When Learning Things Is Triggering

I wrote last week about something called building mastery, and how it can be a struggle to recognize that you’re making progress when your body and mind are worn out from a mental illness. I’d like to expand on that a little further today by talking about what it’s like to have to learn new things, especially skill based things like how to do your job (huzzah!).

One of the things that many people who have bad depression, anxiety, or many other mental illnesses don’t do a whole lot is push themselves far out of their comfort zones. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes just getting out the door is like taking a flying leap out of the places that you feel comfortable, but people in the midst of serious depressive episodes aren’t known for trying out new things or meeting lots of new people. So during the recovery process, it’s pretty common to be working from zero on some new skills, whether that’s starting a new job or learning how to set boundaries for the first time.

If it’s been a while since you’ve been in a space of learning, it’s easy to forget that everyone sucks at things when they first try them. Facts: when you try something for the first time, you’ll probably get it wrong. You’ll probably need help. You might need things reiterated a few times, or you might make a mistake and have to go back and fix it. None of these facts means that you’re really bad at whatever it is you’re doing or that you’re a slow learner or unintelligent, they mostly just mean that it’s the first time you’ve tried something and you need a little bit of time to learn.

So if you have forgotten that these are completely normal and that the first failures you have when doing something new are really just the first steps to not sucking at that thing, it’s really easy to think that there’s something wrong with you or get discouraged. Add on to that a predisposition towards anxiety, depression, or another mental illness, and learning new things during recovery can become a fraught process. The very process of learning and building mastery over new skills and meeting new people that will eventually lead to a strong identity and support network can be triggering.

When you’ve already spent a lot of your time thinking that you’re bad at things, it really sucks to try new things. Because you will be bad at them. It’s just that being bad at new things isn’t some sort of horrible failing. It’s normal and ok, and you’ll get past it. The problem for people who are so used to feeling that way is that it’s hard to remember that it will pass. Negative feelings about oneself seem endless when depressed or anxious, so situations that induce those feelings are things to be avoided at all costs.

This puts people who are trying to recover in a bit of a catch 22 situation in which they’re encouraged to try new things or meet new people, but those experiences leave them feeling overwhelmed and panicked, inducing the kinds of feelings that they were just trying to get away from without the clear memory that this is a normal thing. Like many things that come with recovery from depression or anxiety, it seems that the only way to get through it is to accept that the negative feeling is there and not try to get rid of it. It will probably go away on its own sooner or later. Trusting that it will is possibly the hardest part of recovering though.

So in the meantime, while you’re trying to survive feeling like a failure while you learn how to cross stitch or swing dance, it’s good to be reminded that learning is hard. It might be triggering. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

2 thoughts on “When Learning Things Is Triggering

  1. Mereloo says:

    This also sounds a bit like the skill of Radical Acceptance!

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