Paving the Road with Curiosity
- a strong desire to know or learn something.
How did I get here?
That’s the question I’ve asked myself a few times in my life when I’ve pulled in and parked my car at home, work or the kid’s school, and then slowly realized that I had no idea how I’d gotten there. I try and think back, but can’t remember the turns I made or if I stopped at any lights. I can’t recall if there had been any other cars on the road or how fast I had been going.
All I know is I am wherever it is I am, which is where I was supposed to be, but have no clue how I got there. When I’ve found myself in those moments and realized that I had obviously been operating in autopilot mode–having at some point flipped on the switch to allow another part of me, my unconscious mind, to take the wheel – I always find that I am both thankful and afraid.
In those moments it’s scary for me to think that for a matter of time I had been so distracted in thought or so preoccupied with something other than the task at hand (that’s right, driving) that I had not been in conscious control of myself or my vehicle. And the crazy thing was, autopilot mode hadn’t just been part of my daily commute.
At 36 years old, I found myself looking at my life and saying those all-too-familiar words.
How did I get here?
I’d been married for over 15 years, had 2 healthy children, was successful in my career, and lived in a beautiful home complete with a dog, cat, and a stinkin’ white fence to round out the all-American family dream. I knew me and my family were fortunate to have the things we did in our life. I also knew there were others who were less fortunate. So, how could I question my life? I should be grateful and satisfied. But even though I told myself I shouldn’t be asking, I still found myself wondering,
Dena, how did you get to the place where you aren’t enjoying the life that you are living in?
That seemed to beg another question–what was it like to truly enjoy life? I couldn’t answer that for myself. I heard people talk about celebrating all life had to offer, living in the moment, or being present, but where did I fall in the spectrum of feeling and experiencing life? I’ll tell you where. I was near numb. At the core of my being, I was unhappy and unsettled. I didn’t laugh much–like a really good, loose and free, belly laugh. I was trying really hard to be happy and content and in control of my life, but to be honest, down deep I was sad and lonely.
At some point, I had moved over into autopilot mode and for a good number of years had given up conscious control of my personal journey on this planet. My life made sense to most people from the outside looking in. I was where I was “supposed to be” at this age–married, with kids and a career. But I was starting to wonder if where I was “supposed to be” was where I actually wanted to be.
Over time I had wound myself up so tight that I struggled to move anywhere outside the obvious and prescribed paths that opened up for me. But alongside the parts of me that seemed stuck, I also had just enough curiosity to begin challenging myself and my journey. I was finally able to quietly affirm in my own mind that I wanted more for myself, but I didn’t know how to stop and get my bearings.
I knew I wanted to feel more, but I didn’t know how to dig in and handle things that I’d stuffed aside or buried deep for years. I didn’t know how to ask myself tough questions and listen to the answers that came back. But even with all the unknowns, I was beginning to open my mind to the fact that I had the choice to give in and explore my own curiosity.
But guess what? Choosing to give in to curiosity wasn’t going to be easy. Stopping and asking myself challenging questions about why I wasn’t happy, why I felt unsettled, or what would help me move forward, asking those questions was only the beginning.
After the questions, there would be answers, and that was the scary part. What if I didn’t like the answers that came back to me? What if the answers meant big changes in my life or my family? Or made me face things that I wasn’t quite sure I could? Digging in with curiosity and a strong desire to learn more about me was going to be really hard, and you know what is so much easier? Just avoiding it all!
That’s right, ignoring myself and the intuition that was telling me I had something I wanted to learn more about, that was the other option.
I clearly understood that option. I had proven over the years that instead of asking myself these hard questions, I could fill up my life with work, online shopping (God, thank you for the gift of Amazon), super urgent errands, TV, coffee dates (I don’t even drink coffee), and making lists of all the other important things I needed to do. I knew how to stay on the run from myself.
I was already known for saying (or more honestly, shouting) to my family, “We’ve got to go, go, go!” as I would beat one of my hands into the other. Until one day, I saw my daughter say those exact words, imitating me to perfection, hand beat and all, and it broke my heart.
