One of the hardest things you can do — that anyone can do, really — is to try to unlearn something.
Especially something that you aren’t even aware that you’ve learned.
This sounds like an impossibility; how can you have learned something without being aware of having learned it? But in practice, it’s like the old David Foster Wallace talk This Is Water; you aren’t aware of it because we have been swimming in it for all of our lives.
And so it is with a host of toxic ideas about life, about manhood and masculinity, about women, even about how to live and behave. You have. I have. Everyone who lives in society has. It’s something that we have all been born into, something we’ve been so immersed in for so long that almost everyone is unaware of it and many folks push back when it’s pointed out to them.
Even people who become aware of all of those beliefs and lessons we’ve learned over time — myself most certainly included — can still buy into them. It’s not just a question of being aware of having learned these lessons. It’s about trying to unlearn them… and, in the process, replace them with the right ones.
But it’s a difficult process… and one that often leaves you frustrated, even angry at times. It’s one that we each have to go through, and if any of us do so with good faith, we have to do so without expecting a reward or even congratulations. And it requires looking at aspects of ourselves that we often aren’t comfortable with. Like Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back, we often have to come face to face with the fact that sometimes the thing we’re struggling with the most is ourselves.
But the fact that it’s not easy points to just how important it is to do it; for yourself and others. Like trying to turn the Titanic, the sooner you start, the more likely you are to avoid the iceberg.
So let’s talk about unlearning what you have learned.
Learning All The Wrong Lessons
Of course, one of the hardest parts of unlearning a lifetime of toxic lessons is recognizing how we came to learn them in the first place.
And to illustrate that, let’s go off on a tangent for a second. Trust me, this will make sense in a moment.
What do you think of when I say the name “Tonya Harding”? Odds are, you have a mental image of someone who wanted so much to win the Olympic gold medal in figure skating that she broke the knee of her biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan. What about if I say the name “Yoko Ono”? The quickest and most likely answer, beyond John Lennon’s wife, was that she was somehow responsible for breaking up The Beatles. If we mention Kitty Genovese, then we think about the story of how a woman was brutally murdered and nobody could be bothered to do anything about it.
But more often than not, what we think of isn’t what happened. It’s what we remember being told what happened — a slurry of headlines, late-night talk show monologues, friends relaying the story from friends and vague memories of news coverage we didn’t pay that much attention to. We remember the meme of Harding bashing Kerrigan in the knee, but forget that it was her ex-husband’s best friend who did so. We assume it was because Harding was a poor skater intimidated by Kerrigan’s skill when Harding was, in fact, the first person ever to land a triple-axel during competition, something people once thought was impossible for a woman to achieve. We are eager to blame Yoko for the Beatles breaking up but ignore not only the near-constant conflict between Lennon and his bandmates, but the domestic abuse that she suffered at Lennon’s hands. Genovese’s murder wasn’t a case of 38 people callously ignoring a woman screaming for help; witnesses called the police, others yelled out the window at the attacker… but few knew exactly what was going on. Some thought they had heard a domestic quarrel, while others thought they were hearing drunks leaving the bar at closing time. The idea that 38 witnesses watched a woman be brutally murdered was the result of sensationalist headlines, poorly written articles and a game of telephone that ultimately lead to people remembering a story that was markedly different from reality.
Like Dr. Timaree Schmitt, I’ve been been binging the podcast You’re Wrong About, where journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall discuss and debunk famous news stories, urban legends and moral panics, revealing how much we misremember or misunderstand about stories that gripped the nation. It’s an eye-opening experience to recognize how much of what we thought we knew about a topic was, in fact, colored by social expectations and beliefs. It was much easier to believe that Harding was a cheater who used violence to try to buck the system than a more complex person wrestling with class prejudice, sexual and spousal abuse and a system that actively forced her to stay in a profoundly abusive marriage, because we were primed to do so. The same goes for Yoko Ono; it’s much easier to say that a woman got in the way of creative geniuses because of her own ego than to credit deep fissures between bandmates.
