Episode 102: Learning How to Unlearn
Richard Rohr once said, “Transformation is often more about unlearning than learning”
How do you unbelieve?
How do you STOP believing things that aren’t serving you?
Yoda: You must unlearn what you have learned.
Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
You know it’s “just your thoughts”
In my coaching practice there’s a sentence that is probably THE MOST over used sentence and that is, “I know it’s just my thoughts but…”
At this point in the podcast, hopefully you’ve been with me for a while and you know that I teach and firmly believe with science-based research to back this up, and Scriptural references as well that our thoughts create how we feel, not our circumstances.
It’s only when you think a thought and you believe that thought that you activate that thought and your brain then releases a chemical that creates a new feeling in your body.
So in my coaching practice with my clients they love to use the sentence, “I know it’s just my thoughts but…” followed by a dramatic story about their circumstances and why they’re stuck.
I know it’s just my thoughts but…
And you know it’s “just your thoughts” but the problem is you’re still believing those thoughts and it feels terrible.
Thoughts are optional. You get to believe anything you want to believe. ANYTHING but you’re still holding on to certain social constructs and limiting beliefs that feel awful and restricting. And the thing is, IF you didn’t believe that thought it would end your suffering but there’s still a part of you that thinks you need to believe that thought and it’s damaging to your self-esteem and confidence.
There’s still a part of you that is choosing that thought and sometimes it’s because it’s something you’ve practiced over time and choosing that thought pattern becomes your auto-pilot/default. You’re still choosing it but it’s because it’s the closest, it’s the most convenient, it doesn’t require a lot of intentional or any intentional awareness or energy in the moment.
So when we talk about just thoughts we need to recognize and realize that you’re not really believing that they’re just thoughts. A part of you believes that you didn’t really have a choice and that’s something we want to uncover and unlearn.
You can learn how to unlearn your non-productive thoughts/beliefs.
1.) Just because the thought is there it doesn’t mean you HAVE to believe it.
I remember coaching a beautiful soul once about church cookies and how there’s always cookies after meetings and she wanted to cut sugar out of her diet but the cookies. And as I worked with her I helped her realize that just because the cookies are there it didn’t mean that she had to eat them.
The cookies can be there and you can choose not to eat them and better yet, not even WANT them.
And to those of you that are like, “whaaaaaat? No way. Me want the cookie” I just want to say it’s 100% possible and when you look at it from a different light you’ll see what I’m talking about. If on the table there were cigarettes instead of cookies you’d have no problem passing on the cigarettes. Why? Because you don’t smoke, right?
You have a belief that, “I am not a smoker” and so it’s easy to pass but cookies? There’s a belief in your mind that thinks, “It’s just a cookie. I deserve one cookie, I mean, I made it through the meeting or the activity or whatever it is”
And because of that belief we take the cookie.
You’re thoughts are like this. There are some thoughts that are easier to say, no thank you to but then others that we cling to simply because we haven’t done the intentional work to learn how to unlearn those unhelpful or unproductive thoughts.
So again, just because the thought is THERE it doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
There are thoughts that come and go in your brain all day everyday that aren’t a problem. It’s only the thoughts that we believe – aka activate that create a physical feeling and in our minds, a problem for us because they don’t feel good.
Again, going back to the cookie example, just because they’re there doesn’t mean you have to eat them. They can be there and it doesn’t have to be a problem for you and it won’t be until you make it a problem for you.
Your thoughts are not a problem until you latch on to them and you make them a problem. Are you with me?
Most of the time they are problems for us because we’ve learned to believe them. We live in a culture that is really big on promoting a specific body type and so if you don’t fall in that bracket then you believe it’s a problem and you need to go to the gym, on a diet, or hide it because you shouldn’t look like that – but what if it’s really only because we’ve learned that what they’re promoting is “beautiful” – and until we unlearn that belief we’ll keep on hating on our bodies.
Or we can do the work to unlearn that biased, profit based propaganda and from a clean slate you can learn what IS going to help you and what IS beautiful to you. We don’t have to take down the beauty industry either. They can promote their message and it doesn’t have to affect you. That’s truly the beauty of learning how to unlearn.
If a thought isn’t helpful for you then you need to sit with the truth that just because it’s there it doesn’t mean you have to believe it or buy into it.
I often tell my clients that I’m really an eliminator. That’s such a cool job title, right? I’m the eliminator. And it’s because I help my clients see certain thoughts and beliefs that aren’t serving them, that will never serve them, and I help and assist them in the process of unlearning so that they can learn a new thought that will serve them, that does feel good, that is productive for them.
Notice, I didn’t say positive. Sometimes the goal isn’t to dive into positivity and all sunshine. Sometimes it’s okay if the belief is hard. Courage isn’t a good feeling. If you think about it, it stems from fear so you muster up your confidence and courage and move forth. But it doesn’t feel good. It does feel however, productive and that helps us to mover forward and progress.
So when we’re talking about unlearning and learning – I just want you to keep that in mind that the goal isn’t to get to happy. The goal is to get to certainty and confidence. Courage isn’t knowing that things are going to work out great – there’s hope for that – but courage is just knowing that I’m going to be okay no matter what and that helps me to move forward.
So when we take on the role of eliminator – this is your call, my friends. You get to be an eliminator. It’s detecting the thought (s) that aren’t serving you. It’s noticing all the, “I know it’s just a thought but’s…” – if it really is “just a thought” then let’s treat like one.
