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Forgetting important lessons gets them into your system

Back in 2008 when Anna and I had just moved into our current house, amongst the stuff we bought was one particular ceiling lamp. We both liked the look of it in our hallway. Just a small issue: the lamp would have to hang down from the ceiling a tad too low for my 1m92 (6 ft 3). We decided to hang it there anyway.

Naturally I bumped my head into it quite soon. Luckily the lamp hangs from a cord and can swing, so it doesn't cause major head wounds. A while later I passed the lamp without hitting it, because I remembered to evade it. The mighty human had tamed the humble lamp! That went really well (maybe twice), then I hit my head against the same lamp again. The first time had been unpleasant, but calculated, since I knew the lamp was hanging a bit low. I found the second collision very annoying: hadn't I learned my lesson? I thought I had learned to evade the lamp and I managed to apply that lesson a few times. No reason to hit it again, you'd say!

Lessons for the mind

Now compare this to, for example, learning to allow yourself to feel jealous. A lot of people think jealousy is a bad emotion, one that should be tucked away and ignored. I believed this for most of my life. During the first years of my personal growth path, people in my therapy group told me that feeling jealous or angry is OK and that it is better to give room to such an emotion so that you can confront it, rather than try to ignore it and let it fester deep inside you. I liked that idea, but after long years of burying my 'bad' emotions I wasn't able to just let them out. So I listened to some of the group explaining the principle and I kept agreeing, without actually experiencing it.

Then one day something changed. I heard about a new relationship between two people close to me and besides being happy for them, I was also jealous of them. I wanted a relationship myself! When I realized that I was feeling jealous, I was inclined to bury that emotion as deep as possible, since I was supposed to be happy for those two and not feel anything negative. But this time something inside me stood up and said: "O yeah, well screw this! I can be jealous all I want and still be happy for them! If I feel jealous, then that's what I feel, regardless of what I 'should'!"

That was the first time I actually experienced what people had been telling me for months: I allowed myself to feel a 'bad' emotion and gave it the room it needed. That was an important step in my life and I knew that instantly. I told myself I would never ever forget this lesson again and from now on would allow myself to feel any emotion.

As with the lamp, I succeeded a few times after that. Within two days, someone else told me about new found love. I tasted my own jealousy and that made me almost laugh mad scientist style. Eurrreka! It was a great relief and I felt the confirmation that I was on the right path there. And as with the lamp, soon I came into a situation where I seemed to have forgotten that important lesson. After those initial successes I 'hit my head' again by not allowing myself to feel angry, consequently feeling bad for a while, caused by ignoring that emotion. Fortunately, later on I realized that I was blocking an emotion again. I thought: "What the hell, I recently learned this beautiful lesson and now I forget to apply it! How can this be?" I wanted a 100% score on applying the lesson: no more tucking away of emotions. But believe me, that's not how it works.

A good lesson needs time to sink in

After those events, I regularly managed to let my emotions run freely. From time to time, I would miss an opportunity, only to find out later that I had blocked an emotion again. Even months after that, I would sometimes fall into my old habit, but it happened less and less often.

I discovered that I needed a similar process on other personal growth issues. It rarely happens that I make an interesting discovery on how to improve something and then turn things around instantly. Usually it takes time. Time for me to understand the discovery thoroughly, time to put it into practice, time to get used to it and eventually feel the truth of it in my very core. It's like jumping into a hot bath versus slowly sliding into the water: you need time and effort to adjust to the change.

Bumping your head is part of the process

Some wild kids may think otherwise, but it's not exactly enjoyable to hit your head against a lamp. However, every time you do, you get a valuable reminder of the lesson you are learning and it sinks in a little deeper (the lesson, not the lamp ;)). Eventually your system can adapt to that new lesson and your life will change accordingly. I learned to evade the lamp automatically, partly thanks to all the times I hit it.

If you find that you have made a great discovery for personal improvement, but you don't seem to be able to apply it on each occasion, there are two things you can do. You can get frustrated every time you fail to apply the lesson, like me hitting my head against the lamp, blocking an emotion. This option will cost you a lot of valuable energy and you don't gain anything with it. Your other option is to accept your less than perfect score as being part of your process of incorporating the lesson into your life. You WILL slip up from time to time and these moments are clear signals that you need those reminders to reach your goal.

Feeling the lesson instead of just believing in it

At some point you will realize: "Hey, lately I haven't been slipping up. I've been applying that lesson even without thinking!" Depending on the person and the lesson it may take days, months or years, but when you get there, you will know it. You will feel the gained insight as being a part of your intuition, instead of just believing the insight makes logical sense.

It took me a long time to get there, but it has become much more natural for me to allow for my own emotions, often without thinking. Does that mean I never ever slip up anymore? No, it doesn't. Circumstances can still arise that prevent me from accessing my real emotions for a moment. When that happens, soon afterwards I will realize that and address the issue subsequently. That is fine by me, as is bumping my head softly against the ceiling lamp once every so often. I regard those moments as gentle reminders that I did learn the lesson and did incorporate it into my life. Reminders that I am only human and don't need to get a 100% score.

About the author

Marger (1976) lives in the Netherlands. He shares free articles about his personal growth and his insights on the world in general.

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