That same willingness to bend our memories to our pre-existing beliefs, massaging and twisting stories until they only vaguely resemble the facts, is an exemplar of how easy it is to absorb toxic messages without ever realizing it. More often than not, we never had any reason to ever question our recollection or our interpretation of stories. Why should we? We heard them so frequently and so often that those were the versions that took root. We wouldn’t have heard it so often if it weren’t true, right?
The fact that they just happened to fit our beliefs about, say, sex, women, class or society just made it easier to absorb them without ever thinking twice about it.
To take it back to men, women and dating, you may have seen some variation of this post online:
Many people, especially men who struggle with dating or accepting their own worth, will look at this list and nod. This makes sense; this lines up with their experiences and therefore it must be true. But as with some of those news stories or memes we mentioned, these are a mix of things that are true, but also things that are deeply misleading. Ignoring that “if you’re undesirable then people won’t desire you” is fundamentally a tautology, it’s an example of the way that society and cognitive biases reinforce toxic beliefs — in this case about masculinity. We find it easy to believe because we’ve been raised to believe it. Men in particular are quick to relate these lessons to other men, not because they’re rooted in fact, but because they line up with what they already believe about women. They have been primed to believe it because we have had it literally sold to us in every possible form.
Yes, there are women who like powerful men. There are women who like rich men. I suspect it would not be much of a surprise to anyone that there are women who like classically handsome men. But not only is this working from the assumption that this is universal in women, it ignores that there are women who are attracted to men who aren’t powerful, who aren’t rich or who don’t have traditional good looks or builds that we don’t think of as “perfect”. However, because it tracks with popular beliefs about manhood and what women supposedly want from a man, it’s very easy for folks to believe it. Some people see this and decide the answer is to pursue becoming all of these things because it’s the “only” path to being desired. Others see it and despair; they believe that they can’t possibly measure up and so they believe they’ve been cut off from any chance of finding love or sex.
We have all grown up in a society that teaches us that it’s acceptable for men to act a certain way. We have all come of age — even now — in a world that teaches us that men are supposed to be incredibly aggressive in how they pursue money, power, sex and relationships. We have grown up in a world that teaches us over and over again through repetition, through jokes, through music, novels, movies, and television that stalking, physical aggression, manipulation, possessiveness and even threats of self-harm are acceptable ways of getting what we want… especially when those things we’re pursuing line up with what it means to be a man.
But we hear it so often and so frequently that it isn’t new or disturbing to us; it’s simply the lessons we’ve been hearing all of our lives. Even once we become aware of it, we aren’t out of it; it’s deeply rooted in our consciousness in ways we rarely expect.
Looking For The Blind Spots
One of the things that makes it so difficult to unlearn these lessons is that often we’ve absorbed them in ways that we aren’t even aware of. These become functional blind spots, things we don’t think to address because like a physical blind spot, we often don’t know they even exist. Not, at least, until they come into play. Often in ways that end up hurting other people.
Take me, for example. I don’t believe I’ve ever been less than candid about my past — being part of the pick-up artist scene, learning some things that were valuable and good and a veritable ton of shit that was wrong, manipulative or hurtful. Realizing just how toxic I was becoming was painful; trying to unlearn it even more difficult. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to buy into because it aligns with the things you already believe — or just want to believe. At the time I was learning the various ins and outs of different pick-up schools, I never questioned it because it wasn’t in my interest to do so. I — so I believed at the time — was learning all of the secrets that would finally allow me to have the kind of life I’d thought I wanted. I had no reason to examine things because it lined up with so much of what I had either learned or been taught about women, about men, about sex and sexuality. The possibility that what I was learning from the pick-up scene was manipulative and harmful never crossed my mind. The idea of how much the things I had been learning were less about mutual pleasure and more about differences in power didn’t occur to me. I hadn’t thought about it from the perspective of the women I was flirting with or trying to pick up; I had no real motivation to do so.