What kind of world had I created for myself and my family?
Letting that moment sink in, I once again considered the choice I had to make–keep plugging along, dizzying us all with activities and full schedules, or I could slow down and make myself stop and ask myself again, Dena, how did you get here?
Now, don’t get me wrong, my life journey so far at age 36 was one I could look back and have pride in. I didn’t have regret except that at some point I had stopped being curious about how my choices impacted me and my quality of life. I had never stopped and asked myself one fundamental question.
What do I want?
I have to force myself to sit in this question because it was foreign to me. As I focused on my roles and responsibilities as a wife, mother and professional, the question of what Dena wanted wasn’t a top priority. What did my babies want, what did my husband want, what did my team and clients want–those I asked myself frequently. But, what do I want? That question would take practice.
When I first asked the question of what I wanted, my mind would wander down several different paths of professional goals or paths focused on my relationships with my family or friends. Regardless of where my mind ran off to, I feel sure that it tapped into my ability to use my somewhat rusty imagination. To answer the question of what I wanted, I had to reach in and allow my mind to imagine something off in the distance, to get creative about my future or even more dangerous and exciting–to hope and to dream about those things becoming a reality.
Fun as that brainstorming might seem, I’ll have to admit that there were times that when I asked myself what I wanted, nothing came to mind, except maybe chocolate cake, (which is still a fabulous response). As I was starting my journey of self-discovery and growth, my mind would go blank because there was no established routine or pattern of thinking about my wants or needs. It had been a long time since I’d given myself the time, space, or the permission to rest my sweet mind, allow it to think clearly, and open up to possibility.
The possibility of being the center of my own attention was something I was curious about. I knew there had been times in my life when I had so much noise blaring in my life, that I couldn’t even hear myself think, let alone land on some specific thing I wanted. It couldn’t think of the last time I wasn’t thinking of or responding to a request, scream, cry, want or need from the people in my life. You’d think it would be awesome to be in such high demand, which it was, but it was also exhausting.
Tiring as it might be, it was (and is to this day) tough for me to not relish the feeling of being needed. “What? You need ME?” My mind quickly translated these requests into proof that I had value to give, a contribution to make, so I’d instantly feel the urge to give in and give others whatever it was they were wanting or needing. But as I diverted my efforts to others, it always left me feeling torn trying to keep up with the competing energies duking it out for my attention.
Conflicted as I might have been, I’d kept doing my best to meet all the needs of others, and had lost sight of who should ultimately be my primary focus…me. I had put myself so low on the totem pole that I stopped focusing on my own pressing needs. Needs that once I’d ignored long enough eventually led to unhealthy decisions and patterns of behavior that impacted me and the people I cared about. I had forgotten to put my own oxygen mask on first–and was struggling to breathe.
But when I finally stopped and took a long, slow deep breath in and slowly exhaled, I reminded myself, that I still had a choice to make. I could choose to acknowledge all the things that could be scary about being curious about myself. I could give in to all my old patterns of fear, noise, and avoidance. Or, I could choose differently. I could choose to be brave and try something new. So, I asked myself one more time:
What do I want?
For years, I hadn’t asked myself that question and sure don’t remember anyone asking me except for maybe what I wanted for dinner. But as I finally mustered the courage to sit with myself and give the question the time and attention it deserved, here’s what came to mind. I want to love and be loved. I want to speak and be heard. I want to be inspired and inspire others. I want to make a difference in people’s lives and contribute in meaningful ways. I want to stop wondering if anyone would come to my funeral if I died. I want to know that my life mattered.
That’s what I wanted, that is where I wanted my life to head. But how could I get there? I had lots of questions and very few answers. But this I knew for sure. I was ready to try and learn more about me and what it would take to create the life of my dreams. I was prepared to start my journey. I was ready to dig in and get curious, not knowing what I’d learn, but committed to the learning process.
Only time would tell where my curiosity would lead me. I had the keys in my hand and knew that it was time to start the engine and get on the seemingly narrow road, and that is exactly what I did.