Curiosity and its Ability to Disarm

Curiosity is an individual, relational, and global détente mechanism

Pamela J. Reed, MA, LPCC

To be curious means to be open to knowing what is transpiring in any given moment, whether it is in the present or the past. Transpire, comes from two Latin words: trans, meaning “through” and spirare, meaning “breathe”. If we breathe through moments by being present, we can engage our curiosity. This is especially important in our relationships with ourselves and others. A lack of curiosity can breed indifference, discord, injustice, and feelings of irrelevance. In this post, I will review three ways that curiosity can help us improve our management of personal anxiety, relationship with others and relationship with the world.

On the individual level, what does it mean to be curious about ourselves? One of the first steps in therapy is to increase self-awareness. A therapist acts as a mirror, for people to see themselves through the eyes of another. This act of reflection is a powerful tool to open another’s awareness through a more objective framework. We must get curious about ourselves to understand the origin of our thoughts, which drive our emotions, actions, and reactions.

Anxiety is a reaction when we believe harm is imminent. Anxiety fools us by causing us to think that its presence is necessary. An example of disarming anxiety through curiosity looks like this: You feel anxious and the onset of an “anxiety” or “panic attack”. These “attacks” present with various physiological reactions, including tingling sensations in the extremities, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, and a sense of being “outside of one’s self”. In that moment, for many people, fear takes over. When that happens, the sympathetic nervous system, our “fight or flight” response grabs hold of the reigns. Our brains tell our bodies there is danger and bodies respond with a flood of neurochemicals, preparing us for battle. This feeds the anxiety, keeping it alive.

Can we disarm the fight or flight response in the moment? Yes. Curiosity is one way to start the placation of fear. Be curious about what is happening. Talk to yourself. “Hmmm…I am noticing that my arms are tingling. Why is this happening right now?” By asking yourself questions and being curious about what IS happening, we keep the “executive functioning” (i.e., “logical”) part of our brain engaged, decreasing fear and thoughts around what MIGHT happen. Keeping engaged with what curiosity lessens our anxiety. What transpires next, is we can literally breathe through the moment to calm our bodies even more.

What does it mean to be curious in our relationships with others? With our partners, our family members, our children? What if the “attack” we feel is external rather than internal?  Words and actions toward us can have disastrous consequences when we allow our fear response to take over. In our most intimate relationships, intense feelings and reactions can be elicited at times. Being curious in the moment within these relationships and asking “why” questions from a place of authentic interest, can turn our relationships toward reflection rather than confrontation. This engages the brains’ executive functioning, decreasing sympathetic nervous system reactions. As parents, we can feel frustration and anger at times when our children behave in a way that does not match our values and ideas around “how it is supposed to be”. Instead, let us remember to ask “why?” in those moments, either internally toward ourselves (e.g., Why am I having this strong of a reaction? Why is my child behaving in this way?) or externally toward our children (e.g., Why did you choose that behavior at that time?).

On the societal level, what does it mean to be curious about others in our community and in the world? What happens when we approach situations with curiosity rather than fear? Curiosity breeds compassion wherein a palpable weight is lifted. If we took a moment to ask questions, through the lens of curiosity, relating to whether a person poses a threat to our livelihood, our ego, our sense of safety, we can turn our fear into true interest in another. Let us be curious about one another. Perhaps curiosity is a mechanism for détente—individually within us, relationally with those we love and care about, and globally with others.

Authentic Connection

Pamela J. Reed, MA, LPCC, CCTP

What does it mean to be authentic? Merriam Webster’s definition includes the following: (1) not false or imitation; (2) true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. Over the past few months, since my last blog post, I have been deeply reflecting on the theme of authenticity as it keeps presenting itself in my work. More specifically, the question of what it means to have an authentic connection with others. How do we communicate with one another in way that is not false, that is not imitation and is true to our own personality, spirit, and character?

I have come to understand that we experience authentic or inauthentic connection within the subtleties of our communications. How do we know when someone is being their authentic self? We feel it. We “know” it. Yet, it can be difficult to describe. Sometimes it is easier to describe something not by what it is, but what it isn’t. So, how do we experience someone being inauthentic?