I did have friends who would occasionally call me on my shit; many of the women I have the privilege of being friends with would point out that hey, my attitude and behavior was, mildly, more than a little fucking creepy. Not that I gave it more than half an ear at the time; my mindset was one of “yeah, but you don’t understand, it’s not like that…”
But it was. I just wasn’t willing to listen or think about it from someone else’s perspective. In part, because so much of what I was learning matched with what I believed about women, about men and about sex. But I also was enjoying the results I was having. There were active reasons for me to not look too closely.
And like a lot of systems of motivated reasoning, it worked… right up until it didn’t. You can’t be as manipulative as that, putting up a fake persona for that long and not have consequences. In this case, I had a near total collapse, following a moment of clarity in the middle of trying to pick someone up at a bar.
I realized in rapid succession that a) I was already trying to figure out how we would go, have sex, and then I wouldn’t need to see her again, b) I didn’t actually like her, I was seeing her as another number to bolster my ego, c) that I didn’t like the bars and clubs that I’d been hanging out in, d) that I hadn’t talked to people outside of the pick-up scene in weeks, e) that I hadn’t talked to anyone about damn near anything but pick-up in God alone knows how long and f) I couldn’t stand myself.
I apologized to the woman, saying “sorry, I have to go, I think I’m having a breakdown” and then sped home for a very long dark weekend of the soul, facing down how much I did not like what I’d allowed myself to become and what I was going to do to move forward. As much of it is a cliche to say, there was a lot of reading to do, a lot of listening to do, a lot of learning and studying and — yes — unlearning things. My friends who called me out were gracious enough to say “yeah, here’s the shit you were doing that bothered us”. People pointed me towards resources that I could study, about power and consent; actual, legitimate psychological, physiological and sociological studies of male sexuality and female sexuality.
But deeply ingrained beliefs and behaviors are hard to shift. It’s very difficult to uproot the learning of a lifetime, and there are frequently areas that I — like many folks — had no idea even existed. It’s not that I didn’t believe that certain behaviors were problematic, it’s that I had no idea that there were problems at all until they were pointed out to me.
One of the most notable examples was in the concept of the “Freeze Out” — a technique utilized by PUAs to counter what they referred to as “last minute resistance” and what everyone else would call “they really don’t want to have sex with you please stop”. The idea of the freeze out is that if a person were to encounter that “last minute resistance”, they would immediately cease all contact. Not just sexual contact, but physical contact. They were to stop, put on enough clothes to allow for modesty if not dress fully, then move to another room to do non-sexual activities. If done correctly, the other person would often re-initiate sex or sexual contact. In theory, this sounds like exactly what one is supposed to do; they’re not interested, you stop, all is well. In practice however, it reads entirely differently. It doesn’t read as “I am respecting your boundaries and the fact that you don’t want sex”, it reads as “I am angry with you and I’m going to cloak my anger in passive-aggressive behavior”. To a person facing this sudden change in attitude, it can be deeply unsettling. The balance of power favors the larger, masculine-bodied individual. Being alone with someone bigger than you who seems upset or offended means that you’re going to be motivated to make them not upset at you… including possibly having sex with someone you don’t actually want to have sex with.
As someone who’s a cisgendered, straight man with a fairly broad and heavy build, I had never had to think in those terms before. I didn’t even think to look at it from another perspective until after reading Clarissa Thorn’s Confessions of A Pickup Artist Chaser, where she discusses it in detail.
Once I had this blindspot pointed out, I could at least correct for things. I could adjust what I taught as acceptable, I could advocate for better, more conscientious and more equitable behavior. But learning doesn’t stop. Finding a blindspot doesn’t mean that you’ve found all of them. And you can still fuck up without realizing it, even when you should theoretically know better. There’s always more to learn, there’s more to work on and to improve and pay attention to.
Unlearning is a process, not an end, and it’s one that requires active attention to be paid.
