Why we must push through painful memories

by Annelise Mitchell February 05, 2016

Why we must push through painful memories

Imagine you are a little boy or girl again.

You’re in your childhood classroom and you are being prepared by your teacher to complete an activity that is new to you.

You have been away from school due to illness, and as the teacher begins explaining what to do, you’re thinking, I’m confused, and… this looks hard.

When the teacher stops talking, with your eager little heart, you pick up your pencil and try to work out what you need to do. After a few moments of wrestling with the questions on the page, you put down your pencil and become distracted by the autumn leaves bouncing around outside.

The teacher, noticing you gazing out the window, heads towards your desk.

In an attempt to get you working on the activity, he briefly explains what to do. You being ever so polite, nod your head as though you understand what he is saying, and when he walks away, your eyes fall back to the page and you feel just as confused as before.

Eventually, the teacher arrives at your desk a second time. He picks up your sheet of paper, and says aloud, “You haven’t been paying attention, have you?”

You blush, as you hear snickers from some of your classmates, and the hushed sounds of whispering.

As this little person, what you are feeling right now?

For many young people, it is shame.

Even when they may feel other emotions, such as anger or apathy, shame is always there.

The problem with shame, is it makes us feel that we are bad, flawed and unworthy. The feeling is so destructive, that it causes us to want to withdraw, hide away and never again be put in the same situation.

Brené Brown, a shame researcher, describes these feelings as “intensely painful” – causing the learner to avoid engaging in a similar experience ever again. And, in many cases that I have witnessed in my own extended family, to avoid future learning experiences.

These family members remember schooling as so shaming that they still carry those feelings with them. When faced with a task that requires any reading or writing, or something that they believe they cannot do, they make excuses why they cannot do it or avoid it all together.

Underneath the layers of their adult exterior, remains a child who feels terribly unworthy.

Does schooling prevent us from wanting to learn?

No, but it can.

Although the teacher in the above scenario may have unintentionally made the remark, the environment of the classroom invites many other opportunities for children to feel inadequate and even begin to associate learning as something they should avoid in the future.

These include:

  • Judgemental, and sometimes cruel comments made by peers and teachers
  • Working on topics that is of no interest to the child, and doesn’t match their natural inclinations
  • Seeing reading and writing for only for academic purposes, not to grow their interests and abilities

For these reasons, the feelings that are associated with learning in our early childhood can affect our future desire to learn, both inside, but worst of all, outside of the traditional classroom.

Why do these feelings remain, even when we become adults?

These feelings do not go away due to what is called our cognitive bias – a way of looking and thinking about the world that is shaped by our earlier experiences.

When we have negative learning experiences, we transfer the feelings of the events to future learning opportunities. For example, if the child in the above scenario continued feeling frustrated, bored and stressed with what they are learning, they will naturally begin to associate those feelings with similar activities in the future.

In many cases we even engage in what is called self-fulfilling behaviour.

We begin with the belief that we can’t do an activity, or that we lack the ability. This belief causes us to expect failure, after all, we have convinced ourselves that we are not smart or good enough. Armed with these beliefs, we put little effort in, or do not try at all, resulting in either poor performance, or complete avoidance of the activity. This poor performance or avoidance serves to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. “See,” we tell ourselves, “I’m not good at it. Why bother even trying.” Or, we say that the activity is “beyond me, and I’m better off doing something that I know I can do.”

Self-fulfilling cycle

This cycle becomes self-perpetuating – it is reinforced time and time again, seeming natural and inevitable. We think that it is just the way things are and there is nothing we can do to change it.

However, we can.

How do we change these beliefs?

We change them when we realise that all of us, as beginners, will find learning challenging. This is part of the process for all learners, no matter who we are. Walt Disney, the creator of Disneyland, was once a beginner. Like everyone who has achieved something great, he needed to go through the initial difficulties of learning, including the mundane and repetitive tasks, and the stress of sometimes not knowing what to do.

But most of all, Disney needed to push through feelings of inadequacy. His father was particularly tough and critical, and he was fired from his first job because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

What Disney knew, as do others who strive towards and achieve their goals, is that over time he will get better and better. It is through trial and error, not getting things correct or perfect every time that helped him become a master of the imagination.

The key is transforming our early beliefs around learning, where we may have come to view any type of pursuit as too difficult, boring or stressful. Realising that these experiences are only temporary, and do not reflect the whole experience of learning is absolutely paramount.

What happens if we don’t change these beliefs?

It will be a human tragedy, for you, and those around you.

You won’t get to realise what you are capable of, and those around you won’t benefit from the magic that you can create.

Worst of all, although you may be keeping yourself safe from feelings of hurt and frustration, you won’t be safe from the feelings of regret, that will inevitably come when you realise that you did have the potential, but you let your childhood feelings prevent you from becoming who you are.

The most important thing that any of us can do is to push through painful memories, and keep trying anyway, regardless of the outcome. Yes, there will be difficult, boring and stressful parts, but each of those necessary parts will help us grow.

If you liked this post on the second barrier to learning – our negative learning experiences, see my other posts in a 6-part series on the Barriers to Learning.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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