

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.

Here are some more examples:

What is it that I’m not being honest about?

What am I using my depression to avoid?

What one thing can I do every day to create more intimacy in my life?

What could I reveal to my partner so that I’ll feel more fully seen by him or her?

So, what’s your virtual question? What question roams around in the corridors of your mind? 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.



Want 15 free additional reads weekly, just our best?

Get our weekly newsletter.

Ed:  Cat Beekmans

{Photo: Flickr.}



About Jake Eagle

Jake Eagle is a collector of mentors. Instead of attending traditional schools to become a licensed psychotherapist, he spent four years apprenticing with a master therapist—a wizard who lived in the desert. Then, he and his wife, Hannah, spent six years studying with two pioneers in the human potential movement. When these elderly pioneers retired at the age of eighty-five, Jake and Hannah became the stewards of a brilliant body of work, which is now known as Reology. Jake is the author of an award-winning book, ReRight Your Life, An Introduction To Reology. He can be reached via email. You can also connect with Jake on his website or via Facebook.


15 Responses to “What’s the Most Important Question We Ask? ~ Jake Eagle”

  1. that absolutely rocks! So good thank you and very true I think

  2. jakegeagle says:

    I appreciate your comment, John. If you have any questions about your own Virtual Question, feel free to ask.

  3. Metta says:

    Thanks for the guidelines, Jake. I'm working with "How do I inspire myself?" and "What is the loving/kind response?"

  4. jakegeagle says:

    Metta, yes, if you want to play with your sentence, you might try, "What is MY loving/kind response?" This subtle shift in one word may create a greater sense of personal ownership of your love and your kindness.

  5. Ralph says:

    Wonderful article, Jake! I love the idea of looking at the questions we ask ourselves and how we can cause our own psychological suffering with them.

  6. jakegeagle says:

    Yes . . . and how we can relieve our suffering by altering our questions, which in turn alters our orientation or perspective.

  7. Dennis says:

    Good article Jake! I've always been weighed down in my job (software developer) by my important question which is a
    variation of "Am I good enough?" My important question regarding my job, and perhaps life in general, "Can I handle it?"
    Growing up and currently living in a Boston suburb (Saugus) myself, I've always had this fear lurking in my subconscious.
    Always afraid that I'd be given a project/task that I wouldn't be able to handle/complete, even after 26+ years in the same
    job with the same company. I've always been aware of my important question at some level but I've become more and more
    aware in recent years as to how it affects me and probably the #1 reason why I've wanted to quit my job. Thanks!

  8. jakegeagle says:

    Hi Dennis . . . sounds like a challenging question, in part, because it contains that binary quality. So, if your answer is "no, I can't handle it," that will generate a lot of anxiety. I wonder if you'd help yourself with: "How can I best handle it?" And, in my world of words, I often change "it" to "I" or to "myself." So, for me your question would be, "Can I handle myself?" Or, "How can I best handle myself."

    However, in terms of a bigger question, maybe your anxiety is feedback that you haven't found the right job/work. Could there be a better job out there for you? One in which you could relax? I hope so.

  9. dennis says:

    Thanks for the response Jake. You have correctly identified the core issue; the right job/work!! "How can I best handle it (the job)?" Focus more? Work harder? Whatever. But when your heart's not into it and you don't love what you do, focusing and
    working harder is a constant struggle. VERY tough to walk away from a high-paying job in this brutal economic environment
    when you have no clue as what you want to do. Seems that a majority of my co-workers are in the same boat. Chained to the
    desk with Golden Handcuffs 🙂 Anyway, just ordered your book "ReRight Your Life". Along with career issues to deal with, I
    have a 10-year relationship that either needs fixing or leaving. The fun never ends! Thanks again.

  10. jakegeagle says:

    …Dennis, I'm gonna get myself in trouble if I suggest you look for a new job and things don't work out, but really—life is short! I know about golden handcuffs and they are expensive to wear.

    I was just listening to an explanation of why Amazon, Apple, and Google are so successful and the reason was that the leaders of the organizations set their standards extremely high. They expect a lot from their people, and they expect their products and services to be the best.

    This is my philosophy about people. Why not expect the best from ourselves? Why do we settle for less…like wearing golden handcuffs? I think we can rationalize settling for less, but that doesn't make the healthiest way to live. I hope you figure yourself out.

  11. My favorite question is, "What do I need, and how can I give it to myself?" It's a great way to keep taking responsibility for myself.

  12. Jake,

    I have been in a deep depression since mid-June. It got to suicidal through most of July and I almost had to be hospitalized. I haven't been able to write or pick up a crochet hook (things I love to do) in all this time. Your question "What am I using my depression to avoid?" terrified me. Am I doing that? How am I doing that? And what's a better question for me?

    Have been trying to write a memoir about my depression for National Novel Writing Month, called "Use Your Words." Lots of false starts and self-condemnation (Who do you think you are? Who would want to read a book about how you got through this?).

    The thing is, I had to do a lot of my own footwork. My new psychiatrist, who is very different from my old one, doesn't believe in throwing a new medication at me whenever something pops up. She's cautious and thoughtful, and is even trying to wean me OFF of a benzo. So this memoir feels unique to me in this day and age. I WANT to help people.

    Please help me re-frame that question. I don't want to avoid anything. I want to grasp life with both hands and hold on tight.

  13. jakegeagle says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for openly sharing part of your story. So, here's the important thing to remember. A Virtual Question is good only if it's good for you. If asking yourself, "What am I using my depression to avoid?" terrifies you, then it's not a good VQ for you.

    Pay attention to how you feel when you ask yourself a Virtual Question. If you are depressed, you may be asking yourself questions that are depressing. So, what question makes you feel better about yourself? And I'm not suggesting you come up with something contrived or trite, it needs to be an honest question.

    For example, "Given my life situation, how can I best help people?" To me, that feels honest and appropriate and taps into something you say you want to do. Try it on. See how you feel. Let me know if I can be of assistance.


  14. jakegeagle says:

    Yes, it is. I agree. I may even borrow that one from time to time.

  15. Avr says:

    hi guys 1 really need advice from u all.. i am from a multicultural country, yet the relationship between girl and boys still is a problem here.. i am a hidu and i love a muslim girl loads.. weve been together for 1 year. now we broke since 2 month. she changed her phone number and blocked me on fb (i asked for it). it is all because she is being pressure by her mum. and now takin her mum and her relationship into consideration she is ready to leave me … what should i do i want her badly.. i want to talk to his bro which may be quite hard.. because a hindu guy asking for a muslim girl its quite an issue here should i talk to her bro.. i fear she might be in greater trouble . ? but she prefers to leave me..