Ep. 190: Ask Better Questions
This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 190. Welcome back, everybody. Hello, Happy Friday, for those of you who are listening on the release day, and happy day to you who are not. Okay. Well, how are you? How is everybody doing? I am sitting in my bedroom. We’ve actually had to completely rearrange because our life is changing so much here at the Quinland house. Kids are at school and people are in and out of the house, and it’s very, very different. So I’m coming to you from my room, and life just continues to change. Have you guys noticed that? It does continue to change. I cannot keep up with it. We embrace. We adapt. We are flexible. We keep trying. We are gentle with ourselves, and that’s the best we can do. Today, I wanted to talk with you guys about questions. I have been sort of... What I would say is ‘reflecting,’ but I would actually say, a better word is ‘studying’ the art of asking better questions, and this has been life-changing to me. It has been a practice that I have adopted as per advice of a colleague and a friend in terms of catching the story you tell yourself and asking better questions. Catching the poorly written questions that we now ask ourselves on habit, right? We just habitually ask ourselves not very skilled questions. Let me explain to you more about this. When something happens – and you can even do it here together – when something happens in your life, let’s say in the last week or so, something unexpected, unwanted, maybe not so ideal happens, I want you to check in and say, “What is the question I ask?” Some of you may say, it’s a really simple what-if thought question. Like, what if such and such happens? What if ABC happens? What if XYZ happens? Not a super-skilled question mainly because it’s so open-ended and it’s so in the pursuit of removal of that discomfort. We’ve talked a lot about being uncertain. We’ve talked a lot about willingly allowing discomfort. Other questions that I have observed my patients asking themselves or reflecting on lately are questions like: What is wrong with me? So they have an uncomfortable, unexpected, not-so-great experience, and their immediate question is: “What’s wrong with me?” And that question never ends. Well, rarely would you have the thought “what’s wrong with me,” and then you respond by going, “Nothing is wrong with me, I am a normal human being responding in the way that any other human being would respond.” We don’t answer those questions. The question sets us up for a failure, just like what-if. Another one is: “How can I make this go away?” Now, in some cases, this would actually be a really adaptive question. So, let’s say you have an ant invasion in your house. It makes sense. Because we’re highly functioning human beings and we have adapted over time, it makes sense that our question would be: “How can I make this go away?” That in and of itself could be a good question, a solid, skilled question. But when it comes to our emotions, it’s really not. It actually gets us into tons of trouble. Asking ourselves how we can make this go away usually means we’re going to probably have more of it and we’re going into resistance mode. Another one, which I see a lot of, and I’ve actually done a whole podcast on this one before, which is: “Why is this happening to me? It’s such an innocent question, but yet it gets us into so much trouble because the answer isn’t that great. Why is this happening to me? Nobody knows. It’s not the answer we are looking for. Or the answer you probably catch giving yourself is, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. Go back to the first question because you did it wrong or because you shouldn’t have, or because you’re bad, or because you’re weak, or because... The list goes on and on and on. It’s rare that you’ll go, “Why is this uncomfortable thing happening? Oh, because uncomfortable things happen sometimes.” Again, none of these are bad questions. They’re just not super effective. Another one, and this is the last one I’ll use as an example, is: “What does this mean?” Oh, that’s a really bad one. It can get us into so much trouble. “What does this mean?” And before you know it, you’re 20 minutes in going around and around, trying to give meaning to something, which probably has no meaning at all. The reason I really want you to first reflect on what questions are you asking yourself is you’ll probably find that the questions you’re asking yourself are setting you up for self-criticism, self-doubt, punishment, a lot of negativity, maybe for some really unhelpful emotions, and we want to get better at asking better questions. We want to be skilled at asking skilled questions. The questions we ask ourselves can then move us to and into an action that helps us and is beneficial and effective and kind and less work. Less work is good. We don’t want questions that, again, can give you more work. Go back to “How can I make this go away?” Oh my goodness. That’s a lot of work. Okay. Let me give you some questions that I am practicing when uncomfortable things happen, events, experiences, emotions, and so forth. Okay, first question. What emotion right now am I not willing to feel? So, let’s say somebody you love has judged you. Okay, that’s not going to feel good. Your instinct is to make it go away. But we’re going to say, “What emotion am I not willing to feel here? Oh, it’s embarrassing. It’s vulnerability. It’s sadness.” Okay. That’s the emotion. At least now we know, we know what it is. Again, what emotion am I not willing to feel? Let’s say you did an exposure and you tried so hard and it fell apart and you had a big panic attack and you couldn’t back out. Okay. Your question would be: What emotion am I not willing to feel? Maybe it’s fear. “Oh, I totally backed out because I didn’t want to feel fear. I didn’t want to feel uncertainty. I didn’t want to feel doubt. I didn’t want to feel dread, impending doom.” Next question: Is it true? Let’s say you... This was me the other day. I’m unpacking the groceries and I’m so happy because we picked them up and we didn’t have to go into the grocery store. I just love this. It’s one of the silver linings of COVID – the grocery stores are so good at doing drop-offs. I bring in this huge bag of groceries, and off the counter I fell a spaghetti sauce bottle and glass and spaghetti sauce is everywhere. Your original thought again is like, “What’s wrong with me?” And then my next question is, “Uh-oh,” instead, “is it true?” The thought I had is like, “You’re