This caught my attention. I often emphasised the aspect of learning new things in order to grow and open a new chapter in my life. The idea that unlearning might be a more important part, or if not more important at least a preceding step to achieve transformation made me curious.
Transformation can take many shapes and is always very personal. It might include becoming a spouse or a parent. Getting a divorce. Relocating. Changing careers. A mid-life unravelling. Retiring. And there are many more. Some are initiated by us. Others happen to us, unplanned, unexpected, sometimes uninvited. There are some common elements to all these experiences and the unlearning that needs to happen.
What is it we need to unlearn as part of a transformative journey?
It’s less about knowledge and skills. I am a big fan of transferable skills whatever your transformation. But we need to unlearn old beliefs. Established ways of being and navigating life. The ways of how we define e.g. success, a meaningful life, our purpose. We need to unlearn values that are not really our own, or values that no longer serve us. We need to unlearn our own narratives and the way we expected the story of our life to unfold.
This is deep and broad unlearning. We are not replacing old facts with new facts. It’s not an information refresh and upgrade of our operating system. We need to dig deep into the layers of who we are and assess what still serves us, what still fits and what has to make space for the new.
What happens when we unlearn these things?
As we dig deep, we enter a liminal space, the space where we no longer belong to the old identity and we haven’t yet shaped and moved into the new identity. In this space we have started to shed certain values that served us as a guiding light. We have stopped engaging in certain behaviours and rituals that came with belonging to a certain group. Liminal stems from the Latin word limen, threshold. Stepping over the threshold and entering this space can feel energising and exciting. And it can feel scary and full of sadness. Most of us will feel all the above when we are thrown into this space of being in-between. It’s a waiting area. When I’m in the departure lounge waiting to board a long flight, I feel the excitement of travel, seeing places and connecting with people, discovering new food, experiencing a different way of life. And I feel the dread of the journey of getting there, the stress of possibly losing my luggage, missing the connection, the discomfort of being in unfamiliar surroundings, navigating without speaking the language, feeling exposed and like the odd one out, having to adjust my normal rhythm of life. The liminal space is just like this waiting area, or the holding pattern we are in. And often we don’t even know for how much longer we will be circling around…
Inhabiting this space is vulnerable, often lonely and we might feel alienated and that we don’t belong anywhere. It’s an uncomfortable space, where we need to embrace not knowing as a state of figuring things out rather than as a state of deficiency or ‘having no plan’.
After all, we live in a society where being driven and progressing in a fairly linear fashion through life is being valued and encouraged. Detours, not knowing and a pattern of stop-start are being looked upon with suspicion. The polarising nature of our emotional experiences during transformation are hard to grasp. We usually enjoy the sense of excitement, but feelings of grief and sadness are hard to accept, especially when the transformation was desired or self-initiated. We expect to be excited for the long-awaited change and might feel an external pressure to rave about all the positive things this brings about. Admitting the scariness and discomfort needs a good portion of self-compassion.
Transformation is full of possibilities. Transformation is hard. It is at times ugly. It’s rarely about a straightforward move from bad to good. We leave behind positive things, things we loved, enjoyed, were good at. We enter into a new identity that is also a mixed bag. Some things will suit us better, other things will be missed. As with every journey, acknowledging the upheaval with a good and deliberate farewell, even one that involves tears, rather than minimising the disruption can help.
I want to leave you with a powerful writing/art invitation that the art therapist Lisa Mitchell has shared. This exercise celebrates the farewell rather than minimising it. It also celebrates the new beginnings. Take a blank sheet of paper or a page in your journal…
- Start every sentence, bullet point or short paragraph with ‘Today marks the end of…’ – write until you feel finished. Write lots. Pay attention to the details! So rather than writing, ‘Today marks the end of my job at XYZ company’, write: Today marks the end of getting on the 7am train into the city. Today marks the end of picking up coffee at … where they know me by name. Today marks the end of getting annoyed at the fact that the train is delayed at least two out of five days a week. Today marks the end of starting the week with a Monday Morning meeting which is to equal parts irritating and energising – the same people drone on about their workload, but we also feel a sense of being in this together. Etc.
- Same as step 1 with the prompt ‘Today marks the beginning of…’
- Optional : Writing might provide you with some clarity and reassurance. If you want to add a third step, consider giving something away and/ or receiving something. You might give away clothes, books, tools, anything that feels strongly linked to who you were pre transformation. And be ready to receive something to welcome you into the future state of yourself.
This exercise works because it allows for both nostalgia and anticipation.
It visualises that each stage has good and enjoyable parts. It also helps us to make visible how the two stages of being pre and post-transformation are connected. How decisions made and steps taken in one led to the other. How the same strengths or fears show up in both stages. Acknowledging these connections can help to integrate and illustrate that it is a shift rather than a fracture. Even though the shift can feel as brutal and painful as a fracture. Change and transformation are part of life. We better get more comfortable with it.
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