Learning to Unlearn by Aini Butt
“Why do you do this to yourself?” my friend laughed.
It had been a painstakingly slow start to another piece of art as I spent over an hour calculating where each letter of the Quranic quote would start and end. Anything less than perfect wouldn’t be right, I kept telling myself every time I had to start all over again. This was my first attempt at Arabic calligraphy on a large canvas and I couldn’t let myself down. During the several hours working on the art, I kept coming back to the question, “Why do you do this to yourself?” This suggests that it is my choice and within my control to change this thought that anything less than perfect would not be acceptable. If this were true then surely it is just a matter of unlearning this belief? One thought led to another; a reflective process was set in motion.
Like a mirror that reflects everything, the inner reflection exposed parts of me that I have been trying to filter out. One of the most important and most difficult things to accept was how control and emotional manipulation had changed the younger me and her perspective on life and what success truly meant. If this were the case then ‘finding myself’ was not going to be about returning to who I was before. It would require a deeper exploration of emotions to understand the values and core beliefs underpinning those thoughts and behaviours that allowed me to stay in a place where I had lost myself. It was not about learning new ways of life, but recognising those beliefs and habits that I would have to unlearn to be at peace with myself and finally living my motto to ‘Bloom Unapologetically’.
As I learnt at the beginning of my reflective writing journey two years ago, unconditional loyalty and blind love were one of the core beliefs that did not serve me well for almost fifteen years. Slowly unpicking where and when this belief had been ingrained and became a core value, I realised that this was just the tip of the iceberg of generational curses. We are often brought up with a set of core values. Some are taught verbally then silently reinforced through the witnessing and practising of daily habits while some are formed as a result of a lived experience.
One habit that I am slowly learning to change and avail to my advantage rather than letting it become a self-sabotaging behaviour is ‘over thinking’. To this day, I do not like to call anyone (or myself) an overthinker as it has such negative connotations. It was after a chat with a friend who was struggling with ‘over-thinking’ that I started digging deeper. I have often beaten myself up for being an “over-thinker” and I have played conversations and situations over and over again in my head until I could picture the catastrophised version. I was taught to always think of the best and worst outcome as it would allow me to make informed decisions, which served me well for several years. However, this same habit ended up feeding the distorted reality following on from living with coercive control and emotional manipulation for over a decade. Where I had silenced my inner voice for so long, having the ability to listen to my thoughts and feelings without distortion gave me a new sense of freedom.
However, I had to attune my listening skills and adapt by unlearning the habit of thinking of every possible (often disastrous) scenario. Although the unlearning of habits ingrained over the years does not happen overnight, it was nothing short of an epiphany when I was able to recognise its origin. It was during one of my ‘over-thinking’ cycles–which I prefer to call self reflections–that it finally hit me! Visualising the catastrophised outcomes allowed me to create a mental and emotional comfort zone with boundaries to safeguard me from further harm. Recognising the hold my past had over my present was painful, but ‘These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” Rumi’s pearls of wisdom had never made more sense than today when I could feel the pain and its hidden message: forgive yourself! Forgive yourself for those habits that were merely a survival mechanism–your mind and heart’s attempt at safeguarding you at all cost.
The truth was that the emotions were merely a messenger and it became even harder when the emotions were in direct conflict with each other. If I didn’t want to continue living my life in survival mode, I had no option but to unlearn this habit.
Almost two years on and it has been a journey far from easy and I now accept that I will be a work in progress for as long as I continue to strive for a better version of myself.