Time To Unlearn

Personal Development And The Lie Of Self Improvement
by: Willie Horton

From the word go, we’re programmed to believe that we need to better ourselves. If we’ve grown up in the Christian tradition, we have learned that he are damaged goods in need of repentance – that’s not, in fact, at the core of the Christian message – in fact, we are actually told that we are the children of God. In addition, as a result of society’s need for us to conform, we are encouraged to better ourselves by getting a good education. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with suitably equipping ourselves for the roles we want, need or are forced to pursue in life (but to what extent does the normal educational curriculum equip us?) but, as a result, we are constantly being fed the subliminal message that we need to improve our imperfect selves.

Enter “self-improvement” – a whole industry devoted to enabling people be better – build self-esteem, improve their personality, build self-confidence, find their true selves. While this is all very laudable (I’ve been working with clients in this field for over fourteen years), the problem is the premise from which the whole process starts – that you are in need of self-improvement. You’re not! Instead, you need to unlearn the mountain of programming, or baggage, that was heaped upon you during your formative years. In those formative years, when you were young and impressionable, you formed an impression of yourself that is way wide of the mark. As an adult, you now believe wholeheartedly in your perceived faults, failings and inadequacies.

I use the word “perceived” because that’s all your beliefs are – perceptions. Psychology tells us that, during our formative years, when our young, open minds are sponge-like, we learn our beliefs by taking “snapshots” of events that make a big enough impression upon us. These formative events are big enough to our little minds to capture our attention and stick with us through into later life. The events that we tend to store as beliefs are those that made a big impression on how we felt about ourselves at the point in time when the original event or chain of events took place.

These “snapshots” are then stored subconsciously (we’re completely unaware that they are playing a role in our day to day adult lives) and called upon, when required, to dictate our behaviour or self-image as adults. And, unfortunately, research shows that we are far more likely to give credence to negative snapshots, rather than positive ones.

By way of example, I recently spent a couple of days with a client who told me that he had a mental blockage when it came to anything to do with numbers – and that it had been a major drawback in his business career. But after some in-depth discussion he recounted the following tale. He told me:

“I can see it now as if it were yesterday. Maybe I’m only five or six years old. It’s Christmas, late afternoon on Christmas Day, and me, my Dad, my sister and brother, are all sitting at the dining room table playing Ludo (the board game). I roll the dice, I get a five and I start counting out the squares to move my counter. My Dad clips me across the ear, asks me why I’m so slow at counting, do I not know that, if I get a five, I simply move to the next corner on the board! That was the end of the Ludo, I was sent to my room for crying, that was the end of that Christmas Day as far as I was concerned.”

He could still “see” it, because, his subconscious mind had it stored as a “snapshot” – and, being in his subconscious, it had incorrectly led him to the mistaken belief, as an adult, that he was slow with numbers. This is a classic example, but not only do we all have our own unique snapshots, we also share the societal snapshots that tell us that we’re imperfect in need of self-improvement.

As I said, we don’t need to improve ourselves, we need to, as many psychologists have pointed out, unlearn. In fact, we can’t really fully unlearn all the nonsense that is crowding our minds and disabling us from being our very best here, today, many years later. But what we can do is stop giving our mental energy to these useless and self-destructive programs. At the moment, as a normal adult, the vast majority of your mental energy is focused on your “family album of snapshots” and, in giving them your subconscious attention, those snapshots dictate your daily, automatic, reactive behaviour. In fact, research suggests that you’re probably only paying 1% or 2% attention to the reality of today.

To turn the tables, to start “unlearning”, you’ve got to relearn how to pay more and more attention to the here and now – in doing so, you’ll end up paying less and less attention to those old programs and you’ll be liberated – free to be the very best you can be here and now, today. You need to practice paying attention to what your five senses are actually telling you about now – if you’re warm or cold, if the sky is clear or cloudy (and all the different colours the clouds might be), if the birds are singing or the tumble-drier is tumbling, if there’s a smell of coffee or cooking in your nose, if there’s a taste of toothpaste or stale cigarettes in your mouth. This is the essence of one of the simplest means of tearing your attention away from the nonsense that’s ruining your life. Simple it may be, but it doesn’t come naturally to the normal adult – you’ll have to devote a few minutes each day to refocusing your attention in the only time and place that’s real – now.


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