A thought is a passing sentence in your mind. A belief is a thought that you hold on to. So if it doesn’t feel good we need to learn to let it go and we do that by unlearning it. We do that by first recognizing that I don’t want that in my belief system. Hence, the eliminator.
Now I do want just want to say the this process of unlearning is a practice. It’s something that requires effort like any new skill especially when you’re going up against beliefs that maybe have been around for a long time. So it’s process that requires practice to see – to be aware of thoughts and beliefs that aren’t serving you, to be able to look at the thought without attaching judgment to it – let me pause for a minute and go back to the cookie example.
My client could do the first step easy. I see that my action eating the cookie isn’t helpful and I don’t want to eat the cookies. Then it’s followed by a question, “why did I eat the cookies? Why do I always eat the cookies? What’s wrong with me?”
Okay two of those questions are great and we want to keep them. One of them needs to be tagged by the eliminator because it’s not going to serve you nor will it ever.
Why did I eat the cookies?
This question will help you LEARN something new about yourself. This is a good question, keep it.
The next question, Why do I always eat the cookies?
This question helps you to see that there is a pattern and a practice that stems from a belief either from your own thoughts or learned from a culture.
The last thought, “What’s wrong with me?” The short answer is nothing. There is nothing wrong with you nor things that need to be “fixed”. This is why this question is so harmful because it’s really only half the thought. It’s what I call a fragmented sentence. What’s wrong with me really means, This is wrong with me. What I did was wrong. I am wrong. Nothing good will come from that.
And thus, let’s eliminate it by learning a new more productive pathway.
Curiosity feels way better than shame or negativity so keep the thoughts that create curiosity and don’t give energy to the thoughts that draw you further away from where you want to be – and that’s in a confident, secure place.
And if you notice it’s not – let it go, stop thinking that! It’s really just don’t give it your intentional energy. That thought can be there -like, it can exist but you don’t have to indulge in it. And the easiest way through that is by giving your brain direct instructions. Answer THIS question – why did I eat that cookie?
Your brain can’t be on two opposite paths at the same time. So focus on the path you want to be on, be curious, and like the car visual I often use – if you’re in a car there’s always two views. There’s two windows. You can’t look at both at once. You have to turn your head to focus on one. So if that thought isn’t helping you and you don’t like it and it’s not productive for you – stop looking out of that window and start intentionally drawing your focus and energy on what’s out the other side.
If you notice, it doesn’t get rid of the other view – the other window still exists but…you’re not indulging in it anymore. You’re not focused on it. You’re not seeing what’s out that view point anymore and thus, it doesn’t hold any weight over you anymore.
This is the process you want to practice.
1.) awareness: recognize the thought.
2.) accept the thought: thoughts get to exist and they will continue to but instead of arguing with it and hoping it’s going to change, we can accept that the thought is there but I don’t have to believe it.
3.) Turn your head: look out of the window that will offer you a wider perspective and not feel so limiting and suffocating.
You can do this by asking yourself, what else is true?
I love the example in the old testament with Moses. He didn’t believe he should be the spokesman for the Hebrews. He told God that he was slow of speech and not the best candidate for the job, right? And then the burning bush moment where God offers him the other window. What else is true? What else is true is that you are a child of God of infinite capacity.
And then from there becoming the spokesman and prophet didn’t seem too impossible or outlandish.
He had to first unlearn the perceived limitations and then he had to learn what would help him and propel him forward.
The last step I want to teach today is #4.) Narrow in.
My oldest used to dance ballet and to be able to do those beautiful spins that they do over and over again they’re taught to find a focal point and don’t take your eyes off of it. If you notice a ballerina spinning or doing Pirouettes their head doesn’t spin with them at the same time their body spins.
They find a focal point and really hone in on it as their body turns and then at the last possible moment when they have to turn because our bodies aren’t as agile as the Cheshire Cat – they quickly turn and go right back to their focal point. They don’t see anything other than the focal point because even when their head turns it’s so fast and quick because they need to get back to that constant so they don’t lose their balance and get dizzy.
This simple trick is so powerful and productive that it enables them to do these amazing things and beautiful skills.
So in the process of unlearning as you start with awareness, accept that thoughts are there, you turn your head to find what else is true – what is something that is helpful for me, that uplifts and encourages me? And once you find it narrow in.
Stay there focused on it until it becomes embedded in your mind and becomes the new default, the new go-to, the new learned belief.
It’s not an overly complicated process to unlearn and learn thoughts.
It is however an incredibly powerful practice that will serve you and help you to create more certainty and confidence in your life. The more you apply these 4 steps into your daily life your brain takes note and starts applying it to all areas of your life. When thoughts arise that are belittling, negative, or condemning your brain won’t latch onto them and propel you into a pit of shame.
It’ll dive right into the cycle of wait…that doesn’t feel like it goes there:
2.) acceptance – not being in a state of resistance which can also be not claiming the thought as yours before you intentionally choose it.
3.) Turning your head to see what else is true?
And then once you’ve got it going into, the 4th step: narrow in and don’t lose your focus. Stay in the beliefs that empower and uplift, that feel safe and secure – challenging thoughts are welcome – courage is appropriate, joy is invited but shame, guilt, negativity, and discouragement? Not going to help you.
Over time you teach yourself that you can trust you to be okay no matter what even in your own mind.
Some of the darkest battles will be fought in your own mind.
And it doesn’t have to be a battle. The more you prepare and practice the more powerful you become in being the catalyst for growth and change in your life.
Okay my friends – happy unlearning!
I’ll talk to you next time!