Albert and Albert: The Role of Curiosity
Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Although today he is not here to expound upon the meaning of his statement, what he might have meant is this: All learning, all growth, all discovery starts with a question.
Years ago, somebody told me the joke: “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The punchline: “One, but the lightbulb has to really WANT to change.” This is the role of curiosity. A good therapist employs a high level of curiosity in the setting of positive esteem toward their client. This builds a rapport in which the client can begin picturing themselves changing, without the pressure of being forced to do so. Many questions are asked, and in the process the answers bring about discovery; discovery then brings about transformation. By the end of therapy, the client is asking their own questions and is answering them.
“Shoulding all over yourself,” is how another Albert - Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy - put it. He recognized the relationship between emotional pain and the word should when imposed upon oneself. The word should comes loaded with the weight of the expectations of our loved ones, our friends, our bosses, our coworkers, and sometimes, the weight of all of society. Should turns every choice into a moral imperative. We should lose weight. We should stay calm. We should have a career. We should get married. We should, we should, we should.
When an individual is living under the weight of every should in their life, there is no room for examining what if. “What if I am not good enough?” “What if he doesn’t love me?” “What if I am angry?” “What if I am not masculine?” “What if I fail?” The anticipated social consequences to questions like these are the fuel that create anxiety, depression, rage, loneliness, and stress. It is too threatening to try to answer the questions of doubt and insecurity that the moral imperative creates. The curiosity that fuels questions is shut off, and all that is left is being locked into what one is forced to do. Our life is not our own, and we do not live in our own skins.
In psychotherapy, healing takes place when it becomes comfortable and safe to ask questions in all openness and honesty. There is no expectation or necessity of change. The therapist uses their innate curiosity to confront imposed thoughts, to broaden realistic options, and to evaluate potential outcomes. When change occurs, it is under the full agency of the client to decide that they prefer to...and they prefer to because they desire the change. It is in this place that clients reach beyond their pain and feel their way into a world of hope and possibility.