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  • Writer's pictureNaomi Kitchener

The pain of learning can be unbearable. Here's how to handle it.

If you could learn anything knowing it would be a painless process, would it change the way you relate to learning?

The pain of learning is the discomfort you feel when you’re bringing in new knowledge or skill.  This pain can include:

  • Fear of looking bad / silly / dumb / uncool.

  • Confronting the probability of failing.

  • Feeling out of your depth.

  • Having to give up control and / or ask for help.

  • Awkwardness.

  • Uncertainty.

  • Terror of not knowing what to do.

  • Overwhelm.

  • The cost - financial cost, opportunity cost, energetic cost etc of pursuing learning.

  • Let's not forget the physical pain you might suffer learning a physical skill.

As you can see, the pathway of learning is a virtual minefield of emotions.  Sometimes we invite this pain - we want to learn something new.  Sometimes, it’s thrust upon us such as using a new piece of technology because the "old way" is now obsolete. In many ways, we relate to pain as "bad" and something to be eliminated as thoroughly and permanently as possible. But when it comes to the pain of learning, let's press pause on that idea.

HERE’S THE SQUEEZE coming in early…

There is no way around the pain of learning, there is only throughYour ability to learn correlates to your ability (and willingness) to go through this pain.  Ouch.  

You can catch a glimpse of your willingness and ability to feel the pain of learning by:

  • How coachable you are.

  • How willing you are to ask for help.

  • Whether you're willing to risk looking bad.

  • What you do when you fail.

  • How much your mind argues with you when faced with new information.

  • How long you’ve been doing the same thing. 


Whenever I hear someone say they’ve been doing something for a long time such as “I’ve been coaching managers for 20 years”, I wonder: were those 20 quality years of continued improvement or was it one year of development followed by 19 years of “copy and paste”?  There’s a difference. 

Avoiding the pain of learning and doing copy-and-paste leads you to:

  • Get complacent.

  • Get stuck in a rut. 

  • Get bored of what you’re doing.

  • Become outdated.

  • Have lower empathy for others who are learning (and failing).

  • Scratch your head wondering why the competition is overtaking you.

So we know that life is learning. Not learning is learning avoidance. Let's take a step back and look at the learning journey.

The first step, Unconscious Unawareness/Incompetence is like ignorant bliss - you don't know what you don't know. It’s normal to feel shocked, annoyed or out of control when you move to the second step: Conscious Unawareness/Incompetence and realise that you have a knowledge gap.  If you’ve ever recorded yourself giving a speech and realised how many “ums” you say, it can be maddening how many more ums you’ll then hear yourself say without being able to stop it. The pain usually begins here, because you're developing a sense of how much better life will be once you've learned the new thing.

The next step: Conscious Awareness/Competence is when you are able to do the new thing but it takes up your conscious thinking bandwith to do it, which can be exhausting. As a new student of hula, learning a new everything, my conscious thinking bandwidth was so full that as much as I tried, I wasn't able to do the footwork, the handwork and respond to the calls as expected. If I continue to go to class, some aspects of the dance will become more familiar and I won't have to think so much about them, which brings us to the final step: Unconscious Awareness/Competence. I know what I'm doing, I can do it competently and it feels so natural that I might even be able to think other thoughts not relating to hula. An example of this is when you arrive home but can't recall the actual journey - there were so many aspects of driving home that were second nature to you, you used your conscious thinking bandwidth to think about other things.

By now you'll start to see why pain and learning go hand in hand. Human's ability to move through the learning journey steps stands out in the animal kingdom. Our physiological evolution has hard-wired us to learn. We've developed hormones that support our learning and help us to punch through the pain barrier (helloooo dopamine!). You might wonder, if we're so well built to learn, why do we find the pain so hard to handle? We also have a natural inclination to take the path of least resistance and conserve energy. Now that you (sitting in your comfortable seat, reading on your computer or phone), feeling safe and with a reliable source of food, shelter, water motivation seems to wane. You're comfortable.



During your childhood, you fell down lots of times before you could walk.  You were bamboozled many times by words and sentences.  You had wonky handwriting.  You had to ask for help.  A lot.  You were confused and overwhelmed and looked pretty silly at times and yet you managed to: learn how to walk, talk, read and write.


Then it was like a spell was cast and at some point during your adulthood, you developed a bias against the pain of learning.  You made it mean something bad when you did feel the pain.  You shortened your patience towards yourself – placing an expectation that you get it much sooner.  Why don't we praise adults for having learnt to walk as babies, but we make a really big deal about it if they have to re-learn to as adults?  What do you think the difference is?  It’s our mindset.  We’ve made up some idiosyncratic unspoken rules about our learning as adults: we’re supposed to know it all already and when we do have to learn it’s got to be fast and efficient.  If learning is painful, either you’re not doing it right or it’s not worth it. 

Mindset is what allows an artist to experiment – possibly failing many times as they explore and adjust techniques – before figuring out how to create the art that they envision. 

