I’m good at it. Really good at it. Asking questions. It was my signature style since age 4 (when I first became aware that I was I and therefore nobody else). I wanted to know everything so I asked, and asked, and asked - an endearing trait in a little girl with knowledge-hungry parents. But it soon got squelched down at school. I lived in a small town in the outskirts of Madrid then. I went to an all-girls Catholic school. The teachers didn’t always have the answers. Like the time I earnestly asked (before my First Communion, aged 8, I wanted all the facts you understand), whether the Virgin Mary had actually given birth to baby Jesus. Because, if so, her hymen would have broken and technically she would not be a virgin anymore. It didn’t go down very well.
“Impertinent” was a name thrown at me a lot throughout my primary school years. Such a shame as it dampened my natural desire to question life around me and engage in communication with others on it. By the time I got to secondary school, and thanks to hormones, a nose that seemed to be growing out of proportion with the rest of my face (not quite Pinocchio style but…), and my growing obsession in what others thought of me, I took refuge in acquiescence and silence. I became shy and decided asking questions was embarrassing. That being on the spotlight (even for a minute) was excruciating. That speaking up was not safe.
So that when teachers asked if there were any questions, although I would have a couple hundred screaming in my mind to get out, I would zip up my lips and try to stay still despite the commotion in my head. Fortunately I was able to let rip with friends and my parents. I would ask away but never manage to satisfy the need. It’s been one hell of a persistent itch all my life.
I recently had a fellow Spanish nomad friend visiting and we talked of how our education had shaped us, amongst a million and one other topics (she belongs to my school of “Eternally curious women who can’t stop asking questions”). Particularly in terms of our leadership skills, confidence levels, and general ball-breaking truthfulness. Our education had failed us in this regard (we both enjoyed high-standards, free, quality education all the way to and including University). It didn’t generally (there were some exceptional teachers of course) encourage inquisitiveness, critical thinking, creativity or any deeper questioning of anything, really. Then we both did Masters degrees in the US and experienced a welcome questioning shift. But for me, at least, it was too late. I suffered from years of towing the line and staying within my turf (comfort zones, anyone?). My early professional years were a continuation of my educational years - although my colleagues and my bosses wanted me to ask questions, I found it very difficult. Really difficult.
Authenticity and vulnerability have been looming large above me in the last few years. When we ask questions we open ourselves up to connecting and to the possibility of rejection. When we ask questions we show ourselves in so many ways (and layers) it’s like taking off our clothes in public. Yes, even when we ask for basic information, like “Do you know the way to X”? Because questions come from a natural fact: that we don’t know. In our narcissistic lives and our information age, not knowing makes us feel vulnerable. Inadequate. Open to criticism. How dare I not know how to get to X? Can’t I read my map app on my phone? Shouldn’t I have printed a full itinerary beforehand? What if the person I ask doesn’t know? What if they realise I’m not from here? What if they IGNORE me or are rude to me? And the mind goes off on a wild ride of useless questions tainted by a deep fear of unworthiness. Think I’m exaggerating? I bet you’ll go off on one of these monkey-mind jaunts at least once a day when faced with the decision to ask a question.
This is fear of being vulnerable. Of accepting, with self-awareness, that we don't know (or that we WANT to know). Of being rejected. A question is a reaching out to the other. It’s an overture, a first step, an opening up. Even when we are simply seeking factual information. Not knowing has become a capital sin, as if it was a reflection of our being. I don’t know, therefore I’m flawed. Asking questions, asking for help, or attention, or love, can often be laden with profound shame. The type of shame we are not aware of consciously, but festers deep down, and stirs every time we show our vulnerability.
I’m pleased that I can ask now as part of my “job”. I have rediscovered that my aptitude to ask questions (of myself and of others) is a strength. Good thing I decided to become a coach! ;-) Asking questions is the first step to living in awareness. Asking questions can often be enough, even when the answers don’t come. For asking ourselves and asking others implies a willingness to be open, to explore, to be ‘impertinent” from the heart, from a desire to engage, connect and maybe even heal.