The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP #21: Choose Curiosity Over Shame

We are all working on something. Something that we are trying to be better about. It could be losing weight, saving money, or how you treat yourself when you fall back into old patterns. Your old routines have everything to do with accomplishing your goals, or not. Let’s dig into why you should choose curiosity over shame.

Larry Keller

Stop the Self Shaming

Today’s thought is to choose curiosity over shame…but what does that really mean? As humans we are constantly making goals to be and do better. Whatever that goal is, we have to change our habits and eventually our identity. I will talk about this later, but right now we are going to talk about how we treat ourselves when we fall back into old routines. Most of us shame ourselves. When you fall off the horse, when you skip a workout, when you eat the food you said you wouldn’t…do you shame yourself? 

Automatic Habits

When you eat the bigger plate of food or snap at your kids because of your “automatic” actions, you really are making a decision. It is a quick decision…so quick that you don’t even know you are making it. You have a choice in how you react…if you eat that big plate of food or snap at your kids, you are making a choice. The first step in breaking your automatic habits is to decide 24 hours in advance the things you can control. If you make a dinner choice well in advance, now you are less likely to give into urges and eat whatever you find. Same for alcohol, being on your phone, saving money, and spending money.

This isn’t the main focus of today, but in any process where you have an urge and then a reward, you must do two things. The first is to allow the urge. This means that you know it is there, but you aren’t giving into it. The second is to be intentional about your decisions in the future. Tomorrow you will have this for dinner, and you will only have this much. When you do this, you are making the decision intentional and focusing on why you are eating and what you are eating. This is all about habits. 

Stop Shaming Yourself

Whether creating good habits or breaking bad habits it is all about the same. The process takes time though, and as we make some progress, we fall back into bad habits…we fall off the horse. Even though you are creating intentional plans and techniques to help you accomplish your goals, you are still human and there will be situations where you fall back into your old ways. Most of the time people shame themselves when they fall off the horse. 

Here’s an example…you’re working on your eating habits and say you aren’t going to eat any dessert any night of the week except Friday night. Friends come over and bring pie and ice cream on Wednesday, and you eat it. It is the wrong day, and you start thinking how you are a terrible person, setting a bad example for your kids, etc. You shame yourself, beat yourself up, and question your resolve. Then you eat more ice cream and more pie because it is a cycle. This is with everything, not just food choices. 

Shame is useless. It is a judgmental feeling that assumes we need to be perfect, but you can’t live up to that. Shame is having that feeling of giving up…and deciding there is either perfection or failure. There is no in between with shame. 

Choose Curiosity Over Shame

How do we end this cycle of shame? It is important to remember that although you have those one or two moments of mistakes, you also have a lot of good outcomes you aren’t giving yourself credit for. Shame is that powerful. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits says “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your identity.” Every day, every action you make casts a vote for the type of person you want to be. If the votes casted add up more for the person you are trying to be than against it, you’re on the right track. 

When you fall off the horse it is time to recognize that it is just a moment to reflect on what happened. This is where you choose curiosity. I tell myself “I’m just human, having a human experience.” You are human and will make human mistakes. Realize that you can dive into what happened and what led up to the outcome. Think about why you did it and what you can do the next time you are in that same situation. What could you have done differently? How can you learn from that experience? By doing this, you are choosing curiosity over shame. You are choosing to learn from the outcome instead of shaming yourself for letting it happen, 

Curiosity wants to fix the process. Curiosity wants to help you figure out what the process should be and any changes you should make. This is where your creative solutions come in to help you progress towards your goal. 

Why Doctors Should Choose Curiosity Over Shame

Self-compassion is important. It is something many doctors lack because we expect perfection. We set standards and expect ourselves to live up to them. When we don’t, we shame ourselves. The world may think that you’re arrogant or prideful, you accomplished all these amazing things, you are paid so much money, you’re successful in every sense of the word, but in all honesty and vulnerability, you hate yourself, think low of yourself, and are lonely. This has a lot to do with shaming yourself for every little mistake.

I used to love the quote by Henry Ward Beecher, “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself and be lenient to everyone else.” I now think this quote is crap! It led to me having a lot of strong opinions about how big of a failure I was, even though the world saw me as anything but that. Have compassion for yourself. One single instance does not mean you are a bad doctor, a bad partner, a bad parent. It just means that you are human, having a human experience. 

Shame Vs Curiosity

Tomorrow is a new day. You have the opportunity to be curious and improve your process. You can have self-compassion and forgive yourself, then move forward. Shame leads to inaction and getting stuck again in our old routines. Curiosity encourages progress and growth. Shame points the finger at you and makes you feel terrible about yourself. You don’t change, you don’t move forward. Next time you do something you said you wouldn’t, or you aren’t reaching the goals you want and slip back into old habits, don’t shame yourself into inaction. Choose curiosity and figure out how to improve for next time. Start before you’re ready. Start by starting…Start now.

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