Learning New Tools for Strength and Health

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

People often have trouble learning and remembering the tools that will enable them to improve their emotional health. Many years ago, I took a very helpful course in learning theory. The subject of the class was "How to Learn Difficult Things." The main ideas I came away with from that class are that in order to learn, we have to acknowledge that it will be a struggle and we have to apply learning theory to what we want to integrate into our thoughts and actions.

Learning something new and difficult may not be your idea of how tools for strength and health are acquired. The point you need to remember is that many of us, particularly those who grew up in dysfunctional families, were never taught to integrate and apply skills for our emotional well-being. Children learn from parents teaching them, and children learn by modeling their parents. If you grew up without models for strength and health, you need to learn how to integrate and apply these kinds of tools.

You'll find it helpful to remember that in a dysfunctional upbringing you have many, many days, nights, months and years of learning dysfunction, maladapativity, and behaviors which would lead you to doom and despair or anxiety and panic. That is why you may have to put in a concerted effort to learn to make tools for strength and health a part of your daily life. Still, you CAN succeed in incorporating healthy changes in your life.

Learning something new requires elaboration, repetition, and integration. You can learn to apply new tools and behaviors that will promote your mental health, but it will require persistence, perseverance, and a willingness to put in the time to master this skill.

  • Elaboration
    Elaboration means expanding upon and developing a thought, idea, or concept. Writing and sharing your struggle to integrate new skills will help you fully understand and apply the tools you are learning.

  • Repetition
    Repetition can be accomplished by making a commitment to review your behavioral goals every day, perhaps every hour in the beginning -- whatever amount of repetition you need to master this goal.

  • Integration
    Be aware that integration is a process that continues over time. The more you make the practice of applying new skills and tools in your life, the greater will be your ability to integrate it and call upon these tools effortlessly.

  • Case History

    I know a man who struggles to overcome tremendous contempt and self-involvement. He has learned in his therapy work that one of the major tools he lacks in his daily living is awareness of gratitude. He has learned to see his obliviousness toward gratitude as both a spiritual problem and as a deficit in his repertoire of skills to promote his emotional well being.

    In order to combat these deficits, he types out a Gratitude List three times a day, every day. This is a man with a long history of self-sabotage and failed personal relationships. He feels that reviewing his feelings of gratitude three times a day will keep him on the right path in his life. So far, they have been. In this manner, this man uses the learning theory delineated above by applying elaboration, repetition, and integration in such a way that he feels immersed in his process of development.

    Review the tools that you feel you would like to learn -- whether they be gratitude, selflessness, self-esteem, patience or any other quality of being that seems to elude you. Make plans to apply learning theory, perhaps working with a friend in the process. If you apply the process of elaboration, repetition and integration, which you once inadvertently applied to learning dysfunction in your childhood, to learning tools for strength and health, you'll see that you'll soon have a whole new repertoire of skills at your disposal.


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