You Must Confront Your Dark Side
Unlearning something is difficult under the best of circumstances. It’s hard to shift beliefs and behaviors that you are aware of, never mind ones that you aren’t necessarily conscious of. The lessons learned over a lifetime are deeply ingrained, with decades of reinforcement. Worse, trying to unlearn them often results in pushback from others. Some people will push back against the need to examine or change those behaviors because they don’t see them as being wrong. They’re “just how life is” or “they’re natural and instinctual”. Others will push back against it, actively insulting or maligning people because of their own beliefs and insecurities. Attacking another person’s masculinity is one of the quickest and surest ways of shoring up your own manhood; by policing other people’s behavior, you establish yourself as being “higher” on the masculine social pecking order. And still others have vested interests in people — men especially — not examining or changing their behavior. Any sort of growth, change or improvement is abhorrent to them because it becomes a path to deradicalization. Proud Boys, MRAs, Red-pillers and the like love to yell about cucks and manginas and soy boys because pushing back against toxic forms of masculinity threatens their position in the status quo. They need people to be angry and frustrated, aggressive and isolated, in hopes of bringing them into the fold.
But it can also be hard to shift because it requires taking a long, serious look at yourself and confronting things that you may not like to see. It’s hard to look at your actions and see how you’ve hurt people. It’s terrifying to think about the way you were and are part of a system that brings so much pain and misery to folks. It requires being conscious and aware of the parts of yourself that you don’t like, the things that you wish weren’t part of you. In Jungian psychology, this is referred to as your “shadow” or your “shadow self”, the things that you believe to be unacceptable or that you wish didn’t exist. It’s all the things about you that you would prefer to believe you didn’t have. It’s much easier, less intimidating and less painful to try to excise it, to try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
But the shadow isn’t something that you’re supposed to ignore or suppress; it’s a part of you, and trying to excise it cannot and will not work. Trying to repress it just makes it come out in other ways, leaking into other aspects of your life and causing more pain and misery. Your shadow self is something you’re meant to confront; not to destroy it, but to reckon with it, learn from it and understand it. Our shadow selves are often a reflection of unmet needs; they’re the ways that we’ve attempted to fulfill those needs and desires. The problem is how unsuccessful those aspects are at helping us meet those needs, and how often they work against our goals. Someone whose shadow represents a fear of rejection that manifests as social anxiety might turn to alcohol to try to relieve their unease and boost their courage. Someone whose shadow self represents a fear of vulnerability or weakness might compensate by performing a particularly aggressive form of masculinity.
Examining and confronting your dark side isn’t about eliminating it or even finding balance with it so much as trying to learn about yourself. It’s about recognizing those needs, examining those fears and finding ways not to eliminate the shadow but to have those needs met in more positive and productive means.
By being willing to face our dark side, we’re able to get a fuller, more complete vision of ourselves.
Doing so, however, is hard. It means taking ownership of your choices and taking responsibility for them. Trying to face that side of you is never pleasant under the best of circumstances. It means having to confront embarrassment, shame and guilt. It means having to see your choices as just that: a series of choices that you made, not things that were forced upon you or that happened outside of your agency. It means recognizing that you may have scared, upset or hurt people and being willing to accept that, own it and make amends where possible.
And you may have to confront it more than once. Like I said: there are often blind spots in your life, ones that you weren’t aware of until they were pointed out to you or until you learned about them the hard way. Finding them means taking another look and seeing that there’s more to learn, more to unlearn and more growing that needs to be done.
It’s understandable that the idea of facing that side is scary, even painful. It’s understandable that anyone would rather avoid doing it if at all possible. Having done it myself… it’s never fun.
But it also means change. It means being the person who breaks the cycle, the person who contributes to the end of a societal message that leads to others being hurt. It means learning how to be a better person, creating new and more positive patterns in your life.
How To Relearn The Right Lessons
As hard as unlearning can be, relearning can be tricky too. It requires being willing to challenge what you believe and what you’ve been taught. It means learning to look at things from different perspectives, perspectives that don’t merely reflect your own beliefs and experiences. And it may mean making changes to your life.
