The Discomfort of Unlearning

This is LaDonna, a student at MCC who kindly let me paint her as she did her homework.

Today, I worked with a student who needed assistance with an essay. Intelligent and conscientious, this woman — let’s call her Alecia — makes thoughtful comments regarding the assigned reading material; however, because she writes the way she speaks – in urban English — her writing hasn’t been earning top-notch grades from her professor.

“I be askin’ him what he wants me to do,” she said. “He told me come here.’”

Together, we’re working to get her to recognize some of her most common grammar errors.

“I be writing like this my whole life!” She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Gettin’ good grades, too. How come nobody teach me this?”

When she expressed frustration about not being able to consistently catch her grammar errors, I encouraged her to be gentle with herself. “You’re learning a second language.” I told her. “That doesn’t happen overnight,” I said. “It’s going to take practice.”


In our instant-gratification world, we want to be good at everything today.

Right now.

But it takes time to learn new skills.

And people are creatures of habit.

We learn something, do it for a while, and it becomes second nature.

We can unlearn a behavior or a habit, but it takes time. The longer we behave a certain way, the longer it takes to change that pattern or habit or behavior.

Unlearning is hard.

But it is possible.

Over the last few semesters, Alecia has been developing her book smarts.

Meanwhile, after living in an insulated bubble for my entire adult life, with only minimal exposure to people from outside my predominantly white, suburban community – I’ve been developing my life skills.

Over the last year, I’ve learned:

1) It’s possible to live alone. For the first time in decades, I’m making my own decisions about everything: how I want to live, where I want to live, what I want to do for fun, the type of people with whom I want to associate. A homebody by nature, it’s really lonely without having anyone to come home to. I need to get a cat.

2) It’s necessary to make new friends. When my marriage ended, nearly all of my friendships died.  One woman with whom I’d had a 45-year relationship actually shouted at me when I cried about being separated.

“You’re going to have to figure out a way to be happy and stop complaining about how hard it is to be alone,” she hollered. “No one wants to hear about this anymore.”

It was a clarifying moment. There was no “I love you” or “I’m here for you” or “This sucks” or “What do you need?” or “You’re not alone.” I was crushed, and had to realize that – despite out long history – that person was not a supportive friend. So I’m meeting new people by participating in activities that I enjoy. I joined a divorce support group, several art groups, and I’ve invited people over to my place to play old-fashioned board games, to paint, and to talk. It takes a long time to develop intimate friendships, but I’m doing it.

3) I’m not conventional. Conventional people have jobs they attend mostly Monday thru Friday from 9-5 or any other combination that equals a minimum of 40 hours per week. They have a certain number of weeks of vacation days each year. They marry and have 2-3 children. They look for happiness in things and enjoy shopping and accumulating stuff like computers, cars, homes, and cell phones. They are born in one country and remain in that country their entire lives. They own many televisions and use them regularly. They say things like “Be realistic” a lot. They don’t question authority and believe in doing things the way they’ve always been done. They criticize people who are different. What can I say? I have minimalist values. I don’t believe in big corporations or big government, and I can’t bear the idea of doing the same thing every day. Being unconventional means having the courage to stand up for myself. It means doing out of the ordinary things and, oftentimes, going against social norms.

4) It’s important to invest in myself. Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing things for myself. I became the person who did the shopping and the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning – and I stopped writing and reading and painting and riding horses and playing on swing-sets. I also stopped laughing. I’m trying to connect with the person that I was long ago. She’s in there. Somewhere.

5) Having feelings is normal. For over two decades, I lived with a person who was unable to express love, sorrow or pain. Unwilling to cry, he physically left the room whenever I tried to discuss an emotional issue. He often called me “crazy” when I showed even the slightest bit of anger or sadness. With the help of a great therapist, I’ve learned that I’m not crazy. I’m a whole person who feels things deeply.

As far as I’m concerned, Alecia and I are both warriors: learning how to take what has happened to us, good or bad, think about it, and learn to improve from it.

