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What’s Your Relationship to Being a Beginner?

The struggle…

While browsing a local museum shop a while back (so much love for museum shops!), this nature-inspired pottery caught my eye. While I loved the colors and craftsmanship, I was most struck by the description of the artist…

The description mentioned where the artist ‘takes classes.’ This took me by surprise since I would have expected it to read where she might teach classes instead of where she is a student…I got to thinking about the value of maintaining a beginner’s mind as we move through life…

The value of a beginner’s mind…

There are so many “firsts” in life. The first time you go on a date, the first time you start to date someone seriously, the first time you experience heartbreak, a new job, a new city, a new position, a new life experience such as becoming a parent. All of these “firsts” naturally involve A LOT of not knowing — and not knowing can be difficult, scary, and highly unpleasant.

In an attempt to control the discomfort, we may become defensive or agitated or frustrated throughout the process. Or, we might shut people out because we can’t tolerate the idea that perhaps we might look a little sloppy while we are learning…

‘New’ implies there is a neediness, and needy can be a difficult emotion to navigate.

But perhaps there is value in shifting the perspective.

Michelangelo’s famous last words “I am still learning” or “ancora imparo” in Italian are wise and powerful because they remind us that even a master can admit they don’t know it all, that they are still being influenced by new information; new relationships. Relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman found that being open to influence is essential in satisfying intimate relationships. And in order to be open, we must first accept that we don’t know it all.

Why do we resist?

People can have a complicated relationship to being new at something because it naturally implies that things will “be out of sorts” for a time — messy; uncomfortable; unpredictable and usually frustrating. We might lack confidence and feel uncertain and struggle with the experience of lacking proficiency. This can be very challenging for some of us as it might be difficult to tolerate feelings of uncertainty or vulnerability.

However, as hard as it might be, there is beauty in being a beginner. There are many important relationship lessons to learn from the experience of being new at something…

It’s human nature to want things to make sense and to fit. Being new at something challenges all of that! We might want to make something concrete when in fact, it just isn’t –  it’s more abstract, and it requires us to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty while we grow to understand it further. Or, it challenges us to tolerate the discomfort of personal struggle. I see this a lot in my work with new parents. It can be incredibly challenging to adjust to a new identity where so much is unknown. There is so much that is expected of you while simultaneously, you are charged with learning as you go. It’s overwhelming!

What’s it like to admit you don’t know something?

What’s it like to sit with your unique learning process when you are new?

What’s it’s like to remain curious with someone you’ve known for years?

This can be challenging for all of us!

It might feel extremely uncomfortable – incredibly vulnerable even, you might even perceive it to be unacceptable. Sometimes, certainty and being 100% sure is what’s encouraged/called for; it might go against the culture in which you’re immersed (think being a surgeon for example). Perhaps it’s difficult to admit when you’re wrong or when you’ve made a mistake because mistakes are viewed as unacceptable. This might be part of our conditioning too – depending on our experiences in our family of origin.

What we can learn from being a beginner…

There was a time even the most experienced among us were once new at our craft—feeling scared, incompetent, uncertain, and afraid. But things are always changing. “No feeling is final” -Rainer Maria Rilke

In practicing having needs, we get to be vulnerable and we can seek out and receive comfort, help, and support. As a beginner, we get to practice important relationship skills like asking for help, articulating our needs, the experience of being vulnerable; we get to work on the art of receiving and leaning on others.

To practice being okay with not knowing is to practice being open and vulnerable. These are critical skills in communication and in relationships because they allow us to practice being present and honoring where we are at — wherever that may be.

Here are a few valuable lessons that can come from being a beginner and why they can produce important results:

Learning how to receive…

Cultivating a healthy sense of entitlement is so important! We need to allow ourselves the beautiful gift of receiving. This can be a vulnerable experience for many of us because it requires that we allow someone in to play a role in our lives. If we pride ourselves on being independent and self-sufficient, this can feel especially out of our comfort zone. Receiving can be tricky. It’s an acknowledgement that we have needs and desires. Learning how to receive and prioritize pleasure in your life is essential for satisfaction in intimate relationships. Many folks struggle with this and it is worthwhile to explore what is keeping you stuck or preventing you from seeking out or allowing yourself ‘to receive’ more often in your relationships.

Asking for help

Similar to learning how to receive, asking for help can be a challenge too. It implies we don’t have it all together and that we need others. When we ask for help, we are allowing someone to be there for us. Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. No one knows it all, and no one knows you better than you know yourself.

In order to connect with others in an authentic way, we need to know where we tend to get stuck. If we came from a background where it wasn’t safe to ask for help or we felt rejected by our caregivers, we might never have learned to reach out and make our needs known. This can lead to an internal sense of loneliness. It can be a struggle to unlearn this; to allow yourself to shift perspective and try something new.  Asking for help requires that we identify and articulate our needs. In relationship, this is necessary when it comes to experiencing intimacy and connection. 

Understanding vulnerability

Vulnerabilities are important to understand because they can get in the way of cultivating genuine connection. Getting to know and understand your unique vulnerabilities requires self-examination. Sharing yourself authentically with others and allowing others to do the same with you is the foundation for building intimacy.

Vulnerabilities can form as a result of many life experiences including traumatic events, chronic patterns in our families of origin, painful experiences in prior love relationships, poverty, stigma, oppression, illness, physical limitation, and disparities of power imbalances between partners.

When we are new at something, we might feel especially vulnerable because we are more likely in a position of relying on others for help. In intimate relationships, ‘helping’ can be a way to show love and it can be difficult to do at times because it means admitting that we don’t have all the answers or that we we need others.

Whenever we love we must deal with feelings of vulnerability and risk in relation to the loved person. We must grapple with the possibility that our hearts can be broken and that we can lose the loved person to betrayal, rejection, divorce, or death. Ultimately we do not have control over their feelings and actions. At the same time, on a daily basis, we must trust that the beloved will be there for us. In order to sustain a relationship over time, we must handle these existential contradictions of adult love by managing our fears and vulnerabilities in ways that are not detrimental to the relationship.” -Michele Scheinkman, The Family Process

The chance to practice self-compassion (when it counts the most)

Self-compassion helps us to navigate the rough terrain with kind attention and care. In deepening our empathy for ourselves and our own experience of being human, we learn important lessons that can help us to have empathy for others too. This is an essential skill in relationships. Self-compassion helps to promote personal growth. We can learn to say: “that was tough, and I didn’t have all the answers, but I made it through; I am a resilient person.” Or, “I understand myself differently as a result of that experience; it taught me more about what I actually want.”

Why self-compassion can be a challenge?

If we grew up in an environment where it was best to suppress our true feelings in order to survive, we may have learned to be harsh with ourselves to get through difficult times. Self-compassion might not have been seen as valuable or important and so we never learned to practice it. You can improve self-compassion with practice. You can start by noticing when you say harsh things to self and then work to shift the statements to a more empathic view. This can help you to grow stronger because you are allowing yourself the space to be imperfect with kindness. This is what all children need to feel in order to be encouraged and to develop strong self-belief. However, we often have some inner child healing work to do in order to get better at offering it to ourselves.

Being new is something to celebrate not avoid!

While the feeling of not knowing or being inexperienced is uncomfortable, it is necessary for our personal growth and can teach us important relationship skills. Deepening our sense of self-compassion as we learn can help us experience greater intimacy in our lives.