Readying ourselves for emotional learning: blog, part 1

How do we ensure we are primed to learn new skills and knowledge? And how can we particularly ready ourselves for emotional learning? What is our responsibility as attendees?

I ponder these questions regularly but especially in the run up to host our workshop, 18 months in the planning, on CIMBS – Complex Integration of Multiple Brain Systems. Terry and Beatriz Sheldon, two inspiring pioneers creating this new psychotherapeutic paradigm, are generously coming to Birmingham, UK from Seattle, USA, to facilitate what promises to be an awe inspiring workshop. Just two weeks to go and our participants are readying themselves for two potentially life changing days… hopefully actively so!

We can attend workshops in a ready but relatively passive state.. ready to receive wisdom and knowledge, open to emotional learning, though potentially not very actively so. I am here encouraging that as participants, we will benefit most if we can do our own work to prepare ourselves for the journey ahead. Just as the presenters ready themselves to deliver their material, as a co-creator of the learning, change and development, surely the preparation I do internally, as a participant, is equally, if not more important to ensure I leave an intentionally changed person.

Of course, most psychotherapeutic practitioners are well practiced in attending and making use of workshops and training days. But how often do we arrive, after a busy week (so often workshops are at weekends or at the end of the week – this one is), exhausted and relieved to be able to relax whilst someone else is in charge! There is evidence that on the whole, people make little use of training courses we attend, even when we find them inspiring! So I am encouraging readying ourselves with emotional preparation, deliberate practice and actively positioning ourselves to receive, be moved by and tinker about with the learning that is coming our way. There is no set routine that will work for everyone though – we have to find our own route to this readiness, to know our own blocks! I’ll share a little about my journey and some ideas that should be useful generally.

In the best circumstances, change during a two day workshop is possible both internally and interpersonally, from a cellular / synaptic level to a macro / community level. Personally, my preparation needs to start by facing two important aspects of reality which I can get busy denying! These are familiar to me, and I know they will be triggered on multiple occasions during the two days ahead. Firstly, I need to bear what I don’t know and secondly, I need to face that I can’t control whether others will be inspired by the workshop – I need to let go of the journey that others are on. (Clearly, me writing this blog is a blatant indication that I have not yet mastered the latter, as I’m still working hard to help people get the best from it – so I’ll actually let go just a bit later!). Part one of this piece is about the not knowing, next week I’ll work towards letting go in part two.

Bearing not knowing.  

My first dynamic supervisor, 20 years ago, helped me to see that I struggled with feeling shame when I realised I needed to learn something. It was as if I should already have learnt this new thing I was seeing, even when wholly unreasonable. My second dynamic supervisor a year later, showed me even more clearly the pain and discomfort I experience generally with just not knowing. If you struggle with not knowing, your experience might be different, you might face grief or regret, you might go blank or become rigid. My encouraging Yorkshire supervisors, Nigel Beail & Sharon Warden, inspired me to be open to the path of what is not said, less known, what is unconscious, and to be curious about my emotional response to it. I still struggle but now I also recognising that I experience delight in not knowing and learning when I feel safe and connected. And thankfully, feeling safe, is exactly what I feel in the environment of the Sheldons’ workshops!

I have written before (see emotihealth.com/blogs) about our need to prepare for new learning by facing the limits of our current knowledge. I know x, I do not know y. Breathe! BUT, our ability to do this is significantly influenced by our environment. If we feel unsafe, we are much less likely to be able to bear our not knowing, much more likely to become rigid, defensive, rely on old knowledge or skills. And our experience of ‘unsafe’ – we must remember that this is co-created. If we are in a relationship which embodies safeness, the unknown can be delightful – potentially, a place to play and learn, a place to be curious about and to become known. And within a co-created safe relationship, we can create a safe relationship within ourselves. This, of course, starts before we are born, our body and mind are wired for safety or danger in the womb – grow in dangerous conditions and we are born prepared.

Beyond this, we can respond differently with different connections. To relate it within my clinical work, many years ago I was puzzling over the completely different ‘diagnoses’ a client of mine had received during a two week period with different mental health professionals. Curious about this, it became clear that they were terrified in the relationship with their psychiatrist, and unable to feel safe, they coped with the unknown in this setting in a very different way.  They could be curious and playful in their psychotherapy sessions, but rarely so, instead being rigid and paranoid in their psychiatric outpatient appointments.

