In Order to Learn, We Need to Unlearn

“What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” -Epictetus, Discourses, Book II, ch. 17

A couple of years back, I shared an article about learning based on this quote. I shared it then in the context of professional training, and I still strongly believe that it is true.

As I stumbled across that old post recently, it occurred to me that it also applies to child abuse survivors. I have stated, on many occasions, as have others, that children living in abusive situations learn certain things about “the world” that aren’t actually true. Things like:

1. Everyone is dangerous to me.

2. Trust no-one

3. No one will believe me

4. I deserve this

5. A deep sense of shame.

Now, we can sit here and talk all day about how it wasn’t the survivors fault, that there are some trustworthy people in the world, and that while not everyone they disclose to will believe them, other people will. Those are all true.

But, in order to recognize the truth of this, we need to not know the 5 things on that list, and that’s actually the hard part. As a child, all of those statements, and many more, were ingrained in our psyche. It makes no sense to tell someone who “knows” with utmost certainty that they are to blame that it wasn’t their fault. It’s like having a political argument on Twitter, we all “know” so much that we don’t even listen to opinions that counter that.

In order to truly learn about our abuse, ourselves, and the world, we have to be willing to admit that we don’t know everything already. We have to be open to hearing new information.

When so much of our lives have been spent protecting ourselves at all costs, how difficult can it be to decide to accept new information?

Yeah, not so much.

I suspect that is why we often hear stories of healing, or recovery, that involve some kind of “rock-bottom” moment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the worst event of your life, but it has to be that moment when you admit that you don’t “know” everything, and become open to learning something new. That is a humbling moment for all of us. It, unfortunately, is usually at a pretty painful time in our lives. That pain may be necessary to help us reach that humble state.

In short, it’s freaking hard. It goes against our nature to admit to not knowing something, and it goes against the very knowledge that we have used to keep ourselves safe, or at least what we think of as safe. Unlearning that will take time. It’s OK if that process is slow, but it needs to begin.

As Patrick says back in the 2017 article:

If you do not show humility and approach all things as an empty, willing vessel, you will not grow.

Healing is growth. Growth comes from taking in new things and knowledge. In order to do that, there needs to be some room for it to get in. We’re going to need to let go of some of the things we think we know.


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