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Learning to Unlearn

2819329Unlearn – a relatively new concept which many of you will have seen in a recent advert for a car – the advice being to let go of what you know. But actually it is something we could all try to understand and practice. There are of course many different types of learning and usually we make an effort to learn and indeed encourage our children to learn. Every skill we have – we have generally ‘learned’ whether it is walking and talking, reading, riding a bike or cooking we have at one time or another learned how to do it. Then there are the academic, professional or vocational knowledge and skills, everything from chemistry for pharmacists, to wiring for electricians that individuals will have learned. Notice as well that we ‘learn’ both skills and knowledge many of the things we do every day require both. We need to know for example what the ingredients are for a spaghetti bolognaise (and how to get these) as well as having the skill of putting them together in the right way to make the dish.

But as well as all that useful sort of learning we also go through life learning all sorts of other things. Sometimes our learning is based on our experience, we may for example have an idea that public transport is a good means of travel but if the first few times we use it we are cold, delayed, don’t get a seat on the bus or train then we may ‘learn’ that actually we don’t think it is a good way to travel at all.

The only way our brains cope with the amount of knowledge and information it’s given is to group things together into themes, we develop schemes for things. So if we meet someone new we don’t have to spend ages inputting what we see to make broad decisions on their age, gender, ethnicity etc. and we may in addition make certain personal judgements based on a host of other perceptions we have.

Sometimes this presents us with areas we need to unlearn. If you grow up for example thinking or being told that all Londoners are monarchists or big fans of the Queen you may need to meet quite a few who are not, before you change your mind. We use generalisations to deal with the volume of information that we need to take in but any time we are grouping people together, using words like all, never or always, we need to be wary. Humans are individuals and while certain groups may share certain features there is very rarely a good reason to describe an individual in terms of features of a group – because we are all individuals.

But perhaps the most important area of ‘unlearning’ that we need is in what we think and believe about ourselves. The first truth to establish is that most aspects of ourselves and are personality can change – humans are endlessly adaptable and while somethings like eye colour and certain physical features may be tough to alter there are an awful lot of aspects of our bodies, minds and emotions that we can change – or unlearn.

A good place to start is with our abilities, specifically those things we have spent a lot of time being told, telling ourselves, or somehow ‘learning’ and believing to be true. Start by simply thinking of something you don’t feel you can do well. The kind of thing you would actively try and get out of. Then think for a minute why it is you can’t do it. I’m not talking about specific or difficult skills – but fairly ordinary things like, drawing or navigating, sports or quizzes, singing or spelling. Then ask yourself when you last actually tried to do this. Often what happens is that we don’t feel good at something so we stop doing it. That is understandable, none of us like to be put in a position where we feel inadequate. Yet how do we get to be good at things, well usually by practicing and of course if we don’t like doing something we will usually avoid it therefore we will never improve.

But in terms of how we think about ourselves what we can and can’t do and our beliefs about that – they may not be terribly damaging. Or they may. I have worked with people who feel that they will never be happy, never have a fulfilling relationship or never be ‘successful’. Partly this is because that is what they have ‘learned’ either from parents, experiences when growing up or experiences as an adult. This is where ‘unlearning’ or letting go of what we know – or what we think we know- becomes crucial if we want to be free to live life to the full.

Deep seated beliefs that have been held for a long time may be quite hard to shift, but it is possible for someone who wants to change. If you are reading this and wondering how you would know that you have these beliefs then simply start tuning in to your self-chatter. The running commentary that comes from within your own brain. The commentary that accompanies you most of the day. So when a friend asks if you’d do something for example, immediately there is that inner voice that tells you that maybe you’d better not – because you can’t do it, or won’t enjoy it. This is not rational decision making but the reflex sort of response based on what you think you know about yourself. That is a good place to start with a challenge to yourself – which can be internal of course. So if your inner voice says ‘you know you can’t do that’ ask yourself ‘who says’ and spend a bit of time exploring where that idea came from and whether now might be a good time to get rid of that belief – to let it go and ‘unlearn’ it.