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Thriving#1 Learning and Unlearning


The last three posts have been about dealing with our past

Letting go of what we can

Dealing with what we can’t get rid of because it is part of who we are

Getting rid of what we need to even though it feels like it is genuinely part of who we are.

Those three posts were prompted by a comment on a previous post by Mary. The next posts were also prompted by another comment in a post by Mary. (Once again I started out intending to write one post but found there was too much for just one.) Her comment:

What I want is the cleanse of the past. And what I need to figure out is the food sources to then nourish myself with.

So the next posts are about those food sources. What we need to thrive.


Background: what people are like

One of the things that sets people apart from other species is how much we learn. (Put negatively we have few instincts. The sucking and startle reflexes are about the only ‘instincts’ we are born with. Unless you count curiosity.)

Which means that human babies have an extended dependence (compared to other critters) on parents, caregivers, authority figures and teachers of all kinds. A major part of our childhood is learning how to adapt to and influence those giant people who are able to give us pleasure and pain.

Children need to be introduced to their environment gradually with loving and intelligent support and guidance. For most people in most things this goes OK. For most of us there are little things that we need to adjust as we become independent then interdependent. The best way to communicating this that I know of comes from Dov Baron. (This is from memory – so approximate.)

Imagine a child that grew up in a loving family with enough money for the necessities and maybe a few luxuries. The parents were caring and put in the effort to learn about their child and what it needed to thrive. Except that they thought green was red, and vice versa. This child will need to figure out that their parents are great people, who care about them very much; but in this one thing they were just weird, or crazy, or whatever – as far as giving reliable guidance to the world of colour they weren’t helpful at all (just the reverse). This child will have some learning and unlearning to do. To some extent we are all that child.

Sometimes this goes badly wrong, and sometimes children are treated horrifically. Parents can give children all sorts of weird and unhelpful messages – by word or deed, directly or indirectly.

Negotiating the world in a way that sustains and nourishes us means learning new things (we couldn’t learn everything in childhood) and probably unlearning old ways (no parents are perfect, and even if they were the world changes).


What to do?

It’s easy for me to say, “You need to revise unhelpful things you have learned in the past”; but where are you meant to start? How do you get to grips with something so big?

Here are some ideas about finding starting points. These are only ways to know the first step. (There are lots of posts on specific topics elsewhere on the blog – just put a term into the search box. There are also many blogs and books on just about any topic that you could want to pursue. If you want my perspective on a particular difficulty that you are having let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I have to say.)


1. Make a list of things that have always been a hassle for you. Those things that you think, “I’m just no good at [X]”, or “That’s just me”.


2. See how many times you can fill in the blanks in the following sentence:

All __________  are __________.”

  • Then see if you can find exceptions (it is very like that you will.)
    • Then see if you want to stick with the ‘all’ as a generalisation that offers you useful guidance, or if it needs more or less substantial revision.


3. Pick a good parent that you know. (You may have to make one up, but it will be easier if you can think of someone real.)

  • Imagine what it would be like to have been brought up by them.

The more time you can devote to this the better. The more details you can think of the better. What would they have done about:

  • feeding
  • toilet training
  • teaching you your first language
  • supporting you to pursue particular interests you had (would they have supported some and not others? Which ones?)
  • helping with schoolwork
  • helping you with relationship difficulties
  • learning in areas outside school
  • exercise
  • your physical pleasure
  • your sexual pleasure
  • relating to members of their own and the other sex
  • when you questioned what they said
  • when you didn’t do what you were told
  • What would have been their attitude to:
  • thinking clearly
  • emotional expression
  • taking initiative
  • safety

And so on. This is just to give you the idea.

Imagine as vividly as you can being brought up by a good parent. And then see what sort of person you would have become. Who would you be now if you had been brought this way? It may be that you are much the same, or that you would have been wildly different. You may be very different in one thing or a bit different in lots of ways.

This is a way of getting a sense from ‘outside’ what your upbringing was like.


4. Let’s go further outside to that famous Martian anthropologist.

Imagine you are visited by a Martian anthropologist. This Martian wants to study an earthling and you are it. They want to know what it is to be like you. They want to be able to live as you do. And you get to instruct them.  [This Martians speaks and reads your language. Just like in all those old sci-fi movies.]

