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U is for Unlearning

Unlearning has been the most challenging part of this journey. We always talk about the value of growth-mindset and how we should be open to learning new things. Some people even call themselves “life-long learners” (myself included) and hold that title like a badge. But when do we talk about unlearning? What does unlearning even look like and how do we identify when something needs to be unlearned?

For me, unlearning has been unwiring myself from toxic ways of thinking, speaking, and living that were imposed on me. Here are some practices that have helped us unlearn:

  1. Identify negative self-talk: I would get so caught up in my head that sometimes I would not recognize which messages/thoughts were genuinely mine versus messages and expectations of others. One technique I used is something that I learned from the podcast Fierceless Mujer. When I get ready in the morning, I look in the mirror for 5 minutes and listen to what I say about myself. In the podcast, they recommend you do it naked in front of a life-size mirror for at least 7 consecutive days; however, I decided to do it in a way that worked for me which was before putting my make-up on for work. After the third day, I started noticing how I would criticize my wrinkles or how my teeth needed to be straight, etc. I would end up with a list of things I wanted to fix. As those messages began becoming clearer, I replaced them with positive messages. It has now become easier to identify the negative self-talk because I am unlearning those messages and replacing them with positive ones.

  2. Recognize you do not need to be in survival mode 24/7: Growing up in an unstable home trained my mind to live in survival mode. That is because we were literally just trying to survive; we were homeless multiple times or sometimes we didn’t know where our food would come from. However, as I get older and become more financially and emotionally stable, the survival tools I used growing up no longer serve me. This is extremely challenging when I am triggered and my mind and body want to do what feels safe and comfortable without me realizing it (yes, your body does keep the score and we will expand on #3). It takes me a while and I might not be able to recognize it on the spot, but I try to remind myself daily that I am no longer in a period in my life where I had to survive. I remind myself that I deserve to live my life safely in the present and that I have the power to change what feels unsafe.

  3. Know your triggers: For the longest time, I wanted to completely heal myself and get rid of all the negative feelings I had. However, I have learned to accept them as a part of who I am and instead of invalidating them or trying to suppress them, I bring them to the forefront. This might not work for triggers that come from extreme trauma, and those who are experiencing extreme triggers, should contact a professional. For me, it works with experiences that are somewhat manageable. For example, everytime I would clean, I would end up angry and irritable, especially after sweeping. After many therapy sessions, I began to remember how cleaning was always a dreadful experience where my stepdad would make me redo tasks multiple times until they were done “perfectly.” He would stand next to me and stare down at me; I would always feel powerless, humiliated, and angry. As an adult, every time I pick up a broom, my body tenses up and I replay those experiences over and over again. Today, I try to clean while playing music that I like and I treat myself to something small but special at the end. If I know these strategies will not work, I try to clean when I’m home alone or I ask my partner to take my daughter to the park while I clean and have some time to process.

  4. Give yourself grace and gentleness: I mess up a lot. Even when I think I have mastered something and I am ready to move on, a trigger, a thought, or an old habit reappears. I try to remind myself that I am only human and that I WILL mess up along the way; unlearning is not a linear journey but rather a bumpy road with detours and sometimes dead ends (letting go of those toxic friendships/family members/loved ones? As much as you might try to work it out, it could just be a dead end.). I also remind myself that even messing up is a learning experience on how I can identify old toxic ways in a healthier manner.

It would be unfair to say that I have been able to unlearn on my own, when in reality, it has been a lot of therapy, time, education, and accountability. Most of these things are a privilege that not many people have and I have been blessed in many ways to have access to these.

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