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What does "Unlearning" mean?

Lindsay Michelle Sep 18

What does "Unlearning" mean?

I'm sure by now you've heard of the concept of "unlearning," as the word is becoming more and more prominent in today's culture with working towards anti-racism, body & fat positivity, and inner child work. Unlearning is also extremely beneficial in sex education as there are many harmful concepts that folks have learned about sex and relationships either through religion, peers, or media.

Sure, we've all heard about it...but what exactly is it and how can I do it?

According to Psychology Today, Unlearning is "the process through which we break down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases." The hopes of unlearning allow the individual to lead a more healthy and authentic life. However, the term has not gone without controversy.

A study developed by the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, there are doubts as to how far or effective unlearning can go on a cognitive level. It does seem difficult. How do we discard knowledge? What does the process of unlearning even look like? Where does that information now go? Into the ether?

The good thing is that unlearning doesn't necessarily mean "erasing" what we happen to know. It poses as critical thinking: skillfully analyzing a subject to improve the quality of thinking. Unlearning is more about reframing what we already know in a healthy manner.

Unlearning through critically thinking allows us to ask important questions on a subject we "thought" we knew and pose possible, healthier alternatives to that way of thinking.

An example of this could be the harmful thought of "If I get an STI, that means I'm dirty." This was learned through previously stigmatized messages by media, peers, or a sex-ed class. We can overcome this shame and stigma through unlearning!

First, we can ask ourselves "Where does this belief come from?" Would we now trust that person who provided this information? Is it from a trusted and reliable source?

It's important to know where the source of the belief comes from, so we can start to slowly pick away at the harmful facts we've previously learned.

Next, it's important to really learn the facts of this belief. Many times we either received false or misleading information that convinces our mind that this belief is true. Like the myth of how STIs can make you seem "dirty" or "unappealing" to other partners. These myths are usually through fear-based (as opposed to fact-based) education. Once we learn the facts from the American Sexual Health Association like...

One in two sexually active persons will contract an STI by age 25


Researchers estimate that at least 80% of sexually active people will have an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime…

...we start to realize that what we had learned previously was in fact not correct. But, it's not that easy. Unfortunately, our brain is a stubborn organ. And just because we are presented with new information, doesn't mean that we will change our minds.

This is where the commitment of unlearning starts. Once we're presented with this new information, what do we do with it? How do we sustain this change?

There are several things that we can do to sustain this change. One way to do this is to reframe the thoughts that we have in our head about a particular subject we want to learn. Reframing is a psychological technique to help us look at things from a different lens, thus challenging our initial thought.

Instead of thinking "Having an STI makes me dirty," reframe the thought to "Having an STI does not determine any of my worth and is completely normal." Reframing helps us unlearn by becoming more aware of our thoughts, challenge them, and replace them.

Unlearning helps us to critically think about different topics we once thought we "knew." This leads to immense growth in self-love and self-improvement.

That's because we are giving ourselves grace and permission to know that we were once wrong not by fault of our own but because we were taught by individuals who we once trusted.

In sex health,

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