Mindful Curiosity

Mindful curiosity is one of the first interventions I engage clients in when I start seeing them as we can not work on emotional healing without first self-awareness around what the emotional pain is telling us such as where it came from and what it might be needing.  Often, we as humans are unaware of the messages emotional pain is sharing with us, we just know it hurts.  Mindful curiosity is a skill that helps us grow in understanding of ourselves which in turn develops a more intimate or familiar and close relationship with ourselves.  And the more understanding and familiar we are with ourselves, the more we can connect with others as well and grow in intimacy within those relationships, so it is a pretty helpful and foundational mental health tool to develop. 

But what is mindful curiosity?  Mindfulness at its core means to pay attention on purpose without judgement and curiosity means to explore openly with wonder for the purpose and desire to learn.  So basically, mindful curiosity is the intentional practice of openly paying attention to our emotions without judgement for the purpose and desire to learn more about ourselves.  

Mindful curiosity can be engaged in for pretty much anything we are experiencing that we would like to understand more about ourselves but the area that I have found most humans tend to lack understanding in is our own emotional triggers.  

I think of emotional triggers as pain points or pockets that exist inside of our emotional brain.  They are often times related to past unresolved emotional wounds and hurts which includes the negative self-reflecting way in which we made sense of those experiences.  For example, after a painful experience of someone else rejecting us, a common way people make sense of that pain is to think “I am not good enough/ unlovable/ not valuable” or “There is something wrong with me” instead of focusing on the pain inherent in that experience such as “ouch, that hurt.”  It is often these negative self-evaluating ways we make sense of our pain or lacking in understanding of how to support ourselves through pain that lead to emotional triggers, both re-experienced from the past or being created in the present.     

Some common ways to identify that a pain pocket has been touched in present day meaning we are triggered include: elevated heart rate/shallow breathing/narrowing of eye sight or focus/flushed or hot in face and/or chest, repeated familiar patterns of thinking or feeling, heightened emotional reactivity or frustration, wanting to “fix” quickly or make the problem “go away” immediately, emotional shut down or withdrawal, extreme desire to run away, sudden desire to over eat, binge on TV, or numb with substance are a few examples.

When we experience this, this is an opportunity for us to grow in intimacy with ourselves and identify areas in need of healing.  This is when mindful curiosity can come in.

Here are some questions that can help approach your triggers with some mindful curiosity:

First, getting triggered is HARD.  Take some time to take care of yourself and regulate.  This can look like taking a handful of deep, slow, long breaths focusing on extending our exhale.  Connecting with your physical environment though your senses such as engaging with something that feels calming and/or comforting through your touch, sight, sound, ect. can be another way to help regulate.  Also, thinking of an image or past experience in which you felt safe/ calm/ comforted can be helpful as well.  The goal is to find ways in which you can feel safe in the moment.

Then, ask yourself the following questions.  It can be helpful to write out the answers so that over time patterns can be observed and reflected on for continued growth in self-understanding:

-What happened? What did I see, hear, or think that felt triggering?
-When did I start feeling this?
-Where was I?
-Who was I with?
-What are my thoughts or the story I’m telling myself about this experience?
-What body sensations am I experiencing? Describe what they feel like and where.  (Ex. I feel hot in my chest or tightness in my throat)
-If those sensations could talk, what would they say to me? Or do they want to say something to someone else? If so who and what would that be?
-If those sensations could move, how would they want me to move or act?
-What feelings are connected to those sensations or thoughts? (Ex. Angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad, overwhelmed, scared, anxious, lonely, shame, hopeless, helpless, powerless, devastated, rejected, abandoned, ignored/misunderstood, unworthy/invaluable)
-Does this feeling experience remind me of anything? If so, what?
-Have I felt this before? If so, when?
-When I am triggered, do I feel younger than I am?  If so, how old do I feel?  What do I know about my life when I was that age?  What was happening?  What was I experiencing?
-Is there anything from my past that felt the same or similar way? If so, what was that, is there any memory surfacing?
-What was I needing in that moment?  What am I needing right now?  Is there any connection? 

Emotional wounds related to triggers often need validation as well as comfort and compassion.  Validation is the recognition or affirmation that a person’s feeling and opinions are valid and worthwhile.  Validating our feelings of pain is what helps our brain move out of our emotion brain where the trigger is occurring and reconnect back to our logic brain so we are able to utilize our full brain again.  Our logic brain often goes “off line” when we are triggered which is why we cannot logic ourselves out of our emotions or triggers to make them go away.    

What are some validating, comforting, and/or caring words you can say to yourself?  A question I often ask to help discover what would be helpful to hear is “What would you like someone else to say to you right now?” and then practice saying that to yourself.

Here are a few phrases to try out.  Feel free to make them your own: 

It’s ok to feel this.
It makes sense you feel this.
I am sorry you feel this way.
I hear you.
I see you.
I am with you.
I understand.
I care.
How you feel is important and matters to me.

I hope these are helpful tools to learn and use along your emotional healing journey.  I am rooting for anyone who is engaging on an emotional healing journey.  I wish for you healing and peace through self compassion, understanding, acceptance, and love as you make this space for yourself with mindful curiosity.  You are so worth it.

Blog by: Malinda King, MA, LPCC
Photo by Connor Martin from Pexels