Dissonance comes to mind. There is dissonance that can take several forms, all of which have a distinct energetic “feel” that can cause a negative reaction within the recipient of the communication. Patients of mine who are “highly sensitive” have a skilled radar for inauthenticity. And some feel heartbroken by it. We all crave authentic connection, wanting others to “see” us for who we truly are. When we are in the presence of those with more narcissistic tendencies, communication feels one-sided. We are acutely aware that the conversation is only involving one person. The dissonance is in the person’s lack of awareness of others.

Social media can promote inauthentic connection and communication. In all our communications with others, we should ask ourselves, “what does this communication serve?”. Many times, specifically with social media, the communication serves the ego. That part of our self Eckhart Tolle describes as “the external image we have of ourselves”. I am not suggesting that all communication through social media is inauthentic. Social media has united and connected us in ways that have brought positive change to our world. I am only suggesting that it can also be used to propagate inauthentic versions of ourselves because of the powerful need for external validation.

Communication through social media is greatly affected by external factors. We can lose ourselves easily due to our inherent need to belong and be accepted by others. However, when we are guided externally, we encourage suffering. When we are guided by internal forces, our “knowing” of who we are and what we value, communications become natural, easy, authentically ours.

The move from in-person sessions with clients to telehealth video therapy has opened the question of whether authenticity is reduced in our interactions with others when we are not in the same room. Asking patients about their experience with teletherapy has brought forth a conversation around which type of connection feels most “authentic”. Video, audio (i.e., phone-to-ear) or in-person. One patient who describes themselves as neurodivergent, relayed they were uncomfortable with phone conversations. They needed to see the interlocutor’s face to judge the nuances within the conversation and frame their responses and input. Some of my patients find that phone calls are more intimate than video, as the awareness of being “on camera” can be distracting. By and large, in-person communication feels the most “authentic” for my patients, and for myself. Lori Gottlieb stated in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post: “Machines of course, have their limitations. More than once I have been unsure if a pause in the conversation has meant that the screen froze, or if we were sharing a meaningful silence. When we emerge from the coronavirus, I will go back to in-person sessions. But I am grateful for these remote sessions because they’ve been both an illuminator and an equalizer, breaking down the facades we all construct and highlighting our shared humanity.” Gottlieb understands that our authentic communication finds a way through whatever the mode of transfer is.

Dr. Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Exactly. We can have authentic connection in myriad ways, including telecommunications. Once we can overcome barriers that may exist externally, our internal compass and guidance will communicate authentically. The hard part is listening to that core of ourselves.

Probability and Possibility

By Pamela J. Reed, MA, LPCC, CCTP

We find ourselves amid a global pandemic. We are bombarded with future projections, risks, and odds on a daily basis. We are navigating what this means for us as individuals, as families, and as communities. This experience is a trauma. In trauma, there is a distinct “before” and “after” – a demarcation that will forever be part of our memory and timelines.

Within this realm of probabilities, there is the concept of coincidence. How often have you experienced a moment wherein you thought, “what are the odds?” We meet someone at just the “right” time in our lives, or an opportunity presents itself seemingly out of nowhere. What if we looked at these coincidences as more than “odds”? What if we looked at them as possibilities? Possibilities that something greater than ourselves is trying to connect us? Carl Jung describes this phenomenon as synchronicity, or “meaningful coincidences”. What if we saw them as moments that tell us we are not alone?

The dark side of the question “what are the odds?” appears when we are in the midst of trauma and its partner, grief. We experience an event that is outside our normal, assumed expectations of life. Like now. Often when trauma strikes, the “odds” of bad things happening increases in the mind exponentially. This is the essence of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. What I have come to know in working in trauma therapy is that within trauma there is both tragedy and gifts. This is a paradox—it is difficult to hold those two words in the same space. Yet, we must. Because this is the world we live in. We will find moments of appreciation in the tragedy, and although it can be difficult to accept and produce feelings of guilt, it is the truth. There is freedom in that knowledge.

What if instead of anticipating chaos and suffering around the corner, we began to imagine the possibility that synchronistic events may show up? Suffering is, at times, the path we need in order to see ourselves as a connection to something bigger. We can sense the possibility of this through others and within ourselves. Let us open ourselves up to what may present itself to us and know that whatever it is we are experiencing; we are not alone.