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March 19th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to someone from Twitter with the handle @leptonscosmos who showed some curiosity about this topic. This episode is part of a casual on going series by Tinkered Thinking. For Parts I, II & III of Emotional Regulation check out Episodes 591, 597 & 641.
Everyone says they love to learn. But how much truth is there to this statement? Do we all spend every free moment learning? Absolutely not. We have Netflix and twitter, and ice cream to attend to.
We all say we love to learn because we’re universally confident that learning is generally good for you. Not only does it give you brain a jog, but learning a new skill gives you more agency in the world, agency which can potentially be leveraged further to generate more agency.
After all, a lack of agency is one of the strongest predictors of stress and decay of mental health.
In effect, we all love the idea of learning. But the experience is another story.
The default state of learning, when a person’s brain is struggling to acquire some skill or understand some concept is
Once you understand the concept, the learning is over. Unless, of course, you’ve learned it incorrectly and you have to wait for reality to slap you in the face when you try to put that concept into practice.
Then the process starts over again.
Wait, I thought that would work?
Confusion is a destabilizing experience. Like fear, it’s one of the ways that we touch the unknown and interact with the world in an uncertain way. And fear is also one of the ways we can react to confusion.
See confusion isn’t an emotion. It’s a state of circumstance. Etymology is helpful here. The word ‘confusion’ comes from Latin, meaning ‘mingle together’.
Two or more pieces of the puzzle are mingling together in our mind and we’ve yet to see how they fit or fuse together.
How they fit together doesn’t matter nearly as much as our emotional reaction to the state of being confused. If we become anxious and insecure, we grow fearful, and how much good are these emotions going to be for our chances of figuring something out? Chances are they aren’t going to help.
But this is how many people often feel when confronted with a new subject they are trying to learn. Confusion inspires thoughts like:
Maybe I’m not smart enough to understand this?
What if I never figure it out?
And from here, it’s a slippery slope to a slew of negative ways of categorizing yourself.
Compare that experience to another that most all of us have had: that instance when you are totally engrossed in a topic, and while confusion still weaves through the situation, our reaction to it is curiosity. The inability to see the connection between mingling parts feels more like a mystery or a fun riddle that we can tease apart, and we end up learning much faster as a result. It’s no wonder, considering our brain is functioning without the flood of glucocorticoids that often act like a poison to clear and curious thinking.
We’ve had both of these reactions to confusion, but clearly, we’re only interested in one, which brings up the question: can we choose how we react to confusion? And, if we find our anxiety spiking, our sense of insecurity rising, is there anyway to stop this trend and dive into that other, more fluid form of learning?
The answer is yes, and the explanation is simple.
There is one important distinction that separates these two reactions to confusion:
One is internal, the other is external.
Fear, anxiety, and insecurity – in this context – these are all derived from an internal focus. They are a result of thinking about one’s self. It’s the ‘I’ in Maybe I’m not so smart… what if I never figure it out.. These negative emotions are ultimately the result of focusing on the wrong thing.
Whereas with clear and fluid curiosity, where is one’s attention? It is external. Our attention is focused on all the little parts of the puzzle, rearranging them either actually or in imagination in order to try to solve the little riddles that bind them. Our attention is inverted in this case.
The distinction here leads to a simple rule of thumb for emotional regulation, particularly with learning.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, anxious and doubting yourself, then it’s a sign you’re not actually focusing on the things you are trying to learn. What you can do is just pick one small tiny aspect of the topic you are looking into, and just try to understand it in it’s most basic form. If that doesn’t work, zoom in even more and try to understand a smaller part. Eventually you are going to make a strike against confusion, chip off a piece of the puzzle and claim it as your own. And once you’ve done that, you’re on a roll.
Learning is primarily this emotional experience. Our brains are all quite adaptable. They change themselves based on what we experience and what we focus on. But of course this process can be hindered by feelings of inadequacy and thoughts of stupidity. But these feelings can be thwarted, tripped up, and ultimately down regulated.
That last ingredient is time. Often it just takes time and focus so that all the parts can mingle long enough so that eventually they start linking up, and things begin to click.
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