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Why do we need Unlearning?

Cognitive distortion is a fancy term for all the ways we interpret and digest information from the world around us. Our organs and senses do their best to make sense of our environment but we are not perfectly representing this information to ourselves.


Appreciating how we distort information is the starting place to gain an understanding. Judgment is one example of a cognitive distortion. For example we could judge and interpret that hearing about cognitive distortions means that we are just flawed stupid beings. That would be a judgment and a negative one.


We might consider what we know about evolution and eyes or ears for example. We know that human eyes only see light within a spectrum of frequencies. Similarly we only hear certain frequencies. So it is also a given that we are not processing the whole picture, we are responding to a band of experience that our bodies can appreciate and work with.


Emotions are another way that we react to information and another aspect of how we distort or interpret collections of signals. Think about what conditions might make you sad. You can feel a signature set of sensations and when you feel that way you would tend to label that state as sadness.

To the extent that our judgments and interpretations and emotional responses help us navigate life we can do a pretty good job of living.


To the extent that modern life and the pace of changes exceeds our capacity to keep up impacts and overwhelms us we can be feeling lousy. When we feel horrible our ability to make our best decisions and reduce reactivity is diminished. This can set us up for self sabotage and the various expressions of self destruction and harm.



All of this is to say that when we appreciate cognitive distortions and look at them through a lens of unlearning we create an opportunity to get curious and offset those distortions with some very useful clarity. Let’s look at an example of unlearning automatic reactivity.


A phone call informs you that a pricing change in your medication is going into effect soon. You hadn’t planned on this and your thoughts may race ahead into worry or even panic. Before you know it you can experience emotional flare ups and even take some actions that are damaging.

With practice using mindfulness tools like meditation you can rehearse observing and witnessing your mind’s reactivity. It is possible to build a buffer zone where you can stop the automatic responses long enough to consider this is unexpected and unplanned new information. Because you are human you know you are going to interpret and judge this information. In other words you can always expect some degree of cognitive distortion.


You also get to choose how to respond. You can think of it as designing your best response. You can bring in at first enough curiosity to see one alternative to the automatic response that initially popped when you heard the news. You can form a question. What information would you need to get to your best response?


Almost any topic important to our lives can stand a bit of unlearning. Are you operating with the most current information? Are you considering current circumstances? Are you listening to your body and what it tells you about sensations and feelings? Is your automatic response your best or only option?This is another way of describing a growth mindset verses a more brittle fixed mindset. What is true for you at your current age may be different that when you were younger. You may need to unlearn those "younger you" lessons to thrive as your current self.


My intention over the next few entries is to lay out the case for unlearning by reviewing some of the top issues and concerns of modern life. You are welcome to unlearn right along with me!

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