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Curiosity Can Help You Cope With Uncertainty

Research says our innate curiosity is important in times of change and doubt.

Key Points:

  • The idea of transitioning from the pandemic back to "normal life" is fraught with uncertainty, a known trigger of anxiety.
  • Deliberately cultivating curiosity about one's feelings, fears, and experiences can help someone manage anxiety about impending change and the unknown.
  • Asking open-ended questions of self and others, observing emotions without judgment, and respecting everyone's needs can help engage one's curiosity.

“I’m worried about life getting back to normal,” Ariel* told me in a recent therapy session. “I’m so used to just seeing people over Zoom or FaceTime or messaging them that I won’t know how to talk to anybody in person.”

“I’m ready to start seeing some friends again,” said Daniel,* “for sure. But I’m not ready to get back on the subway or back into the office. And I’m not sure that I’m going to know how to have a casual conversation anymore.”

Liz* told me that she was suddenly feeling shy about being back with people in person. “I don’t know where to look—do I look at their eyes? Or their hands? Can I take a look at their whole body?”

And Henry,* who had started a new job during the pandemic, said, “I’m going into an office and seeing people in real life for the first time in a year, and even though I know them from Zoom meetings, I don’t really know any of them. And besides that, I don’t know the offices, the building, the space. It feels like the first day of school.”

As pandemic fatigue and anxiety about catching COVID are beginning to wane somewhat, we have a whole bunch of new worries to deal with. And many of them can be categorized under the heading of uncertainty. In big and small ways, we simply don’t know what we’re facing or where we’re going from here.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, so much about the re-entry process is uncertain. One obvious example is, at least in the United States, just the question of whether or not you are legally mandated to wear a mask is up in the air.

Not knowing is anxiety-making. But what can you do when so much is uncertain and you don’t know what to do? Research tells us that an important solution to not knowing is to engage your curiosity.

Where Curiosity Comes From

Curiosity is “having a strong desire to learn or know something” without actually needing to have that information. Researchers tell us that curiosity “is a special form of information-seeking” which is “internally motivated" or driven from within us. That internal push is what’s important, because it says that we are born with an innate desire to learn. Of course, that desire can be enhanced or damaged by experiences in the world, say with a teacher who either encourages or discourages a child’s curiosity; but it’s there inside of us from the get-go.

It’s too bad that education sometimes interferes with curiosity, since research has also shown that curiosity not only is basic to learning, but that it also enhances memory. In other words, when our curiosity is aroused, we tend to remember what we learned better than if we’re not curious.

When facing a new experience, curiosity is a natural response. Toddlers and puppies immediately start exploring new spaces, new people, new situations. But if a new puppy gets scratched often enough on the snout by an old family cat, or a child gets embarrassed regularly by a teacher for not having “the right” answer in class, they begin to tamp down their curiosity.

Like almost everything in nature, there is an adaptive side to moderate tamping down of curiosity. It’s good to learn caution, for instance, when deciding to explore inside a dark cave or start a new job, where you don’t know what dangers might be ahead. But if you can engage your curiosity, even when you need to use caution, you can manage uncertainty and change in productive, adaptive, and even pleasurable ways.

How to Cultivate Curiosity

Engaging your curiosity, once you’ve decided to do it, isn’t difficult. Simply remind yourself of these three basic ideas:

  1. Wonder: The more you wonder about something, the more you engage your curiosity. The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have an answer to your questions. Children ask things like “Why is the sky blue?” and “How does time work?” not because they need to know the precise, factual answer, but because they are curious about the world they live in.
  2. Discuss: Talk to other people about your questions. They might not have an answer, either, but they can help you open up your mind to possibilities. In other words, they can help you brainstorm about alternatives, some of which you might not come up with on your own. If you’re worried about starting in-person work, for example, ask friends, family, and acquaintances about their ideas about how you would go about re-engaging in the non-virtual world. You’re not asking them to tell you what you should do (although some certainly will!) but what they imagine it would be like, what they are thinking about themselves, and what they think they will do when the time comes.
  3. Observe: Observe yourself, of course, and respect your own style and needs. Observe whether you’re someone who likes to start things slowly, a small step at a time, or whether you prefer to jump in with both feet and just get going. No need for judgment here. You’re just gathering information. While you’re doing that, ask yourself what you’ve seen about others in the same situation. How is your boss, your supervisor, or your close work friend talking about going back to work, for example? Maybe your boss is talking it up enthusiastically but your close friend is holding back; or maybe your friend is eager to be back in the office but your supervisor sounds a little hesitant. Ask them gentle questions (remember, they may be almost as anxious about the changes as you are, so model yourself as a kind teacher who wants to encourage curiosity!).
  4. Respect: Your friends might be ready to get together in a group, but you might be feeling more cautious. Instead of trying to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, ask questions. Wonder to yourself, and with them if it feels appropriate, for example, “What would make it feel safe for us to get together?” “What would make it feel unsafe?” “Where is this information coming from?” “How trustworthy is the source?” And then respect your own needs, as they start to become clear to you.

As we become more curious, we almost automatically become less anxious about uncertainty and change. We also often become more respectful of our own needs and also of the needs and decisions of people who don’t feel the same way we do.

Liz,* for example, found that once she began being curious about her own anxiety about being with people in-person again, she could talk about her concerns with friends. “It didn’t feel like I was confessing my neuroses anymore,” she said. “Instead it felt like I was curious about my reactions and curious about theirs, too; and curious about how they were dealing with theirs. We started sharing stories and brainstorming about solutions, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so afraid of the change.”

123RF stock Imag 120635569 wklzzz
Source: 123RF stock Imag 120635569 wklzzz

Even Henry,* who felt anxious and uncertain about going “back” in-person to a job where he had never worked in-person before, found that when he engaged his curiosity, he got a great deal of support and reassurance. His supervisor was very respectful of his questions and the anxiety behind them. “She told me that I didn’t have to come in until I felt safe,” he said. “But she also said that I could come in once a week for a while, even just for a few hours, so that I could start to get to know the other people and the space.”

Here’s the thing about curiosity: once you engage it, it becomes a lot easier to be respectful of your own needs and also to respect the needs of others, and to find a comfortable place where you can explore whatever comes next together.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy

Copyright fdbarth@2021

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