Learning to Unlearn

“Imagine if you had to re-learn how to sit in a chair every time you walked into a room. Or re-learn how to open a door every time you approached a door handle. You’d go mad.”

I nodded.

“For better or for worse, your brain needs patterns. It’s when the patterns have gone bad, so to speak, you come into conflict. For example, if you were spanked every time you got in trouble, your brain would detect a pattern: get into trouble, get spanked. And in the future, whenever you think you’re in trouble, you might prepare for a spanking.”

I nodded.

“The catastrophizing you experience enables your brain to follow  pattern. You sense you’re in trouble because you didn’t do what was expected of you. And if you don’t have a pattern for “oh, I’m going to be ok”, you will shape that thought to fit the pattern of “oh, I’m in trouble.

I nodded.

“So I have to start making new patterns.”

She nodded.

Late last year with my therapist, I resolved to really get to the root of my depressive/anxiety iss-ues so I can eliminate them as much as I can. And then I got into a bit of trouble with my credit card (story for another blog) which was a big, fat confirmation that I need to Work On My Shit. As a result, therapy has been super fun. And by fun I mean, confronting, hard, and embarrassing. But in the same way that shiatsu massage feels good, it eventually feels good to finally pull a Marie Kondo on all the baggage I had stuffed away in the black hole that is my emotional closet.

Part of this great baggage purge is Learning to Unlearn – that is, breaking myself of the following:

  • being mean to myself
  • not sticking up for myself
  • not making my needs/wants known
  • being so afraid of failure that I don’t start
  • indulging in harmful coping mechanisms
  • etc.

This shit is hard work. My thought process is like a railroad switch. Right now, my tracks are firmly set to run in one direction, even though there are a few different directions it could go in. And getting those switches to flip is an every day task.

The first step I’m taking is working on not diminishing myself – which includes:

  1.  Only saying “sorry” when I make a serious mistake. My first boss in Sydney scolded me whenever I started a sentence with “sorry.” And she was right to do it. She said women apologise in the work place too often. And I realised how often I say sorry. Like, A LOT. I wake up and apologise for something. So I try to save sorry for when I absolutely inconvenience or hurt someone – have to reschedule at the last moment, have to charge more than previously quoted, accidentally deleted a database, dropped a book on your foot, forgot to confirm your appointments, unintentionally blew the whistle on national security data leaks you know – stuff that sucks. 

    So, at work there’s no more “Sorry to disturb [when I’m asking for the status on a report that you know was due to me 2 weeks ago]” or “Sorry [to approach you during work hours with a work related question]” or “Sorry, but [I am about to defend what I think is the right move]” or “SORRY I [am going to explain why I feel wronged]” or even “Sorry!!” when I conduct the grievous error of someone opening the door of the bathroom at the same moment that I’m about to push the door to the bathroom open. 

    Not that I’m forgoing social graces and acting like an asshole – I’m finding that you can be polite and to the point without apologising for your existence, and the world won’t collapse in on itself. Swapping “excuse me” for “sorry” works. Eg. “Excuse me, how did you get these figures?” or “Excuse me, but I ordered a royal milk tea, not a pearl milk tea.”Save you sorry’s for when you’re sorry.

  2. Making my needs known. It’s a knee jerk reaction of mine to put my needs/wants second. I remember when I was about 19, and I thought to myself, “well, it’s easier for me to do this than it is for them to do that, so it’s ok.” and that thought basically became the foundation upon which I built my life. It was easier for me to put my needs second and go with the flow than it was to stand up and potentially rock the boat. Mostly because I was afraid of arguing.My parents didn’t argue (at least not in front of us), and there wasn’t a lot of arguing between my parents and my siblings – I think I can count on one hand how many times I remember it happening. But when it did happen, it was intense. I was a sensitive kid, which made me a nervous adult, and arguing, or the threat of arguing, is a trigger. I spent the majority of my life trying to avoid anything that could potentially result in arguments and/or me getting yelled at. And the best way I could avoid arguing was to just do whatever was asked of me, even if it inconvenienced me.

    An interesting consequence of this self-inflicted submissiveness is resentment. Because I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand up for myself in a real argument, I felt like I wasn’t able to stand up for myself, and therefore had no control over what happened to me. And so, I would start to feel resentful and angry toward people/situations where I felt compromised. (No, no, no – this is as deluded and irrational as it sounds). One of the ways I’d gain a sense of control was to spend money. But mostly I’d go shopping. bought things that wanted with my money. Clothes, movies, purses, shoes, THINGS. Things didn’t demand anything of me, and didn’t make me upset. They made me feel better. And the gratification was INSTANT. It was all “well and good” until I landed myself in $10k of credit card debt at age 22. And in $7k at 28.

    So yeah. Holding it all in isn’t good. If only I’d met my current therapist when I was in my early 20’s.

  3. Engaging in less self-deprecating behaviour. Ok, so this is a big one. I grew up in the 90’s, in the prime of sarcastic, self-shaming humour. And I love it still, to this day. Making fun of myself was how I started to feel comfortable with my (perceived) inadequacies, and finally be able to talk about them. So I’m open with the whole “gangly amazon with bad skin and a shopping problem and a disturbing interest in Teen Mom who’s trying to be a better person and failing, who is always 10 minutes late, sometimes sad, and often making bad decisions” situation that is my life. It’s me, I get it.But a few months ago, memes made me think differently. I saw some meme of the “I suck at basic life skills” variety. I was going to share it with my mom, because my mom is becoming a meme connoisseur and that’s what we do. Right as I was about to hit send, it hit me: this is shitty. I had recently been talking with my mom about self-worth is important, and here I was sending a meme that reminded me of how bad I am at life and how sending it to her meant she could relate because she may also be bad at life. So I didn’t send it. I realised there’s a fine line between playfully acknowledging your flaws and self-fulfilling prophecy. If you surround yourself with media that encourages how shitty you feel about yourself, then it should come as no surprise that you will feel shitty about yourself. You can’t hate yourself into good place. The same way you can’t eat cookies and mac n cheese to lose weight. (Are you hearing this, Audrey?)

    Also in the “be nice to yourself” category is being nice to your former self. Present Audrey talking to Past Audrey is brutal. But I’m working on being less judgemental with myself. Every decision I made in the past was made in an attempt to fulfil a void or a need. And yeah, some of those decisions could definitely have been better *ahem CREDIT CARDS ahem*, but beating myself up about them only makes me feel worse. And that’s the entry gate to the Shame Spiral, which is one of the least fun rides in the Six Flags over Depressed 30-Something

Alright, alright, so step one is more like three steps. Three steps that make me feel like I’m practicing mantras from a self-help book. This entire post has felt embarrassing. It’s hard to be open and vulnerable with yourself, especially when you’re me and you’re severely judgemental and think that your problems are minuscule compared to others. But, I’m not here to compare myself to others. I’m just putting myself out there, because maybe someone else feels this way, too.

Thinking kindly about myself, being honest about my needs and feelings, and not instantly jumping to judgement feels strange. But my therapist assures me that it’s like trying a new sport. And when I couldn’t relate to that analogy because I don’t play sports, she said it’s like a new pair of shoes. At first they’re snug and maybe feel too small, but after a while they break in and feel comfortable.

So here’s to new emotional shoes, and flipping rail road switches. If you need me, I’ll be over here waiting for the blisters to heel and coming up with new analogies.

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