“Unlearning is the process through which we break down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and biases” Mariana Plata “The Power of Unlearning” Psychology Today April 235, 2020
I have spent a good part of the last 18 months trying to unlearn how I approach work. I have to say, this is the hardest part of my cardiac rehabilitation.
I have always been a Type A personality, likely because it brought so much good acknowledgement, love, and what I thought of as success. In adulthood, my drive, competitive nature, organizational skills and ability to network, all traits of the typical Type A personality, served me very well in my career. I aimed to be that highly driven, achievement-focused model so admired in a corporatized and capitalist culture that values hard work, income earning potential and time sacrifice.
I took seemingly unrelated university degrees and formed them into a very happy life in healthcare leadership. On the surface it was all wonderful. But because I had always been able to manage increasing workload levels, increasingly stressful situations, by doing more of the same I didn't really develop any coping skills other than working harder to address changing times and evolving expectations.
While I had knew of Type-A personalities and wore the designation as a badge of honour, I was never aware of long standing research that Type A personality-traits are a potential risk factor for heart disease. I doubt that it would have made a difference anyway. And, while this way of being might work in our 20s and 30s, by the time I was in my late 40s cracks were beginning to show.
I was ignoring a lot of what my body was asking for – rest, creative time, quiet, -- because on my days off I had to scramble to get “all the things done” to live the successful life I wanted to live. I would actually get back to work Monday more exhausted than when I left on Friday – but convinced that because it was a physical exhaustion and not a mental one, that it was different and actually good for me.
Truth is what my body craved, what my mind craved, was disconnection. Disconnection from the pace, the frenetic energy that is our modern culture. And not just for a weekend or a vacation. I craved a type of doing nothing that came without a schedule, without expectations, without outcomes. I needed a lifestyle of less energy and less stress but had no idea how to achieve it. I couldn't acknowledge that I created a lot of that stress myself and that my belief system was what needed the biggest overhaul.
In fact, as Elizabeth Scott, PhD so clearly identifies, Type A people actually create obstacles to stress reduction BECAUSE of their beliefs and it makes perfect sense to me looking back now. I believed that busy people were successful people – so the more busy, the more successful. Trying to get rid of stress in your life seemed like laziness, like you weren't trying very hard and you couldn't possibly be successful doing that.
The irony is, that while my efforts at stress reduction are now more in my face, the nagging sensation of not getting things done, of not being successful because I am not busy enough, of feeling like I have to succeed in this new phase of life constantly remind me that I have a lot of unlearning to do.
Unlearning requires deep excavation of the beliefs that have gotten you to where you are today. It insists on investigating all the ways we behave that have been uploaded in our beliefs by culture, parenting, experiences, and reinforcing outcomes.
Unlearning is not easy, nor is it pain-free. The sense of general unease I still feel when I have spent a day “not doing much” is palpable. I still crave success.
What has changed in the past 18 months is what I am willing to sacrifice for the kind of success- mainly financial - that makes life in our world easier. I am no longer willing to sacrifice my health for that success.
When I forcibly push myself away from my desk for a walk with the dog or an hour or two in the garden, I remind the little voice complaining about things left undone, that there is always time to do those tasks if I am still alive. Of course, if I am dead they no longer matter, so it is win/win.
I am still an unlearning work in progress and I imagine I will be forever now. The training runs so deep it is embedded in my DNA. It is not lost on me that my excellent physical recovery from two heart attacks means there is little evidence in my daily life that I need to do this unlearning. The only reminders I have are ones I create. I have to be my own best friend and call myself out when my pace, my frenetic energy are working against my body's systems. My body deserves to have an advocate and that, at least, I can succeed at.
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