Unlearning: The Basics

A big part of feminist work for me has been unlearning, and it is some of the most challenging work. When I talk about unlearning, I’m referring to the process of recognizing and then disengaging with the endless list of all the “shoulds” that society assigns to us because of various parts of our identity.

We have all received messages about what we should look like, how we should act, what our relationships and sex life should be like. We know there are shoulds for hair and heels and interests and jobs. We have no trouble reciting the shoulds for people from our country, of our race, of our religion. Choosing not to listen to those shoulds and to see them as invented standards that have changed radically over the course of history takes time, work, and mindful living, and it is difficult to do. These “shoulds” are omnipresent, but you don’t have to believe them.

This work is important because in freeing your mind from the noise of societal expectations (or at least turning down the volume), you can see the power structures and the big picture more clearly. You can engage with yourself on a new level. In some ways, this is hard to do because if you are a type-A like myself, doing things well and quickly is the only way to feel like something is getting done, which is, of course, not true. It is especially not true here. Unlearning requires us to be patient and forgiving with ourselves while simultaneously tackling painful and humbling truths about how we are a part of a system, the ways in which we perpetuate it, and what we have absorbed from it.

So when you find yourself getting caught up in a certain should category of thinking and you are ready to disengage from that particular value system, here are a few guidelines to get started.

1. Pick only a few things at a time. You can’t tackle everything.

2. Research! Whatever cause, should, or ““ism you are fighting against, there are people with you. Just reading a few different opinions on the topic is a good first step to understanding the scope of the topic, and more reading is always a good thing.

3. Consistently offer up alternative statements as suggestions to yourself when you catch yourself thinking should thoughts. For example, I have internalized a lot of messages about weight and one day a few months ago, I got sick of the never-ending comments about my weight in my own head, and decided it was time to unlearn that nonsense as much as I could. This means I had to notice my own thoughts about my weight, and then offer an alternative point of view with no pressure on myself (after all, this was an exercise to get away from stress, not to heap more on myself). So when I would catch myself noticing a few new pounds, I would think to myself, “This doesn’t have to mean anything for me,” and just leave it at that. And I would do this all the time. The goal is just to offer a different voice to what is already going on in your head. The purpose of this is to get you to remember that you have options on how to interpret your life.

You won’t believe any suggestion the first time. It just won’t work. The 100th time, it will for a brief moment just because it is easier than the barrage of self-doubt. And you know what? The 200th time you will believe it, because it’s true. Stick with it.

4. Some days will be harder than others, and this will not mean you are failing.

5. Figure out what you are comfortable doing about these shoulds beyond changing your own awareness and thinking pattern. It might mean asking a loved one to stop making certain comments and sharing with friends that you are uncomfortable with certain conversations. It might mean choosing not to consume certain media. You are not immune to the things you hear and see all the time, and it’s ok to try to minimize your exposure to harmful messages.

Unlearning is about letting yourself off the hook for ideas, thoughts and standards that you certainly did not put into your own head, but have heard them so many times, you take them as truth. It’s about being mindful about where your emotional energy is going and giving yourself options about how to think about your life.

Please share the ways you have gone about unlearning, tips and tricks, and big moments in your journey. Or, consider emailing me your story. Unlearning is a passion of mine, and I would love to get a storytelling project together around it. I can be reached at: myladythoughts at gmail dot com.

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