The #1 Strategy When Things Go Wrong: Be Curious, Not Furious

How to Change

Are you trying to make some important changes in your life to improve your physical and emotional health and well-being? When you fall back into old unhelpful habits or stray from your new path, do you get upset, frustrated, or angry? Does it make you want to give up entirely? If so, it’s time to change your mindset.

Did you know that real change is rarely, if ever, linear? The journey to successfully changing your habits to build a healthier brain and body is filled with detours, wrong turns, breakdowns, and setbacks. Learning to expect and welcome the times when things go wrong, or when mistakes are made as opportunities for learning is the mark of emotional maturity. In fact, it is necessary.

Change is a process that occurs in steps; when you pay close attention, the bad times can reveal the roadmap to future success. Click To Tweet

In a published article titled “A Celebration of Failure,” the author, a respected Harvard Medical School researcher, argues that “failure has at least as important a role in our experience, education, and professional development as success—if we would only learn from it.”

After all, impactful, lasting changes come from many small, imperfect efforts made over time.

Here are some strategies that emphasize getting curious about setbacks with our own progress or that of our loved ones, rather than furious, to help facilitate real change.


The following steps have proved to be helpful in making lasting changes in health and well-being.

1. Make a commitment.

Research has shown that making a resolution or goal and then putting it on paper (or on your computer) is more likely to help you reach it, especially when your motivation weakens. To strengthen your commitment, share it with a supportive friend and check in with that person regularly to report your progress.

2. Make a note of it.

Write down the health-boosting actions you take. It will help you to stay on target. Starting a journal is an excellent way to track your progress. It also provides a place to write thoughts and feelings that come up along the way.

3. Plan ahead.

Your new healthy habits will take time out of your schedule. In order to be successful, you must create space for these new behaviors. Let your family and the other people in your life know that these positive changes will take up some of your time so that they can support your program. (Remind them that a healthier you they will benefit too!) Write them into your schedule: Book time to exercise your body, prepare healthier meals, or focus your mind with meditation. You can treat these activities as you would important appointments.

4. Celebrate your small victories. This is key.

Instead of getting ahead of yourself, looking at all the progress that needs to be made, take a few moments every few days or each week to review what you have already achieved. Known as the “horizon effect,” this practice helps to build enthusiasm and the drive to carry on. It’s a way to keep yourself inspired!

5. When things don’t work, be curious, not furious.

Don’t waste time getting angry, ask why and re-assess. It often takes several tries.


What does it mean to be curious about your behavior, not furious at your slip-ups or mistakes? When you find yourself making judgments about yourself or others, get curious and investigate what might be behind the troublesome behavior. When people behave poorly, it might be because of some driving factor that you are unaware of. Maybe they are having a bad day, or perhaps they just got laid off from a job. It’s easy to judge yourself and be angry or to write people off as jerks, but it’s more instructive to ask why.

For example, let’s examine one Amen Clinics patient, a successful realtor, who originally came in to be treated for panic attacks and drug use. After a few months, she made significant progress and completely stopped using drugs. However, after an argument with her boyfriend, she slipped and went on a weekend binge. She had hopeless thoughts and was angry with herself.

However, instead of continuing to get angry, she got curious!

It turns out that the relapse occurred a week after one of her listings fell through escrow. She lost sleep over it and her eating became more erratic. She skipped her exercise routine and stopped taking her supplements. The sleeplessness, erratic eating, and lack of exercise lowered activity and blood flow to her brain. Add in a stressful week and an increase of negative thoughts and it is not too surprising she returned to her addictive behavior.

Rather than getting caught up in judgment after a setback, be neutral like a GPS tracking device. When you are using your GPS, what happens when you make a wrong turn? Does it scold you? Of course not. It simply recalibrates and then gives you the best route to get to your destination.

We all mess up at some point, and you will too. And not just once! Counter negative thoughts by reminding yourself of what you have accomplished (step #4 above). Instead of beating yourself up, whenever you make a mistake, learn from it, turn around, and go in a better direction!


