Author: Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. | Posted March, 2013 | As originally posted on Examiner.com
Recently, I was reading about NASA’s robotic rover currently exploring the Martian surface, named Curiosity. What an excellent name. In my work as a therapist, I have consistently found a basic sense of curiosity to be a hallmark of resiliency, mental flexibility, and overall health and well being. Curiosity is the ability to wonder about ourselves and the world around us. It opens doors to new experiences and new ways of understanding the immensely complex and marvelous relationships between all things – both inside and out. In short, curiosity heals.
When people get stuck, it is often because they have lost the ability to be curious about themselves and their relationships with other people. Typically, they have become reactive to something: a thought, a feeling, a behavior, or a situation. Reactivity stands in opposition to curiosity. When we react to something, we don’t give ourselves time to understand it. We aren’t able to see what it is, how it works, and why we are so afraid, anxious, sad, or angry about it. As a result, we can easily become stuck in action-reaction cycles that are basically no different than our leg kicking when we get our reflexes tested at the doctor’s office. This can be problematic because healthy relationships (both with ourselves and other people) depend on understanding.
If we are stuck reacting to things, there is no space to make consciously informed choices. Anxiety disorders are great examples how we can get stuck in maladaptive cycles of reactivity. Anxiety is another word for fear. When we say someone is anxious, we are really saying that he or she is afraid. Sometimes people are anxious about something in particular: snakes, spiders, airplanes, or heights. Perhaps more often, people experience anxiety as an ambiguous and changing feeling that can be attached to a variety of situations. This is because the nature of fear is to generalize. It starts off being about something in particular, but gradually grows to include stuff that may only vaguely be related to the original feared object or situation. People who suffer from anxiety will often report that they are anxious about being anxious. The fear has generalized to include the experience of fear itself, which people often misunderstand as somehow dangerous. Panic attacks happen when a person misinterprets their own symptoms of anxiety (such as elevated heart rate) as being potentially life-threatening.
All of this is testament to how good our bodies and minds are at trying to protect us from danger. We are hard-wired to develop fear reactions to objects and situations that have the potential to harm us. People develop phobias of spiders, dogs, heights, and the sight of blood because these are objects that it can be beneficial to fear. People develop panic disorder because our brains are very good at signaling danger when things don’t feel right. A large part of helping someone recover from an anxiety disorder involves re-framing anxiety as the body’s attempt to keep him or her safe. By understanding anxiety symptoms as the body’s way of signaling fear (versus reacting to the feelings as though they were, themselves, threatening), the person can begin to make conscious and informed choices about how to respond. Gradually, they react to the anxiety less, and respond to the anxiety more.
Similarly, much can be gained by reducing reactivity and increasing curiosity in our relationships with other people. It is very easy to assume that we know what someone else thinking or feeling. It is simple to make snap judgments about someone’s intentions and react accordingly. If we aren’t careful, we can end up shadow boxing with our own projections and not really seeing the other person. By simply asking the other person what he or she is thinking or feeling we can make much more informed decisions about how to respond. By checking in with the other person about what he or she meant by making a certain comment, we can test whether our assumptions are correct. Just as the person suffering from anxiety must learn to become curious about their fear, we must learn to be curious about our loved ones.
Famously, Galileo debunked the assumption that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones by simply dropping two different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In hundreds of years, nobody had ever thought to perform a simple experiment to test whether heavy objects do, in fact, fall faster than lighter ones (they don’t). Galileo was curious about the world, and he revolutionized physics by performing a simple test. Imagine how much you could revolutionize your own world by being more curious about yourself and the people you love.
I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt