A little while back, Leann Rimes posted this Richard Rohr quote on her Instagram account: “Transformation is often more about unlearning than learning,” and, as I was scrolling through my feed, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I love learning and I spend a great deal of my time, especially here on Positively Present, trying to learn more about myself and the world. But I rarely think about unlearning something — and, now that I’m pondering it, it seems like it could be just as important as learning! Unlearning really is the key to transformation, to making those big changes in your life that can help you feel more positive and present.
We all have things we’d be better off unlearning — bad habits, negative thinking patterns, etc. — but, as you might already know, unlearning is actually much more challenging than learning. Instead of simply absorbing new information, you have to remove what you already know (or change the way you think about it) and that’s hard. Especially if it’s been something you’ve been doing or thinking for years and years.
I’ve outlined some steps below for how to tackle the tricky art of unlearning. I’m definitely going to be putting these steps to use myself on some behaviors that I’d like to change, and I hope you’ll do the same. True transformation happens when you let go of what you no longer need, allowing space in your life for more positive, empowering habits, mindsets, and experiences!
STEP 1: COMMIT TO THE UNLEARNING PROCESS
First, you’ve got to identify what you want to unlearn. What habits do you wish you didn’t have? What behaviors would you love to change? What people / situations would you rather not be around? Knowing what needs to change can be challenging if you’ve been engaging in a behavior or way of thinking for years and years. Sometimes we’re so used to doing or thinking something that it doesn’t even occur to us to change it. But pause for a minute and look at the question below. What’s the very first thing that comes to your mind? That’s the thing you really want to unlearn — and that’s what you need to fully commit to undoing. If you don’t fully commit to the unlearning process, trust me, it’ll never work.
STEP 2: DETERMINE WHY YOU WANT TO UNLEARN IT
This step goes hand-in-hand with Step 1, and it’s equally as important. True growth and unlearning can only happen if you’re fully committed — and to be fully committed, you have to dig deep to answer the question: Why do I want to unlearn this? When you get to the “why,” you’ll have a motivating factor to keep you going when the unlearning gets hard. For example, let’s say you want to unlearn negative thinking patterns related to body image. The reasons why you might want to do this could include: to feel better about yourself, to cultivate more self-love, to become a better role model for your children or friends, to be more a peace with who you are, etc. When you have that “why” question answered, you’ll be able to come back to that whenever you struggle with unlearning and encourage yourself. You might even want to post this up somewhere so you can continue to feel inspired: I WANT TO UNLEARN _________________ SO THAT I CAN FEEL / EXPERIENCE / BE _________________.
STEP 3: START WITH SMALL STEPS
One of the most difficult parts of unlearning — or even learning! — can be feeling so overwhelmed by a large, perhaps emotionally draining, task. The best way to handle feelings of overwhelm is to break down the problem into small steps. Make a list of small things you can do to move forward in the unlearning process. Unlearning things is hard work, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight. The best way to make lasting progress is actually to start slow and keep moving forward at a gradual pace. Spend some time right now listing out ways that you might be able to start unlearning right now. For example, some steps to unlearn a habit of smoking might include: research how others have quit smoking, buy an anti-smoking patch, ask friends and family to hold you accountable, find a healthy habit to replace the bad one, etc.
STEP 4: FIGURE OUT WHAT TRIGGERS YOU
Once you’re making small, positive steps in the right direction, it’s time to identify what triggers you to engage in what you’re trying to unlearn. While you’re going about your day, pay attention to what makes you want to return to what you’re trying to change. Do certain situations make you feel more anxious and lead you to negative thinking? Do certain people make you want to take up a habit you’re trying to quit? Do you find yourself reacting when faced with certain emotions? Paying attention to what triggers you to behave or think a particular way is crucial for making positive unlearning progress. Once you’re aware of these triggers, you can either avoid them completely or figure out ways to cope in those situations so you’re less likely to return to old habits or patterns.
STEP 5: REWARD YOURSELF FOR POSITIVE PROGRESS
One of the most positive things you can do for yourself when trying to unlearn something is offer yourself rewards whenever you make positive progress. Every time you resist doing that which you wish not to do, treat yourself. A treat might be something as simple as looking in the mirror and saying, “Good job, not doing X! You should be proud!” or it could be something like treating yourself to a new book, taking a day off from work to go to the spa, or planning a vacation. Whatever works as a reward for you, use it to reinforce your own positive behavior. Unlearning stuff is hard work and you deserve recognition!
The act of unlearning won’t come easily, but that doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth it. As the quote above says, I really do believe that so much growth and transformation can come not just from learning new things, but from riding our lives of the things, habits, mindsets, and people that are no longer working for us. In many cases, unlearning needs to happen because these things are bringing negativity into our lives, but in some cases, it needs to happen simply because we have outgrown these elements. Whatever the reason, unlearning can have a powerful (and positive!) impact on your life, and I highly recommend giving these five steps a try to get started on transformation.