Change is a process that occurs in steps. When you pay close attention, the bad times can reveal the roadmap to future success. Specifically, journaling (noted above in step #2) your ups and downs will help you identify when you are most vulnerable. For example, you might notice that you make poor decisions when you don’t get proper sleep or you are more likely to argue on days you don’t eat breakfast or wait too long between meals. You’ll see what happens when you attend too many social gatherings and don’t make time to be quiet, restore, and rejuvenate. Pay close attention, your vulnerabilities will reveal themselves to you.

The great news is that once you know your vulnerable moments, you can create contingency plans to overcome unwanted behaviors!

A psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer from New York University has published extensive research on behavior change. He advocates that people create “if-then” scenarios that spell out how they’ll break destructive habits. If-then means if (situation) happens, then I will do (pre-planned action).

For example, if you are cutting out sugar because it contributes to your anxiety or depression, you may be concerned about social situations where someone offers you a dessert. Perhaps you don’t want to be impolite and/or it triggers your desire for a sweet dessert. You can plan for the “if” situation (someone offering you a dessert) by running through how you might respond. You might plan to say, “Thank you, it looks delicious, but I’d prefer some coffee or tea.” Then link them together.

Yes, it’s extraordinarily simple but profoundly effective! If-then strategies have helped people reach their goals in adhering to a healthy diet, athletics, physical activity, and regulating troublesome emotions like fear. Research shows that using this technique increases activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which can help override reflexive behaviors from the anterior cingulate gyrus and basal ganglia.

Making your “if-then” plans known to others is a type of commitment, which also improves your ability to stay on track.

Small Changes, Big Results

Remember, lasting change is a simple process that occurs in steps and in the decisions we make every day. It’s never too late to get started, and it’s never too late to get back on track.

Mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. test

    Comment by Andrew Nguyen — December 2, 2021 @ 1:32 PM

  2. Thanks Doc,

    Looking forward to an examination, a walk n talk. Seems, those 3, SAP hashed it out amongst many the curious.

    Extremely interesting readings … so long in the makings … so many years, ago.

    If only we could talk amongst each other, instead of firing so many electrons about.

    Photonic times … time to Ride the Light! what’er Ur thoughts, today, about now?


    Comment by Alabama.Brian — December 8, 2021 @ 4:35 AM

  3. Thank you we are going through a very hard financial time with health issues. Yet we continue to try and keep a positive attitude.

    Comment by Janey — December 8, 2021 @ 4:53 AM

  4. Great article. I struggle on a daily basis with depression. Lots of transition going on in my life right now. Empty nesting, kids getting married, loss of friends, just life happening. This will help me to put things into perspective and not get so discouraged. I can look at what’s working and what I would like to change. I need to be more patient with myself. Thanks for encouraging words.

    Comment by Martha Krech — December 8, 2021 @ 6:06 AM

  5. Outstanding message. Insightful Thank you ❗️

    Comment by Dar Anders — December 8, 2021 @ 6:13 AM

  6. If-then scenarios? I like that, might start practicing it soon. Thanks for the article.
    – Alessandro

    Comment by Alessandro — December 8, 2021 @ 10:52 AM

  7. Dear Dr. Amen,
    I seen your presentations on Channel 13. Also, I have read some of your books. Changing behaviour it’s very difficult. I admire your faith and positive outlook on life. I continue to face challenges in my life. Thank you for the interesting article. It made me think that maybe ” I’m bad student”. As I continue to find the same myself in same situations dealing with difficul, negative people. Maybe I should be curious and try to find the lessons to learn. Thank so much .

    Comment by Federica E Rojas — December 8, 2021 @ 12:36 PM

  8. Very good article. When depression sets in it is so often very hard to navigate the brain into positive thoughts and feelings of helplessness can overwhelm. Journaling small accomplishments may be very helpful. Thank you

    Comment by Katy — December 10, 2021 @ 2:09 PM

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