“Curiosity killed the cat,” according to my mother. She said it often. Maybe someone in your life did, too. In this article, I want to look at curiosity and how it can be a powerful tool for healing from narcissistic abuse.
Mother deeply disliked both cats and curiosity. Cats she disliked because she deemed them “aloof”. Curiosity she abhorred because it led to little girls — and boys — challenging her authority.
A controlling mother first and an abusive husband taught me not to be curious and think for myself.
How people learn not to be curious
For the longest time, I thought that being remarkably uncurious was just some strange individual character flaw of mine. Apparently not. Rather, it is a reflection of the kind of shutting down that toxic people encourage — both because they are fundamentally closed-minded and because it serves them.
In reality, curiosity can be remarkably therapeutic. The more I work with clients and the more I get them to harness the power of their own curiosity, the more confident, relaxed and resourceful they became.
Just this last week, I have witnessed three clients who all exercised their curiosity, in different ways, to achieve different but powerful emotional breakthroughs.
I want to share with you three powerful questions that helped them and can help you, too, to hone your own — healing — curiosity.
My three clients are all falling in love with the way that curiosity enables them to resolve their limiting beliefs. I hope the questions that worked for them will help you to do the same.
My troubled relationship with curiosity
In my home, curiosity was actively discouraged. Throughout my childhood, I was led to believe that I asked silly-little-girl questions, born of silly-little-girl ideas. That hurt and led me to keep my mouth firmly shut. Nobody even missed my input. I became very used to the idea that nothing that I had to offer was worth taking seriously.
My first wake-up call came in my 20’s when I started psychotherapy with a wonderful man who managed to tease some of my low self-worth out of me with his delicate questions and unexpected insights.
One day, after I left his office, I heard a boy of maybe eight or nine repeatedly asking the adult accompanying him, “Why?”, “But why?”
“A trainee psychotherapist!” I thought to myself, more than a tad flippantly.
But then I tuned in and registered that this child wanted knowledge. He was asking the best questions he had in a sincere attempt to gain information that would help him create a useful map of his world.
That kid was doing a LOT better than I had. (I had quickly learned not to ask “Why?” questions because they always always met with hostility.)
My second wake-up call came later, when I learned NLP. A key aspect of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is learning to ask good questions. Good questions open up a person’s mind to different aspects of their reality. They also expose the harmful and limiting nonsense that they have been taught.
Put simply, NLP encourages boundless, therapeutic curiosity. Because it is so effective and has a powerful life skill it is always something that I teach clients to do for themselves.
Client #1. Using curiosity to get past conditioned responses
Peta is a fast learner. As she works on rebuilding her life after abuse, she has faced challenges from people around her who take exception to her living her life her own way.
You could define their objections as control issues and that would not be wrong, by any means. But given that Peta is obliged to do a fair bit of working with these people, we agreed that working around them might well prove less taxing than going into hand to hand combat. Peta is not someone who does terribly well with conflict.
Where at all possible, it helps to play to your strengths.
So, we discussed an alternative strategy for Peta. Instead of telling the controlling people to back off, we opted for the softly-softly approach.
Peta asked herself, “Why is what I am doing bugging them so much? What is going on, here, for them?”
The answer came back that these people were frightened of feeling diminished if they let go of the reins of control.
On the basis of that realisation, Peta talked with them and explained not only what she intended to do but how it was not in any way a challenge to them.
They heard both aspects of the message — that she was going to do what she was going to do anyway, and that it was not an attack on them. Realising that they couldn’t change her decision, they bought her reassurance and went away feeling good about themselves.
Peta then used the same question to arrive at a relatively harmonious way of resolving an issue with her controlling and infantile ex.
2) Client #2 Gaining perspective
Like so many survivors of abuse, Steph is a perfectionist who rarely felt lovable or good enough. In her case, this has meant that she goes into social situations expecting to be disliked and often experiences a lack of social connection that, she feels, proves her point.
Once she started playing with the question,
“What else might this mean?” about her social encounters, the scales fell from her eyes.
Steph realised that she had been protecting herself from the thing she most feared — social rejection — by shuffling defensively into encounters and avoiding people. Their response to her reflected the impression that she was aloof and unwilling to connect.
“What else might this mean?” was a question that put Steph back in the driver’s seat.
On the one hand, she saw that she had generated an unfortunate impression by her own — protective — “style” of non-verbal communication.
On the other, she had been getting valuable feedback, in another context, about how highly various people that she valued, regarded her. She had not been able to entirely miss it but she had significantly underplayed it. Until I got her to ask herself the “What else might this mean?” question.
Only then did she pick up the positive messages that these people — who she valued — were offering her.
Steph then started to apply that same question to other situations and revise her own thinking about herself.
As a result, she actually became excited to spend the week getting curious and seeing how that affects her social interactions and how people really respond to her.
3) Client #3 Spotting patterns
Mary had been deeply traumatized by an incident where somebody behaved badly towards her. After we talked about it for a while, she began to see that her reaction to that event had been far more intense than another person’s might have been.
These intense reactions do not happen because a person is histrionic, or making something out of nothing. They happen because they are the reactivation of an already deep wound.
I asked her,
“If you have experienced this kind of intense feeling before, when and what do you remember about what triggered it?”
What Mary remembered was both terribly sad and fantastically cathartic. We worked through her sadness, while the catharsis enabled her to get her own closure, finally, on the more recent incident. That one question enabled Mary, finally, to put the past in the past.
Such is the power of curiosity. Gentle, respectful curiosity can massively improve the quality of your life. It has worked wonders for me, as well as my clients.
It’s my belief that curiosity gets a bum rap.
I reckon my mother got it completely wrong. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Chances are, what killed that cat was probably a lack of road sense or else not recognising danger when he or she saw it. The fact is, curiosity helps you to understand about danger — especially the danger of responding to your old wounds and triggers. Curiosity also helps you to get a better handle on your own world and grow your sense of agency in it. What’s not to love?
What could you be curious about this week that you might not have been curious about before?
Afterword: The names and the actual circumstances of the clients have been changed.