Unsafe can also be created internally. I personally have found that shaming myself for what I don’t know feels unsafe, is really unpleasant and not conducive to effective learning… so in the context of safeness in my external relationships, I have learnt to create safeness within myself and bear what I don’t know. Our past experiences can mean some of us have a bigger mountain to climb to learn this and embed it as a more permanent fixture in our lives and I’m certainly still on the journey in certain contexts!

Here is an opportunity for deliberate practice to prepare us for emotional development, for being right on our learning edge, tinkering about with what is possible given the limitations of our reality. Creating room for not knowing will certainly take:

  1. deliberately practicing noticing and prioritising the environments in which I feel appropriately safe and connected.
  2. creating an internally safe space – one inside me where I am safe to learn, explore and not know stuff! And not shamed for not knowing!

As we purposefully, practice these – attending to when we feel safe inside and outside, we notice what blocks us, and what is activated as we practice, and we know ourselves in a multi-dimensional way.

I have been deliberately practicing these for many years, with a significant breakthrough coming when I left a course which I experienced as unsafe, shaming and cold. It sounds so obvious now that the right thing was to leave, however, it was subtle and I was less sure of myself. It took careful attention within my own therapy as well as support from my partner and friends for me to face my emotional truth – that I didn’t feel safe, and it wasn’t ok to force myself to learn in this context. The realisation and then acting on this was an important turning point in my life – and certainly I learnt more from doing this than the rest of the course. And what was activated as I purposefully noticed and prioritised environments where I feel safe, and moved away from those where I did not? I felt intensely alive, connected with myself and powerful beyond measure!

The more we are in a co-created safe environment, the easier it will be to not know, to play and therefore, to learn.

Unfortunately, we can be surrounded by welcoming others, who are co-creating safety and safeness, space for curiosity and playfulness, we can still automatically fill the moments of ‘I do not know’ with our answers – answers within the realm of known – which don’t take us anywhere interesting. The bias we have to see what we expect to see and to fill in the gaps of our experience with ‘pseudo-knowledge’ is very strong but is especially so when we are taking short cuts in our thinking processes and when we are unsafe. Clearly, this will impact on our ability to experience newness and the deeper learning opportunity that will be available to us. To learn and to gain more from new experiences, I must prepare by creating a safe relationship within myself and take an active role in building safeness within the group of participants. But importantly, I also need to practice opening myself up to and readying myself for newness, from within – to take an active position of being a mindful beginner rather than on automatic pilot. Safety may be present around us, but we may need to really attend to it, to be aware of it, to ensure the presence of beginners mind.

If we have been in a state of chronic anxiety (or guilt, depression, not allowed, or shame) for whatever reason, this is particularly important, and particularly difficult. When this is part of the picture in the clinic room, I encourage my clients to look around, take it in that they are safe, to check for themselves purposely – asking ‘am I safe?’ And noticing the reality – yes, there is no danger, from the bodily experience – I feel in danger. Sometimes this is enough – attending to the present moment and seeing that it is so different from that expected and hence, their automatic bodily response, can be anxiety regulating bringing relief and an increased sense of calm. Sometimes it isn’t and we might use our connection to build a sense of safety or check that the relationship is really feeling safe, check their experience of me as they look at me. In addition, using their capability, their ability to breathe, ground themselves and to move to purposely build a sense of safety and presence in the moment, until they are feeling safer.  Only then, can we be curious and notice whatever is interesting to us about any new experience.

So deliberately practicing aligning reality with our bodily response can be hard, depending on our situation and past experiences. It is a brilliant ability to have up our sleeves and can be helpful in the most unexpected of situations. I have had just a couple of panic attacks in my life, thankfully just a couple. But on each occasion I practiced this skill. The first I was aged 20 and I smoked something much stronger than I’d expected! The trip that followed was also unexpected so my body and mind freaked out. I repeated over and over to myself something very similar to “I’m having an unnecessary catastrophic reaction to my bodily sensations” – having just learned about panic disorder in my psych disorders lectures! The next panic attack occurred when I was scuba diving. I loved it but I had a massive reaction to my body doing something (breathing) in a completely unexpected location (underwater). In both cases, focusing carefully on the reality we are in, rather than what was expected, was incredibly helpful and guided me back to feeling safe, as I was safe. And guided me back to newness, playing and learning, In part 2, the challenge of letting go.

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