so stupid. Why are you going to be so clumsy? Is that true?” Now, I’m not asking that question to invite a long layer of rumination. In dialectical behavioral therapy, it’s called checking the facts. When you say a negative thing to yourself, check the facts. If I said that in a court of law, what would the jury decide on? “Kimberley is an idiot. She should have known better.” I’m pretty sure the jury would say, “There’s no way Kimberley would have known the specific weight of that jar, and the edge was so close and that it was going to fall at this angle. We’re actually going to probably let her off.” Is it true? Check the facts. Now, a quick note there. If you’re having OCD obsessions, we don’t need to check the facts of those because that could become compulsive. I’m talking more here about things we say to ourselves like, “You are bad. You are dumb. You are stupid, what’s wrong with you?” Those kinds of comments and more depressive thoughts like, “The world is bad. My future is going to suck.” You may want to ask yourself, is it true? Now, if your instinct is to say, “Yeah, it’s true. My past has been crappy. So, therefore, my future will be too,” I’m going to say, “I don’t know if that’s going to stand up in a court of law. Because they did it once does not hold you guilty. If it’s happened a hundred times, it still doesn’t give me enough evidence to convict that your future is going to be bad.” So let’s just stop and check in with what we’re saying. Another question. This is my favorite, guys. This is the king of all questions. I really want you to get good at asking this one – what in this situation would the non-anxious Kimberley deal? What does the non-anxious you do in this situation or with this emotion? Best question ever. That’s a really solid question right there. It doesn’t mean you have to do it all perfectly, but it at least let you inquire as to how you would act, given that fear wasn’t there to make your decisions. How would your values have you act? How would your character have you act in this situation? So, if I, let’s say, was going to take a test and my fear was saying like, “What if you fail? What’s wrong with you? You should be better than this. You should be fully prepared. You’re asking not-so-great questions,” and you said, “Okay, what would the non-anxious Kimberley do right now?” It would be: “Okay. She would get a drink and get a piece of fruit and eat it and then go and take the test. She would be kind and she wouldn’t be ruminating about how it’s going to go bad.” Okay, go do that. That’s your blueprint on how you should be acting. That’s the skills and the perfect outline of what direction you might want to go into. Fabulous. And the last question... You can have more, you can add more to this. I want you to really think about it because I want this to be specific to you. But the last question I want you to ask, the question I think is a really good question, which is: What do I need? Not what do I want, but what do I need? What will help me here? What will help me get my long-term benefit here? Get me to long-term recovery? What do I need? Let’s use a couple of examples. You’ve just spilled spaghetti sauce all over the fridge and the counters and everywhere and there’s glass everywhere. What do I need? I need to be kind to myself. I need to take my time cleaning this up because my instinct was to clean it up in a rush because I was like, “Oh, this shouldn’t have happened. What’s wrong with me? I’m going to clean it up in a real rush so that I can get to my happy things.” But the problem with that is, it only ended up making me more aggravated because I was rushing. So what do I need? I want to clean it up gently and slowly, compassionately. Let’s say you’ve just done an exposure and it didn’t go so well and you had a massive panic attack. What do I need? I need to slow down. I need to celebrate my attempt. I need to breathe. I need to reflect on how that went and what got in the way. I need a nap. Sometimes when we do exposures, we need big naps, and that’s fine. What do I need? Someone just said something really unkind to you. What do I need? I need to cry. I need to feel my feelings. I need to give myself permission to be sad. I need to call a friend. I need to maybe set a boundary with that friend. Much better than saying, “Why is this happening? What’s wrong with me? how can I make it go away? What does all this mean?” So what I want you to do is I want you to leave today’s episode and I want you to spend the day or the week or the month thinking about what are good questions, how can I ask myself really good questions, better questions? Be really intentional about this. I often say to my patients, if your thoughts are a dog and you’re the owner of the dog, sometimes we let our thoughts just go all over the shop. We just let them go. We follow them. If the dog is sniffing into one corner, you go with it and you sniff into one corner. Sometimes with our thoughts, not so much the intrusive thoughts, but the thoughts we say about ourselves, the criticisms, the stories we tell ourselves, sometimes we’re going to yank on that chain a little bit, on its leash, and be like, “Come on. No, no, no.” We’re not going over into that corner and sniffing out that horrible hole. No, we’re not doing that today. We’re asking better questions. You’re allowed to do that. That’s not thought suppression. That’s being skilled with your cognitions. We’re not trying to prevent thoughts. We’re just catching when you’re spiraling on them and you’re yanking on the chain. And then come on back. You’re going too far. You’re resisting too much. Let’s lean in. I hope that’s helpful. Ask better questions. Thank you so much for listening. I am going to ask you for a favor. Would you please leave us a review? It would help us so much, us meaning all the team at CBT School. We are working really hard to expand our reach to help more people, provide free content. So if you would be willing, I would love nothing more than for you to leave an honest review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. We are going to give away a free pair of Beats headphones once we hit a thousand reviews. So I’d love for you to be in the running for that. Thank you. All right. I love you guys so much. I hope you’re doing well. I’m thinking of you always. I’m so grateful I get to spend this time. Thank you. I know your time is valuable. Have a wonderful day. It is a beautiful day to ask better questions and do hard things. Let’s do it. Have a wonderful day, everyone.