Don’t Tell, Ask: How to Turn Self-Judgment into Loving Questions

On a typical day, I hear a whole range of questions in my head. They run the gamut in specificity and intensity from “Why do I look so fat in this dress?” and “Why did I just eat that vat of peppermint stick ice cream?” to “What’s wrong with me?” and “Why aren’t I (good, smart, pretty, talented) enough for (him, her, this job, this situation, fill in the blank).”

The answers I hear aren’t pretty. “You’re fat because you’re old and ugly.” “You ate the ice cream because you have no willpower.” When I ask, “What’s wrong with me?” I hear a laundry list of possibilities. Can you see the vicious circle?

The problem isn’t that we ask these downward spiraling questions once in a while. Rather, we ruminate about them. Habitual bad questions make us cross-examine our inherent value. It’s like chewing on the cud of our undigested worries and self-criticisms.

Ask my best friends. Though, much of the time, the wondering happens within my own head, I’m also good for the out-loud, sometimes rhetorical laments: Why can’t I do anything right? Why don’t I have my *#@$ together? My best friends have heard these inquiries for longer than I care to admit.

We wouldn’t even consider talking to someone we care about that way. Yet these are the questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis. 

It’s exhausting. It takes a boatload of energy to come up with the answers to the myriad questions our minds pose. And none of them give us what we want: a happier, kinder, and more peaceful life.

What if we could harness the power of our mental energy? What if, instead of waking up feeling down or anxious, we focused on joy, wonder, and possibility? What if the secret was simple?

Don’t tell. Ask.

After what I affectionately call my Crap Year, I started to question my questions. I worked hard to catch the slippery thoughts that raced so fast and so often through my mental landscape that I could barely identify them. The part of me that could see the thoughts was aware that these questions function like a sophisticated search engine. They will locate the answer to any question you ask. Your mind will find an answer even if the query presupposes something untrue.

The image I had of myself during my Crap Year was a chained dove. The iron bracelets around my legs were the old stories and unloving thoughts (in response to my crappy questions) that were holding me down and keeping me stuck.

I still hear those less-than-stellar questions in my head. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that I catch these foolish questions and—after a few deep breaths to discharge the yucky feeling I get from asking in the first place—I turn it around and replace it with what I call a Loving Question.

To do this, first let your mind be open to playful wonder and fun. You could turn “Why do I look so fat in this dress?” to “Why do I look so hot and sexy in this dress?” See what you come up with. “Why did I just eat that vat of peppermint stick ice cream?” can become “What are all the ways I can nurture my body and soul this month?” “What’s wrong with me?” can transform into “What are my gifts and how can I draw upon them?” or “What do I love about myself?” If you can’t think of an answer, pose it with a slight twist: “What have I loved about myself in the past?” “What do other people love about me?” “If I wanted to come up with something that I love in myself, what would it be?”

There is almost always something meaningful to learn or to gain in most situations. Take my Crap Year. When I asked myself “Why am I having such a Crap Year?” my mind was happy to accommodate: “Your mom has cancer and you’re going to be left alone,” “Your relationship ended because you’re unlovable,” “Your house had a mushroom growing out of the ceiling, setting into motion nine months of water and mold remediation, because that’s what you get for living in Florida.” (I’ll save that story for another article.)

Powerful Loving Questions give us the leverage to not only uncover the foundation of our harmful thinking, but also to harness our mental energy and redirect our focus on a better, life-enhancing story. When I enlisted the Loving Questions for my Crap Year, I asked, “What good has come from this past year?” and “What have I gained/learned?” The answers were not only better, but also moved me forward in a positive direction. About my mother: “I’m more in touch with my mortality and appreciating the time I have with those I love.” About my relationship: “I will look at the ways I thought he wasn’t showing up for me, and see more clearly the ways in which I wasn’t showing up for myself.” About the mushroom/mold fiasco: “How can I make my home a sanctuary (rather than a house for bizarre fungi)?”

In the course I teach, Story Alchemy, we use Loving Questions to help us examine the old stories that have kept us trapped and to explore what new, better stories are more authentically ours.

The questions we ask determine what our minds focus on. When you explore answers to Loving Questions, your life becomes a celebration—an honoring of the life you were meant to lead. After you look through the focused lens of Loving Questions, you return to your world with greater acceptance, less criticism, and more appreciation and enthusiasm for your body and mind. You get closer to embracing your power and remembering who you are: the hero or heroine of your life story.

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Rachel Schaeffer is the author of Yoga for Your Spiritual Muscles and the host/executive producer of The Red Couch, an Internet, radio, and television talk show.

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