What unlearning have you done lately? What new idea/practice are you incorporating into your daily life?

*STBX = soon to be ex

tweet me @rasjacobson




16 thoughts on “The Discomfort of Unlearning

    1. Oh Jim! I wish I would just get there already. But then my therapist reminds me that life is not a destination; rather, it’s a journey. I’ve heard this my entire life, but I had no idea how difficult the journey could be on the day to day. I’m learning how to trust myself and my decision-making abilities. I am learning to be less hard on myself, to push myself less. I am doing just fine, working 4 hours each day. Why do I feel I have to work endlessly to “earn” my life. I know I’m making a difference in the lives of the students’ whose lives I touch on a daily basis. I don’t have to change the world today.

  1. Beautiful post, Renee. What important learning you’ve cultivated.

    I’ve been learning to invest in myself, too, in a fairly literal sense — realizing that in order to have the impact I desire, financial growth is vital. It’s one thing to know that rationally, and another to process it fully and live by it. A mindset of abundance, physical and emotional, makes a tremendous difference.

    1. I’m having a hard time cultivating that abundance mindset, August. To be honest, I can feel how I live a life of deprivation, which is problematic for a zillion reasons. Even though I am working and making a difference in my students’ lives, I somehow feel that what I’m doing isn’t enough. It’s such a weird thing, to feel that no matter how hard I work – no matter how much money I make – I can never fix the world enough. I’m working on my perfectionism. Learning to do what I can do, that I’m enough. It’s actually exhausting, and I’m not sure I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing or how my writing and art fits into all of this.

  2. I’m so glad you’re helping this lady learn grammar. So few people speak or write with correct grammar these days. If I mention a split infinitive or a dangling participle or making pronouns agree with their antecedents, most people either laugh or just shake their heads as if I’m speaking in tongues or something.

    You and I have done a great job of learning to love and appreciate each other despite the Jewish-Christianity divide. Now I see that we must overlook political differences, too. I have no problem doing that, but I do wonder how you can enjoy leftist politics but dislike big government. Sounds like a major oxymoron to me.

    Anyhow, a very important thing you have done for me is allow me to realize that I can have a close (although cyber) friendship with someone who’s views are pretty much opposite to my Christianity and bedrock conservatism. We need to show the world how to bridge great divides with love.

    1. Good morning, David. I’m grateful for your response. Yes, we’ve done a pretty good job at bridging what – for some people – could feel like irreconcilable differences.

      For me, having friends with diverse viewpoints isn’t that hard, as long as they don’t try to pressure me to adopt theirs. I think we meet each other in the place where we both believe in a spirit power (which we agree to call G-d) that unites us all. I believe that everyone must be treated with dignity and respect – until someone does something to earn a different view. I’m fiscally conservative, but socially, I’m pretty liberal and I don’t believe ever losing our rights to privacy. Trusting the government is one of the worst things an individual can do, and I’d like for people to empower themselves…however, I also understand that some people need help at certain times in their lives and, through no fault of their own, find themselves alone and without any safety net. We cannot forget to help these people. We need to provide them with counseling and support and skills do that, ultimately, they regain the confidence to provide for themselves.

      Our society has such messed up views about which work is valuable: sports icons are paid millions of dollars for their entertainment value and teachers are paid paltry salaries, if salaried at all. I’m trying to support myself on $20/hour these days. It’s frustrating and scary.

      I think we Americans have gotten locked into these systems which we feel powerless to change. Our educational system need to be reimagined. We need to feed people differently. We need to stop encouraging people to medicate their emotions, and – to do so – we need to overhaul our medical system. We’ve been TOLD to believe that this country is the best country in the world. Why do we believe this lie? We have work to do to improve our country. And when we heal our country, we’ll heal ourselves.

      In the meantime, I just keep plugging along, doing the best I can do: teaching, painting, writing, organizing. Trying to create a life as a woman, alone in this world. It’s hard.

