I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. – Albert Einstein
On the journey toward easier, less mentally painful performance, this two-word phrase springs to mind. Kind curiosity. I use this a lot with clients who struggle to work better with their minds. Perhaps it’s in the interest of overcoming their thinking errors. Or in, as I discussed recently, developing a more understanding and symbiotic relationship with their emotions.
The idea behind the words kind curiosity is the attitude with which we engage in any mind work. The last thing we want to do while we investigate our unhelpful voices, or navigate with our more difficult emotions, is do so in a way that increases the suffering that already exists. It’s bad enough that your thoughts are unhelpful.
No need to double down with negative judgments about your unhelpful thoughts. The Buddhists cleverly call this very human tendency “the second arrow.” The first arrow is the unhelpful thinking itself and the suffering it causes. The second arrow (entirely self-induced) is the negative judgment about our negative thoughts. When we can resist the urge to double down on ourselves in this way, we can save ourselves a fair bit of grief. Hence the value in cultivating an attitude of kindness and curiosity when doing this investigating.
The idea of kind curiosity is that we want to bring some lightness to our mind work. It’s counterintuitive enough to imagine turning toward our mental mischief, be it the thoughts or emotions that are bringing us pain. As opposed to what we would rather do, which is deny, deflect, block out, or otherwise ignore what is happening. So when we do try to pay attention to the ways of thinking that we don’t like, or lean into our sadness, anxiety, or frustration, best to be light about it.
When we speak of kindness, it is with the same attitude we might bring to a friend who is struggling. Your heart goes out to them with compassion. You treat them kindly, not harshly. It just makes sense. And it is this same attitude we want to have even with our own sense of curiosity. The act of leaning in or turning toward our thoughts or emotions almost demands this light sense of “hmm, what’s going on here?” I lost count of the number of athlete or other clients who would tell me that no way, no how were they going to spend time with their own minds. Why would I want to do that?? My mind is crazy! Welcome to crazy town, then, I say.
Ignorance of our minds does not equal bliss. Curiosity in this space literally just means taking an interest. As in, “how interesting that every time I think about my upcoming performance, my self-talk becomes negative and undermining.” We are not necessarily looking to change anything at this point, just seeking to understand and learn. This interested curiosity (done in a kind manner, as mentioned) opens us up to a greater understanding of our inner world. Don’t worry, we don’t leave it there, but this is such an important first step - and the attitude of kind curiosity we bring to the process can be a game-changer for those of us used to judging the heck out of ourselves. By befriending our mind’s tendencies in this way, we pave the way for change. Because, let’s face it. Where has fighting your mind gotten you?
The thing about kind curiosity is that it has an evil twin. This is the curiosity that asks the why? questions. As in, why do I keep doing this to myself?? Or why am I such an idiot!? This is our judging mind’s exceptionally crafty u-turn right back to self-judgment, which is its forte, after all.
Athletes often want to know—desperately, sometimes—the answer to the question, why do I always do _______. ? [Fill in the blank with whatever undermining, negative, or otherwise unfortunate habit of thinking or behaviour that comes to mind.] Did I say this was crafty? As if, in discovering this truth about ourselves, something essential and life-changing will be revealed. Once I understand, all will be well. The reality is - satisfying this curiosity leads nowhere useful.
So what if you find out that your negative thinking is a result of being treated poorly by your parent, a coach, or a teacher? This is the rub. Finding out the Big Why rarely, if ever, helps us. But yet, it is so so compelling!
Dr. Judson Brewer, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and New York Times best-selling author, has researched the mind’s tendency toward this morbid curiosity…and found that not only is this kind of questioning not useful, but that the mind has a stubborn tendency to convince us of exactly the opposite.
When we get caught up in self-referential thinking — the type that happens with rumination, worry, guilt, or self-judgment — it activates self-referential brain networks. When we let go of that mental chatter and go easy on ourselves, these same brain regions quiet down.
The long and the short of this is that, as compelling as these “why” questions are, they generally serve no useful purpose. Why you think what you think doesn’t matter. In fact, it is a distraction that leads you away from the power that you do have. The power to start paying attention to your mind. The power to learn about how your mind actually works, and from there, taking some positive action to be the performer you were meant to be.
If this is a battle between kind curiosity and why curiosity, let’s give kindness the best chance. Kind curiosity invariably starts with some version of, how interesting! As in, Look at that, there’s that ‘imposter voice’ again. How interesting! You can even thank your mind for the thought - better than fighting it. Why curiosity starts with, well, the word why and generally leaves us feeling worse. Why can’t I ever speak up in meetings?? Let’s recognize and call out our tendency for why curiosity for the unkind faux tool it is.
Up with kind curiosity!! Down with why curiosity! The buck stops here.
If this is something you know you struggle with and would like some help untangling…or you notice that your team has a tendency to get into these kinds of “mind loop” entanglements, do reach out. I can help untangle and get you or your team working better with your mind for easier performance.
Let me know what you think!
P.S. I am re-running my online program called High Performance From the Inside Out. I don't hard-sell my stuff often, if at all, but responses from folks who have been through it have inspired me to put it back out there. I think it's an antidote for the malaise that seems to be gripping so many of us these days, holding us back from our best performer selves, and rendering us that much less effective. The 5-part online program starts in March 2023, dates TBC.
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at email@example.com