Mastery is just refined learning

Mindset is what allows a pro athlete – someone who is already very good at something, to critically analyse the components of their activity and change something.  They have to be willing to go back into being less competent than they were before but they’re willing to stick with it for the long-term gains.

Here's the cold-hard truth about mastery: you won't get there on talent alone. We've researched this and found in business, sports, art and more, that a person who doesn't develop the natural talent they have, other people who are willing to handle the pain of learning will outperform.

Mindset allows people to step outside of what they already know to do something different. 


I love the idea of handling the pain of learning. Handles imply holding or carrying, not denying and resisting. Before you look at this list below, I invite you to pause and write the nature of learning that is currently causing you pain. When you scroll through my list, some strategies will resonate more - choose to notice those ones, and not get too hung up on the others.

Start with safety - if you're learning a physical skill, kit yourself out with the gear you need to minimise physical harm. Managing your safety removes some of the mental arguments the mind tries to make you stop when learning a physical skill.

Commit - learning will come at a cost and when the pain bites, it's easy to look at the alternatives and want to change direction. Making a commitment to yourself, declaration to others and reaffirming your commitment are powerful ways to keep things moving forward.

Use the springboard - Use the discomfort of being at Consciously Incompetent to start making changes.  Use the dissatisfaction with your current situation to grow, and your desire for change will follow. The springboard that many teenagers use to get through the pain of learning to drive, is the motivation for freedom.

Go two-boots, heart, liver and lungs in – Also known as “finding your Why” (look up Simon Sinek’s work on the subject). This is about finding the deepest source of motivation to smash through any pain or discomfort to the result.  For example, for many people quitting smoking it makes a difference to think about how they want to be around for their children’s or grandchildren’s weddings. 

Close the back door – you don’t need to know how you’ll figure everything out beforehand, but you can decide ahead of time that you'll figure it out along the way.  And that you won’t stop until you succeed.

Allow and notice – allow the pain to be painful without making it more than what it is.  Our minds can throw up a lot of drama when it’s asked to do something different!  Notice the times when it’s not painful and acknowledge that it’s not all pain – it’s sometimes neutral or even pleasurable!

Teach someone else – teaching a beginner at something you’re mastering is a great way to boost your enthusiasm, see how far you’ve come and allow your mind to consider lots of benefits of your learning journey.  You might even experience a little pressure to sharpen yourself which might be what you need to push through a pain barrier.  Being asked lots of fiddly questions about the thing you’re learning can be a great way to explore deeper into the subject.

Acknowledge the small wins – impatience and low self-confidence can hinder the learning process.  Move your focus from the end goal to the small milestones and acknowledge yourself when you achieve them.  If you’re learning to snowboard, you could count a small win by falling over less times than the day or week before. 

Soothe your mind – you can reduce mental pain by using soothing self-talk.  Some years ago, I discovered to my astonishment that when I was out running and it was hard, the most cheesy self-talk helped me through.  Say soothing things to your mind to encourage it to keep going “it won’t always be like this”, “you did alright”, “I know it feels scary – remember that this (learning) is important to us”. 

Express your pain - I recently learnt what to do when a screw head breaks off, leaving the screw in the wood. My learning process included some crying, not because I was being dramatic on purpose but because I felt overwhelmed. Not giving healthy expression to your pain will cause emotional constipation.

Forgive and commit – if the pain of learning is coming from life’s school of hard knocks, it’s easy to find yourself hurting.  This is a special kind of learning pain that can spiral and poison your life if you let it.  The way through this pain is to forgive yourself for your part: perceived or real lack of skills, inner resources, external resources or ability to make good choices.  Once you’ve accepted what’s happened (or not happened) and decided to be enough of a friend to yourself to stop punishing yourself, you might want to consider making a commitment about your future.  What would need to change about your future choices and decisions to show yourself that you know to your core that the approach you took the last time was flawed?  Then do that, and move on. 


And for people who don't feel the pain of learning...

It's likely that you aren't stretching yourself enough. While this can be a helpful strategy if you've been knocked around by some really painful learning and need to recover, it's not a good long-term strategy. When you're not stretching, you're not failing. And when you haven't developed the skills to handle failure, failure is going to kick your a$$. Ultra-achievers and prodigies are at the most risk of this. As a workshop facilitator, I’ve had groups of people who have never failed and it was very concerning for me because life is not all lollipops and rainbows.  It’s also mud puddles and potholes.  When you’ve only succeeded, you haven’t developed the skills needed to process failure constructively. Here is the antidote: choose to learn a solo physical skill that demands failure as part of the learning journey. Learn to surf, juggle, snowboard, rollerskate and play the piano. Know that by the time you're proficient, you'll have stretched, struggled and felt the pain and that you'll be a better person for it.

The only way to make failure a certainty is to stop trying. Until then, it's just learning.

So, I'll ask you again: if you could learn anything, what would it be?

Mauri ora / behold the sneeze of life,

 P.S. If you're embarking on a learning journey or need support handling the pain of a current one, come and see me at The Lomi Room where you'll find support, insight and a personalised strategy to move forward.


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