But that doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing. After all, the things you do and the people you spend time with become your filter. The lifestyle you lead directly colors the way you see the world. Incels who spend all of their time soaking in the misery of various online communities, for example, find it only makes them even more miserable and hateful. Leaving the community, starting to spend time out in the world and seeing it as it really is instead of as the funhouse mirror distortion of the incel philosophy helps lead them to becoming happier and more fulfilled.
Trying to see things from other people’s perspectives and gain a fuller picture of the world around you can often mean examining other people’s lived experiences and seeing how different their reality can be from the one you perceived. Books like Jenna Birch’s The Love Gap1, for example, can be invaluable for men who struggle with dating. Men frequently have a vision of women’s dating experiences that have less to do with reality and more to do with what they imagine based on their own beliefs. Seeing how different their lived experiences are from the version that men learn from other men can be an enlightening experience and one that often helps alleviate anxieties or fears about attraction or desirability.
The people you spend the most time with directly affect you, as well. People who are supportive of the growth you’re trying to achieve and the changes you’re trying to make are vital; we are all social animals who need support and community. Having people who are there to prop you up, cheer you on and help you improve can make all the difference in the world to your progress and improvement. And having friends who you can turn to for advice and perspective is invaluable. One of the benefits of having a friend with you when, say, you’re out socializing and meeting people, is that you have a second set of eyes with you. They can help you see things that you might be missing, whether that might be picking up on cues that you aren’t seeing or that you’re doing far better than you realize. Having someone to support you at times when you’re nervous, give you an emotional boost if you’re feeling down, or simply being good company can make a world of difference.
Part of the work I’ve done for myself meant making substantive changes, both in terms of the way I conducted my platonic and romantic relationships but also my lifestyle overall. I have been lucky enough to have friends who didn’t just support me but would also say “dude, what the fuck?” when needed, or point out patterns in my life that I didn’t notice. I de-prioritized bars and clubs and spent more time with friends, hosting parties and finding local events and activity groups that I enjoyed. I examined the ways I approached folks, the ways I flirted and where I met folks — both friends and potential lovers. I continued to seek out new resources for study, new perspectives.
None of it was easy or fun; in fact, a lot of it was, and still is painful. But as the saying goes: nobody said that it would be easy, just that it was necessary.
Becoming The Change You Want to See
As I said: part of what is so difficult about unlearning the lessons we all are brought up in is that they’re systematic. They are, quite literally, part of a system that we all live in, and one that we’re often unaware of. The more that we benefit from the system, the less we notice it… and why should we? It’s the sea that we swim in, one that causes us few problems… even as it damages others. And even being aware of the system doesn’t prevent us from benefiting from it or absorbing the lessons from it.
But once you’re aware of it, you’re able to affect it. And that means examining what you’ve learned and working to make changes in yourself. While change on an individual level — fixing yourself, unlearning those toxic lessons, addressing toxic behaviors — is a small thing, large. systematic changes are built from small ones. We are able to create spaces for ourselves and those around us that help encourage positive change, while discouraging the negative behaviors we hope to uproot.
It’s not a simple change. It’s all too easy to buckle under the weight of despair or the feeling of helplessness. It’s incredibly tempting to want to shuck off the weight of responsibility and not look too closely at your own actions, to deny the need to change or do better. And it’s tempting to say “here is what I need to do and then I am done. I am complete. I have nothing left to learn.” It’s always easy to try to decide that you’re finished, even when you have far more to learn, to rush off under the assumption that you’ve done as much as you need to, only to get hurt again.
Except there is always more to learn. Order requires maintenance, or else it falls back into chaos. And while it can seem like a daunting challenge — one that’s too great, too painful or simply too late — the first step is the simplest. Be willing to accept that maybe you’re wrong. Be willing to accept that maybe change is possible, that you aren’t alone, and in the end: you can advance. It takes work to build a better life, be a better person and help build a better world, even if it’s just your small corner of it.
But in the end… it’s worth it.
- Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the book, and Jenna has been a guest on my podcast [↩]