Construct:  The Martian Instruction Manual On Being [Your Name].

(You can organise it however you like, and make it as detailed as you like in the time you have. If you can’t think of a basic framework then three sections devoted to thoughts, feelings and actions is a pretty simple one.)

In this manual you can cover things like:

  • the feeling that is in the background of your life most of the time
  • how you deal with problems. You can go into different ways of dealing with different problems:
    • problems in relationships
    • mechanical problems
    • intellectual puzzles
  • what events and topics to be indifferent to
  • what can be ignored
  • what you are fascinated by
  • your daily (weekly, monthly, yearly) routines
  • who you initiate contact with
  • who you avoid as much as you can
  • what you like to eat
  • the activities that you enjoy and feel better for having done
  • what you would rather gnaw your arm off than have to do
  • what you do that drains you


5. Imagining your perfect holiday.

  • Imagine that you can go on your perfect holiday.
  • See yourself packing what you will need
  • Imagine travelling and arriving.
  • When you arrive explore this wonderful place.
    • What do you see?
    • What can you smell?
    • What do you hear?
    • How does it feel against your skin?
    • What is the temperature like?
    • What do you get to do here?
    • Are there others around?
      • Near or far?
      • Are they involved with what you do or do you do it alone?
  • You can spend as long here as you wish.
  • You can do as many (or as few) things as you wish.

The more vividly you can imagine this the better.

The purpose of this exercise is not to plan a real holiday (though if you find that you can go on a good approximation then go for it!). The purpose is to find what your real needs (especially unmet needs) are.

What can you bring back from your holiday that would improve your life? It could be:

  • a different attitude to something
  • a new activity
  • initiating a change in how you relate
  • beginning or ending a relationship

What one easy thing can you do (ideally before going to sleep) to move your experience closer to being on your perfect holiday?

If this is too unrealistic you can try imagining your perfect day or week.


These ideas are just ways to help you get started and will take a little time. Fifteen minutes should be enough to get a useful result. More than this, you can probably spend as long as you wish and learn lots. You can go back and do them in small bites too. Choose the one that appeals the most. It is fine to stop when you have your first idea, there is no need to be thorough and ‘do it all’ to benefit.


All comments, questions, feedback and other contributions are very welcome in the comments.

I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don't hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Mary 2013/02/25, 1:48 pm

    Hi Evan!
    Welp, thank you for the plethora (isn’t that fun to say) of ideas, concrete activities, and creative imaginings to spur me into more creative ideas which are sort of mapping out this journey for me.
    I cannot tell you the fresh air I’ve received from the array of words and sentences. All along thus far, I’ve been enriching myself with them, so that my mind has gotten well-versed in these new activities/perspectives that you’ve shared which are meant to hit on areas, bullseyes, and (gulp) issues.

    I’ve read your manifesto, followed the blogs closely since finding you, and picked through many of your previous blog posts. To drive home how much I’ve absorbed thus far, I woke in the middle of the night with tears that exploded with such molten heat, that I thought I had never felt tears spring from such depth before. It felt really good, Evan, to be introduced to the deep me in such a way.
    It’s because your words, suggestions, clarity and my process of them have loosened some shingles, and dislodged others.
    So, this is the week where I begin putting it all together. I have made specific activities– some follow your outline, some mine, some formed by a combination. It’s a step-by-step, done in an order that makes sense to me.

    It’s time!

    Thank you, Evan, for encouraging a mindset of collaboration and the exciting possibility of changing your stars.

    Here’s a song for when you feel blah…….because we can’t have you feeling blah……(smile)

  • Evan 2013/02/25, 2:35 pm

    You’re welcome Mary. It is delightful to hear that my stuff has helped you so deeply. Please get in touch if you need clarification or have any questions at all.

    I love the song, we all do have the music in us. Thanks

  • Harriet 2013/02/26, 8:38 am

    I could feel myself tense up just reading the good parent exercise. I’m not sure I could handle doing that one. But I love the holiday exercise and I am going to try it. Even if I don’t discover my true needs, it sounds like it could be a very relaxing pleasant way to spend 15 minutes, especially right before going to sleep. Maybe it would result in good dreams instead of bad ones.
    Harriet recently posted..Having A StoryMy Profile

  • Evan 2013/02/26, 8:39 am

    Hope it goes well for you Harriet.

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