• The stories we tell ourselves can hold us back – worse still, they can be automatic 

  • Therapist Lisa Olivera offers simple questions you can ask yourself to encourage curiosity and change

  • We have therapists available to support you here

Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know something. I see curiosity as a mindset that invites openness into our lives. Curiosity: an inner pathway to what’s possible, and a pathway that I lead from in my life.

While mindfulness helps us pause to notice what stories we’re telling about ourselves, curiosity helps us figure out why we’re telling those stories. It helps us open up to possibility, to choice, to new perspectives, and to the magic and mystery of being human. 

Ask yourself questions that lead to personal inquiry. Explore different ways of viewing the stories you’ve created. Practice using a more expansive viewpoint as you look at yourself. That’s how we can explore alternatives, new ideas, different ways of holding things, new lenses to view experiences through. 

Curiosity helps us move out of our automatic patterns, which naturally invites different ways of showing up for ourselves. As someone who spent years of my life swimming in self-criticism, I found the phrase 'get curious' transformative. When I think about embracing curiosity as a mindset, I ask myself questions. 

Here are some I think about and ask clients:

• How else can I interpret this?

• What else might be possible?

• What else could be going on here?

• What might I be missing?

• What might I have overlooked?

• How can I look deeper into what I’m experiencing?

• What would be a more easeful way of holding this story?

• I wonder what it would be like if ______ happened.

• How can I make space for something else to be true?

• Where might I be asserting fact when it could just be a story I’m telling myself?

Even asking these questions allows other ways of thinking and feeling to arise. Reading the questions creates the possibility for answers even if there are no answers yet.

Curiosity has allowed me to examine myself from different viewpoints, different perspectives, and different lenses, all of which teach me new ways of holding my experiences, beliefs, and stories. I think curiosity is a natural invitation to what else could be, which offers a glimpse of hope. It’s a chance to see what living differently could be like – to live in a way that supports our wholeness and not just in a way that might be keeping us small, stuck, or stagnant. 

Whenever (well, not whenever, but as often as I can, because hi, I’m only human!) I start telling myself an old story, I try to ask myself some of the questions I’ve listed above. As I do, I start recognising where I might actually be wrong. From here, I can show up for myself in a more supportive way, which totally transforms the moment.

Even recently. In my work, for example, I often share information in bits and pieces to help others further their own healing. For a long time, I was working on a course that would present this information in a different format. I hesitated to share it. I kept telling myself a story that it wasn’t good enough – that I needed to make it better before sharing it (hello, perfectionism). Repeating this story kept me from sharing it for months and months. I noticed the story I was living from wasn’t moving me forward, so I got curious. I finally allowed myself to ask some of those same questions. I asked: what else could happen if I shared the course? I thought it might help some people, even if it wasn’t perfect. (And I’ll say it again, nothing is perfect; no one is perfect.) I shared the course, and the experience is going way better than I anticipated. This is a very basic example, but it shows how curiosity can pave the way for a new story and a new way of living.

It sounds so simple, but infusing our lives with curiosity is a practice that doesn’t always feel easy (because simple is rarely easy). When we practice it consistently, though, our minds start grasping for new stories instead of clinging to old ones. We become more comfortable exploring instead of settling. Curiosity is the antithesis to stuckness and an invitation to possibility.

Other ways to implement curiosity

1. Embrace wonder

When I think about the moments in which I experience wonder most often, I think of being in nature. When I’m in nature, I tend to observe everything around me slowly. I observe the way light reflects off of different surfaces. I observe trickling water and shimmering ferns. I observe how the wind sounds in different areas. I observe how different plants change each time I revisit the same spot. I wonder why. Later, I’ll look it up online or ask a knowledgeable friend or read a book. I come to new insights through doing so. I see things in new ways. Wonder leads to new knowledge. It also allows you to practice not knowing—to accept that there may be things you’ll never know—to stay curious about the unknown.

The same thing happens when we embrace wonder within ourselves. Wonder is about embracing the mystery, the unknown, the awe-filled, and the questions, and exploring with a curious heart. It’s about nurturing what we might never fully understand. It’s about witnessing the uncertainty with reverence. It’s about honouring the depths within ourselves as magical and awe-filled. It’s about seeing the miracle. When we embrace wonder, our old stories don’t stand a chance. We create pathways that can lead us toward creating a new story and a new life. Wonder is a pathway to something better.

2. Exercise choice

One of the most important parts of moving forward and showing up for ourselves in new ways is recognising the choice we have in it all. Curiosity helps us remember the choices we have. We can’t automatically choose to feel a certain way. We can choose how we respond. We can choose what action we take. We can choose the story we tell about ourselves. You might feel like the way you respond to yourself is 'just the way it is'. The truth is that there are so many ways it could be. You can choose to say 'It makes sense why this feels so hard' instead of 'What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t think this feels so hard!' You can choose to ask for help instead of trying to do everything on your own. You can choose to practice new habits instead of assuming you’ll never change. You can choose to show up for yourself by setting boundaries instead of continually feeling resentful. 

We exercise choice in so many ways. But this can be especially hard if you’ve had your ability to choose taken away in the past. It can be painful to give yourself permission to choose after feeling like you didn’t have a choice for so long. If you had no choice but to stay small and quiet growing up, it might feel hard to remember you can choose differently now. 

If you had no choice but to keep your feelings to yourself, it might feel hard to realise you can share them now. If you had no choice but to be treated a certain way, it might feel hard to realise you can choose whether or not you allow it anymore. Lack of choice in the world around us can easily paralyse us into feeling like we have no
choice at all. 

Use curiosity to discover choices you might not have recognised before. For example, if you felt you had no choice but to stay small and quiet growing up, what else can you choose now? Are there ways you can choose to be seen and known? How could your choices support you in reframing your story? Get curious about the choices
you want to make for yourself.

Lisa Olivera is a therapist based in the US, and the author of Already Enough

Further reading

The power of storytelling in therapy

How to deal with feelings of inadequacy

Is it time to stop holding yourself back?

The neuroscience of change: why change is difficult

In therapy: why you might feel worse before you feel better