What do you do when you make a mistake? When you feel guilt? Sadness? Unworthiness? What do you do when you fail, when you feel anger, when you move away from your partner, when you ignore what you need, when you punish yourself?
Do you scold yourself? Judge? Blame or self-sabotage yourself? Do you sink into depression or dissolve into anxiety? Do you abuse yourself mentally and emotionally? As a way to get yourself to be a better person? As atonement for your actions? As a distraction?
That’s what I do. If I mess up, if I fail, if I hit beneath the mark, my response is judgement, shame, guilt, and punishment. That’s how I feel I will learn. If I deny myself a brownie because I made a mistake while driving, maybe I’ll remember the importance of doing it correctly next time. If I sit in shame after snapping at my partner, maybe I’ll remember how horrible it felt and never do it again. If I distract myself from the guilt, maybe I can evade the sometimes excruciating self-judgement.
Perhaps because of how we were raised, perhaps because of culture, or perhaps just because of who we are and how we see the world, we’ve come to associate judgement with learning, shame with growth, punishment with increase in good behavior.
And yet, where does the judgement, shame, and punishment lead? To a breakage of self-esteem, a decrease in self-trust, a burying of self-love, and an increase in cycling thought patterns and behaviors that serve to reinforce, not diminish, the initial act. That’s right. I believe every time you shame a behavior, you give it strength. Every time you cast judgement, you throw another branch on the fire. Every time you punish yourself, you set an example of the type of treatment you deserve in future. Next time. Because believe me on this, there will be a next time. Another failure. Another shortcoming. Another stumble. You can’t shame yourself and then move on perfectly from that moment until the end of your life. And yet we act as if that’s exactly what we can do.
So what’s the answer? How do we stop the cycle, establish new habits, and strengthen forgiveness, self-trust, self-love, self-esteem, and ultimately our connections with others?
The answer is simple: curiosity.
Curiosity does several things: (1) it moves us closer to the difficult feelings, rather than pushing them away, (2) it paints us as the observer rather than as attached to and controlled by the feelings, and (3) it opens us to compassion.
Let’s take each in turn:
It moves us closer to difficult feelings. When we approach a failure with curiosity, instead of running away, we’re choosing to sit with the feeling of having failed. We sit with the pain of shame, disappointment, or grief. We allow it to pass through us, to teach us, to process and dissipate rather than stick and stifle the flowing creek of inner wholeness. Moving closer to the feelings allows us to work through them and glean what lessons and hidden gems we may before moving on, stronger and wiser than before. It allows us to release the emotions rather than place them into a negative and even harmful story.
It paints us as the observer. When we approach failure with curiosity, we gain a distance from our feelings and thoughts. We ask questions, genuinely wanting to know and understand, without judgement or shame. This means we don’t latch onto negative thought cycles or destructive behaviors, and it allows us to search for wisdom and love—something almost impossible to do when we are latched into the negative cycles.
It opens us to compassion. Judgement, shame, punishment—these hold no compassion, no love, no gentleness, no olive branch. Curiosity, however, approaches the world with openness and understanding and allows space for love and compassion. It doesn’t jump straight to punishment or harsh criticism. Those responses hold no weight with curiosity, because they don’t serve the purpose of learning and understanding. As we learn, we grow, and as we develop understanding, we gain compassion.
Notice there is no pressure here to try to correct the negative behavior or thought patterns. The only challenge is to approach with curiosity rather than judgment. The approach itself brings the positive actions and emotions we can’t generate by trying to force them into ourselves. Just as you can’t beat self-love into a child, you can’t use hateful self-talk to teach yourself how to love.
Challenge!: This week, focus on approaching situations with curiosity. Write down a mantra if you find it helpful, and keep it with you or recite it often over the next few days. Something like “I approach this with curiosity” or “I choose to be curious” or “How can I be curious today?”. Notice how it affects your approach, and share with the rest of us! I’d love to hear from you!