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The Learning Self

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

We can heal ourselves. We do that all the time. We do that through our body’s immune system. What’s more, the immune system can learn. If it’s exposed to new germs it can “learn” to deal with them by developing new antibodies. Vaccines are just emergency help for a process our bodies do naturally and spontaneously all the time.

But what about our self selves? Who we are as people. How we think and feel and function. Most of us proceed like Olive Oyl’s boyfriend: “I yam what I yam and that all what I yam, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”

Our self is our agenda. We have a notion of our true self, our real self, and we feel “I gotta be me!” at all costs. Life for us becomes a theater of self-discovery and self-expression.

And, as we talked about in our previous post, when things aren’t working out for us in parts of our lives, we might try doing different things but the last thing we’ll do is break up with ourselves. If there’s a choice between “I gotta be me” and “I need to do what’s necessary to make this work,” we’ll choose “I gotta be me.”

We keep our old selves in service even when a new self is available that will function much, much better, thank you very much.

To take a very simple example, I remember a person who refused her tennis coach’s suggestion that she change her grip. He believed—professional tennis coach that he was—that her old grip was damaging her game. But she wouldn’t change, because, as she put it, the new grip “wouldn’t be me.”

There you have it!

So let me introduce you to an entirely new concept of the self. The self-transforming self. The self-renewing self. The learning self.

The old self we have is a collection of traits (“I’m a good person; I’m slow to wake up in the morning; I’m too trusting.”), tastes (“I like chocolate, warm sunny days, and flannel sheets, and I hate heavy-metal rock, eggplant, slow talkers, and clammy hands.”), and desires (“I really want to travel, but not to anywhere cold; I want to live in a house on a lake; I want to have three dogs.”).

The self-transforming self, on the other hand, is a learning self. It’s devoted to learning and change, to doing anything to make life work out better. Not according to some predefined notion of the self but purely based on what works in terms of happiness and fulfillment.

The Popeye self says, “I’m not going to go with you to the ballet because I know I won’t like it. I’m a sports person. People like me just don’t like the ballet.” The self-transforming self says, “My life with my partner is going to be SO much better if we can share interests. I bet if I learn about ballet I can learn to like it. There’s no such thing as ballet people and non-ballet people. There are just those who’ve learned to appreciate it and those who haven’t. I will learn.”

Boom! That’s it! That’s how to think like someone who has a learning self. There’s no allegiance to any “me” at all. Just an allegiance to making things work and to the very realistic hope that learning is always transformational.

Pie in the sky? Not much! The most important thing we’ve learned about the brain in the last forty years is neuroplasticity: the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. Our ability to change at even the most fundamental levels is startling. In a way, all that’s necessary is the belief that it’s possible. You can’t fly no matter how much you believe you can fly, but you CAN change profoundly if you believe you can because then you allow yourself to learn about the ballet or read Why Couples Fight to see what’s really going on in your relationship.

Can we always change everything? Nah, I doubt it. But here’s the thing about even that. Suppose I said, fine, there are three fundamental things about myself that I couldn’t change no matter what. That might be true. But what three things!?! That I don’t know. I might think one of them is my hatred of camping that’ll never change. But I can’t say for sure I couldn’t learn to like it. (I can say, thank God, that my partner hates camping too!).

So since no one ever knows what those three things about themselves that can’t change are, we might as well embrace having the self-transforming self across the board.

Besides, an openness to doing this is one of the two great secrets to happy, sustainable marriages. Either you change just enough of who you are to make getting along without power moves a possibility. Or you go back in time and find some Ms or Mr Right with whom you’re so perfectly matched there’s never ever a problem getting your needs met.

Here’s a secret to a happy life I’ll throw in for free. The Popeyes of this life are generally not so happy. Because they are married to a self of a particular shape, they’re inflexible. They’re like koalas, who live on eucalyptus leaves. These Popeyes need things to be just right for them to function. Otherwise, they’re miserable, because they can’t adapt.

People who are self-transformational, who have a learning self, are by definition highly adaptable. They can learn to function, to get pleasure, to get fulfillment, to get joy, from a wide range of sources. Making it a hell of a lot easier to have a good life.

Why Couples Fight actually makes pretty modest demands on your ability to change yourself. You just have to make actually getting your needs met, both of you, sustainably, in a way that creates peace, more important to you than winning a stupid power struggle. It’s kind of a no brainer. Check the book out. It’ll transform your relationship. And guaranteed the solution is easier than engaging in the power struggles you’re engaged in now.


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