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What next? Preparing for Challenge — Supporting Your Capacity to Learn

Have you ever tried to learn something complex when you’re tired or in a noisy and stressful environment? Or stayed up late the night before an exam or proposal due date when you secretly knew you’d been procrastinating over doing it? How well did you learn in that situation?

We’ve all been in those less ideal situations, and sometimes we even surprise ourselves with how much we can learn even then. But when we reflect on such times we can see that our learning capacity is lessened.

There are things we can do to support our capacity to learn. Here are some I’ve found useful:

  • Don’t compare yourself with others. We each have our limits, and they can sometimes be reached or exceeded in the most unexpected of ways. We each have our own ability to deal with different situations. Don’t compare yourself with how others seem to be doing. Remember that you have incomplete information about their situation, which is also coloured by your own perception. Each person has their own innate strengths and weaknesses, past experiences, resources and opportunities, some of which they may not even be consciously aware, and some which can make particular situations more challenging. Focus on your own experience. Recognize and be grateful for your unique self and what you’re learning.

  • Work with your physiology. We’re best able to learn when we feel engaged and calm. In response to a threat or stress, our bodies will respond from deeply embedded physiological process to protect us, whether that’s fight, flee, fawn, flop or ‘play dead’1. Although these responses have benefits in genuine life-threatening situations and emergency response, sharply focusing our attention on the threat, they reduce the cognitive flexibility that aids learning. Calm engagement can be restored through safe and supportive connection with others or simple breathing exercises and meditation (eg Tara Brach’s range of free meditations, Beyond Blue’s relaxation exercises). And of course, looking after our rest and physical health is important to our physical ability to learn!

  • Practice self-compassion. If we are overly hard on ourselves – beating ourselves up over mistakes or failures to meet ideals of behaviour or performance – we create a stressful inner environment, putting us into ‘fight or flight’ and may even feel shame, which can result in a ‘freeze’ response. Not a conducive space for moving forward engaged in learning! If instead we treat ourselves as we would a dear friend, staying open and curious rather than condemning ourselves, we support our learning. Self-compassion is not about making excuses for ourselves or for our behaviour. Rather, it creates space to be honest with ourselves: to express a range of feelings – which are signposts to our inner life, our needs and our values – to face our limitations and disappointments and recognise our strengths and achievements.

  • Practice gratitude. Reminding ourselves of what we are grateful for – however small – increases our inner capacity. The more concrete and specific we can be in our gratitude, the more effective our practice will be. A daily gratitude journal practice gradually increases awareness of gratitude during the day, as well as creating a resource to support us during tough times. Another beautiful practice I was introduced to last year2 involves asking a partner “Tell me what you love”. The partner then has 1.5 minutes to talk about anything and everything they love, before partners swap roles.

  • Seek help when needed. Some experiences are so challenging that we need to allow time to pass before we are able to unpack and learn from them, and we may need professional support. If you are feeling overwhelmed or triggered by your experience or challenges, please seek professional help.

Approaching your learning with curiosity, patience, openness, self-compassion and gratitude will increase your chances of gaining fresh insights and growth and help you become aware of your own learning process.

Over the coming week, reflect on the points above and the previous newsletter’s points about the learning journey. Notice which ones you feel most comfortable with and which ones are more difficult for you. Working from a space of one of the more comfortable points, identify at least one step you could take to make a positive change in an area that is more difficult.

Next week … I’ll start unpacking my toolkit, starting with a framework I’ve picked up from aviation: to understand and accept that there are things within our control and things outside our control.

White succulent flower on dark background
Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below:

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

  1. Or more subtle versions, rebel, withdraw or acquiesce. ↩︎

  2. By Right Use of Power Guild members, Amanda Aguilera and Regina Smith. ↩︎

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