Learning to Unlearn

July 7, 2019

***Trigger warning.  Some content in this blog may be a trigger for some people. Caution advised***

My counselor asked me a question that rocked my world.  

What did you learn from that?

Ok.  Wait. Let me back up.  I recently switched counselors because the one I was seeing wasn’t really helping. She was nice and all, but, as a friend told me a long time ago, nice ain’t cuttin’ it.  Anyway, I found someone who I think could help me get to the root of things.  She didn’t disappoint.  

She asked about my childhood.  I tend to recount it with a certain laconic pragmatism.  “I was raised in an abusive home. My stepfather was emotionally, physically and verbally abusive toward me and my mother permitted it.  My sister was not treated in the same fashion.  Through years of counseling, I have come to terms with it. At this point, I generally do not speak with my family of origin,” or something akin to that.

She asked for more details…of course.  I told her about one time when I came home from school. I was about 12 years old.  My stepfather had this rule: Don’t speak unless spoken to.  As I opened the front door, he was sitting on the couch watching TV.  He glanced at me, and I did not speak.  I locked the door and went to my room and shut the door. A few minutes later he knocked on the door, and when I opened it, he hit me in my face.  He yelled at me for being disrespectful and not speaking when I came into the room.  

She asked for more.

I told her that I was punished often by being excluded from sitting at the table to eat with the family.  I was also prevented from eating the same foods that were prepared and was given something else instead.  For example, if french toast and orange juice were being served, I would have to eat toast and milk.  Then I would be made to clean up after everyone.

She listened as I recounted these events, giving me the occasional Freudian nod or two.  That’s when she popped the question:

“And, tell me, what did you learn from that?”

It kind of caught me off guard.  I don’t recall ever being asked that question about my childhood before.  Weird thing is that I instantly knew what she was driving at.  She wanted to know what constructs, what beliefs, I formed about the world around me based off of that very traumatic experience.  

I gave some crappy off the cuff answer.  I talked about learning that I did not want to be that kind of parent and how I wanted to learn how to deal with my baggage so that I didn’t pass that on to my kids. Something in her slow steady nod led me to believe she knew I handed her a bunch of fluff.  

It was like my mind didn’t even want to come to grips with what I’d assimilated into my bank of truths as a result of that experience.  She didn’t press it, and we went on to other things.  But, it bugged me. What had I learned? And why didn’t I want to even acknowledge it?

So, over the next few days, I took a brutally honest look at what that trauma really taught me. It was hard. Really hard. I made a list.

I learned…

That when people say they love you, it’s not necessarily true

That if I want to be taken care of, fed, clothed, protected, I have to do it myself

To be hopeless, because it is less painful than feeling a joyous rise of hope followed by the inevitable plummet and crash of disappointment. Better to stay down than to keep getting kicked down.

That I am not worth protecting

That no one is safe

Words hurt in places that fists can’t touch

To neglect and ignore my needs

I don’t think I had ever really let these ideologies fully come to my consciousness until now.  It’s weird, though, because it’s like they were right there, hovering just below my radar of awareness, puppeteering my thoughts and behavior.

So why say all this to you?

Because iron sharpens iron.  Because we all hold deep rooted constructs that inhibit our potential and excellence.  Because when we know better, we do better. Because I believe in looking stuff straight in the face if we are ever going to conquer it.

Because it’s time to unlearn what we have learned.

So, take some time and meditate on the events that changed the course of your life.  Death of a loved one. Trauma. Loss of a job. Divorce. Betrayal. Maybe an injury or accident.  A diagnosis of a chronic disease. Or it may be something else entirely.  Then, ask yourself: What did I learn from that?

Be honest with yourself.  

Now, this part I cannot stress enough:  Some stuff may come up that you didn’t even know was there.  It might be something that you thought you’d dealt with or were completely over.  Reach out to your counselor and set up an appointment to talk about it.  DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT skip this step.

Why am I so adamant about this?

Mental health has such a weirdly negative stigma in our culture.  I have no idea why and, frankly, I don’t care.  It’s absolutely asinine to me to have friends, relatives or even pastors (yes, I said it) to address mental health issues.  

If you had an abnormal heart rhythm, a tumor, a fracture, vision loss, unexplained pain, difficulty breathing etc., you would not go to a non-professional for medical advice.  Prayer and support? Sure! Absolutely. But…medical advice?  I think not. Your friends and family, no matter how much they love and care about you, cannot diagnose and treat you.  They don’t even know where to begin.

Even if your loved one is a mental health professional, I don’t recommend talking to them in place of your primary therapist.  First, it puts them in an ethically compromised position and that is not fair to either of you.  Second, it’s better for you if you seek help from someone outside of your personal circle. Objectivity is better and you will feel more comfortable disclosing difficult information.

It is the same with mental health.  Think of it medical care for your emotions.  You need skilled, professional assistance to successfully address these issues, otherwise they may continue to thwart your healing.  In fact, allowing non-professionals to help you may likely make it worse.  

(Side note: Finding the right professional is also really important.  Some people graduated at the bottom of the class…and it shows.  I’m just sayin…)

Ok.  Moving on.  You can’t unlearn something you don’t even know you’ve learned.  The process of unlearning may be painful and difficult, but so is living a life full of regret and pain.  It’s just that one results in growth and progress and the other leaves you stagnant and full of unrealized potential.

Your choice. #Unlearn

If you made it this far and you are still here, thank you! Scroll down to the bottom of this page and sign up to receive a once a week email like this to give you support and encouragement when you need it most.

Questions to ponder:

1. Do you have a counselor? Why or why not?

2. Do you hold a negative opinion of seeking mental health?  If so, where did that come from?

3. If use of mental health services were the norm in our society, would you feel more comfortable seeking care?

4. Does the process of unlearning old and broken mind sets give you hope for the future? Why or why not?

5. It can be challenging to revisit difficult events and unearth hidden issues.  Would it worthwhile to do so? Why or why not?

6. Consider an event/incident where you may have learned some dysfunctional mindsets.  Be honest with yourself.  Write down what you inadvertently learned. No, seriously.  Write them down.  Now, look at that list.  Do you want to continue to live your life believing those things? If the answer is no, then you know what to do. ;)


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