  3. I think you can have all different levels of friends and do things accordingly. While I know everyone’s journey is different, I feel like a varied collection of friends is always a good thing!

    1. One of the dangers of living a suburban SAHM lifestyle is that it is very insulated. Having varied friends is truly a gift and I’m meeting new people all the time. I was so isolated, not getting out to meet new people. It wasn’t healthy at all. Now I’m growing again, and it feels good to connect with new people all the time. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Cindy.

  4. So unlearning things is very hard. It also all to frequently really really hurts. Then you soar!

    The wind lifts you up, your wings spread and you soar.

    I think you are figuring it out. You are starting to find the wind and starting to feel good about it. You have had so many things you have had to overcome, it will all be good. Really, I promise. It truly will all be good. The wind will pick you up and there will be many of us up here ready to soar with you.

    <3 <3 <3

    1. Oh Val. Some days, I’m just so exhausted from all the unlearning I’m having to do.

      Something I’m working on now? The idea that it’s okay for me to build vacation time into my life. Living with my STBX, I learned that I had to spend every waking moment making money. I didn’t come into the relationship that way, but I was conditioned to over-value money. But I value relationships over money. So I’m working to meet people who share my same values: people who love art and music and dance and nature. I’m told that if I continue to do the things that I love to do, the right people will come into my life. As for traveling alone, I’m positively terrified, and I wish I had s friend to go with me. But I don’t. I have to go alone.

      I feel so alone all the stinking time as I walk around this planet. And I keep bumping into other lonely people, so I know I’m not really alone, but oh Val, my heart aches to love again, to feel cherished sand desired again. I cry every day just thinking of this empty place in my heart. I have so much I want to give and I can’t find the right person to give it to. (weep)

      1. Renee, it will come. Truly, it will come. Don’t rush. Don’t hurry. Even though you might feel ready, I suspect you aren’t and something inside of you knows it. But believe me, it will come you are far from done.


  5. How do we unlearn something that is so ingrained in who we are that we are terrified to even try? You are amazing, I know I have said that but this connection after all these years has given me something that no one has ever given me before, hope. I am trying so hard to unlearn and start putting me first. I look forward to reading your struggles, your accomplishments and your successes, it truly gives me hope which is something I have not had since March 14, 1979. Odd that I know the exact day, but that is the day that I lost my hope, my innocence and my life, but I do. Thank you for being you and sharing so much. <3

  6. Renee, I’ve watched you (from afar) and read every single word you have written here on your blog since January 2013 and then on FB about a year or more… and I have to remind you how incredibly FAR I’ve seen you come! If I wrote it all down here for you, this comment would be 3,000 to 5,000 words long easily — and you KNOW how long-winded (long-fingered? – haha!) I can be! Now please excuse me, I’m about to get stoically philosophical with you. Rolling your eyes at me and letting go a long deep sigh is perfectly fine & accepted… 😉

    We cannot become more wholly human, reaching our fullest potentials, if we don’t continually push out beyond our comfort zones, or as you put it… uncomfortably “unlearning” our aging/overly aged habits and paradigms. Stagnation goes against all laws of Nature and life — everything is constantly changing, moving, growing, dying, and slowly evolving into something else, something a little newer. We must do the same every week, every year. Part of that process, as Socrates so wisely put it, is a M.O. that “the unexamined life is a life not worth living.” In other words, perfections and imperfections always go hand-in-hand like bed-partners! While seeking perfection we discover more imperfections. HAH! So the trick is learning to fail better! 😉

    And now this quacky Professor will shut-up, but always applaud your beautiful, blossoming, morphing new Self… because you are learning to UNlearn… and it is so good to watch. <3

  7. Dear Renée ~ The raw honesty of your posts and, in particular, your comments, will one day be the material for a book that will help many others. Keep going, keep pushing, keep helping others as you help yourself. You are amazing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop