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How to Cultivate a Curious Attitude in Times of Distress

We all ask ourselves "Why?" Here's how to do it better.

Key points

  • When distressed, many people react in a closed and insistent way that leads to more problems.
  • This blog explains why an open, curious attitude is helpful.
  • You can shine your light of attention on what is happening, how you are feeling, how you are thinking, and how you are relating.

This post was co-written by Marcia Gralha, MA. This is the fourth in a series of seven posts laying out how to break out of maladaptive cycles and move toward greater well-being.

George was feeling that intolerable emptiness again. Another year, another breakup. It always happened the same way: he started seeing someone, got attached, then she would lose interest and end it—even after he invested everything in the relationship.

Once again, he asked himself: “What is so wrong with me?” and ruminated on why he was always discarded or replaced. Why did they always leave? Why was he not interesting enough? Why was the world so unjust? He loathed the unfairness of it all and toggled between hating himself and hating the world.

Sometimes, we are faced with situations that make us feel so lousy that all we can do is ask why. Why did this happen to me? Why can I not make this better? Although understandable, these kinds of questions actually move people further away from genuinely grasping the nature of their problems, leading them to maladaptive coping strategies, like avoiding the problem or their feelings, blaming themselves, others, or the world, or trying to control the situation or their reactions. (These are the ABCs of neurotic loops, explained in the second blog in the series).

George, for example, blames himself and the world for the frustrations of his dating life. Although he desperately wants to know why this pattern keeps repeating, his perspective is biased by his loathing. He asks “why,” but the lenses through which he sees the situation are clouded by his “CRITICal” attitude: it is critical, resistant, irritable, insistent, tense, and closed-off. As such, George fails to open his perspective to more accurate explanations and interpretations.

So far in this series, we have explained why: 1) the core of internalizing conditions are triple negative neurotic loops, maintained by the CRITIC attitude that tends to avoid, blame, and control; 2) to deal with negative situations more adaptively, one must shift from a CRITIC to a CALM attitude that is curious, accepting, loving compassionate, and motivated toward valued goals; and 3) to achieve the CALM attitude, one must become a metacognitive observer, or MO (this builds the acronym CALM-MO). This, and the upcoming pieces in this series, will teach you how to engage with each element of CALM to effectively break out of old, maladaptive cycles. We begin with curiosity.

The Curious Attitude

Think of a time when you were learning about something new and exciting. Was there a sense of eagerness and wonder that fueled you to learn more? An overall openness to explore and discover? This inclination toward open exploration is what we call the "curious attitude," and it is key to dealing with negative feelings effectively. Of course, it can be challenging to embody this attitude during stressful times, but it is an ability that can be cultivated and can dramatically change how we deal with negative feelings.

First, the curious attitude requires some distancing from the emotional experience. The previous post in this series described how one can enter “sage mode” to cultivate a broader and wiser perspective on a problem. Sage mode, also known as MO (metacognitive observer), offers “a view from above” that one can adopt when dealing with strong feelings to prevent being consumed by them.

Second, to shift from being dragged down by negative feelings to getting curious about them, one must understand the adaptive nature of emotions. Emotions can be seen as evolutionary adaptations that serve to guide us in navigating the social world and the environment. Negative reactions are deeply ingrained in our primate system. Rather than combating, repressing, or impulsively reacting to those emotions, we can pause, accept their existence, and allow ourselves time to reflect on them.

Let us return to George, to see how his reactions could have unfolded had he adopted a more curious stance:

Although George was hurt by yet another breakup, he did not want to repeat the old, familiar pattern of self-loathing and helplessness. He was wounded, but also intrigued. Part of him thought it was very curious that this situation kept happening, and he wondered what was contributing to the pattern. He thought: “It makes sense that I’m feeling lousy, but instead of feeling sorry for myself, I want to learn about it and truly understand what is happening.”

A Guide for Curious Exploration

How should we go about getting curious? To begin to understand your psyche, it is crucial to be aware of the fact that, as humans, we are both primates and people. The primate in us reacts to what is happening and energizes our body to do something in response. The primary negative feelings that emerge from a negative situation come from our primate emotional system. This process is part of our core self.

In addition, as primates, we can access a pure awareness mode that refers to our embodied experience of being, our “witnessing” of the world. Pure awareness is devoid of any beliefs, values, or meanings. This is the mode that many traditions cultivate in meditative practices.

On top of our primate system, we are also human persons with the ability to self-reflect over the long term and make sense of our situation with language. This means that, when afflicted with a negative feeling, we can narrate it to ourselves and interpret it. This is our ego, our private narrator that makes sense of what is happening. As people, we also have a public image that we regulate in the social world—our persona. That is, we can see ourselves from the perspective of other people, and we tend to internalize their viewpoints as social norms, judgments, expectations, and roles. When engaging in curious exploration, we want to shine a CALM-MO flashlight onto all those domains of experience.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

When a negative situation elicits negative feelings, ask yourself:

  1. What are the facts? The first step in curious exploration is gaining awareness of the reality of the problem without imprinting biased judgments or beliefs on it.
  2. What is my experience as a primate? To do this, identify your primary negative reactions to the problem at hand. These are the “raw” emotions that come up immediately after a negative event. Labeling the emotion can be a helpful exercise: do you feel sad? Angry? Guilty? Ashamed? Getting attuned to your primary reaction allows you to accept it as part of your primate process and wonder about what it is trying to communicate.
  3. What is my experience as a person? Notice what has been going through your head as you experience negative feelings. What are you telling yourself? Is the tone of your private narrative critical, judgmental, and defeated? Or kind and motivated? Are you falling into loops of avoidance, blame, or control? Are you making deterministic statements, such as “I will always be this way”? This is an important step to identify whether you are engaged in a neurotic loop.
  4. What is likely to be the experience of others? Finally, it is helpful to reflect on what the experience of those around you may be, given their own primate and person processes. Curiosity about others and their impact on your own experience will enrich your knowledge of the situation.

Last, accessing pure awareness can be a very helpful way to shift your focus from the problem to your beingness. That is, besides being a person who is going through difficulties, you are also a living organism that can simply be in the world. Falling back into this pure awareness can not only bring relief from the tensions of going through a negative situation, but it can also open space for potential insight and perspective-shifting.

Engaging in the curious attitude to gain clarity about your situation and your feelings is the first step in CALM.

The next blog in this series will explore the concept of acceptance—the "A" in CALM—as a crucial step to help you break out of maladaptive cycles of neurotic suffering.

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