Retrain Your Brain

Prevention Magazine . September, 2006

Conquer the five common fears that arise when you decide to return to class.

As back-to-school season rolls around, I’m inspired to remind myself and others that an open mind is a beautiful thing, something that must be nurtured throughout life. But learning isn’t easy. It can bring up lots of resistance and fear, two reactions I experienced firsthand about a year ago when I went back to school at age 60. Okay, so I was the teacher. That didn’t make things any easier. Excited students from around the country were gathered for the first of four 5-day intensive sessions, training in our fledgling Claritas Institute to become spiritual mentors. The room crackled with both anticipation and anxiety—ours as well as theirs. Thoughts of Will I measure up or wash out?, Can I handle all this work and still have a life?, and that perennial confidence buster, What if an old dog really can’t learn new tricks, much less find the discipline to study and practice new skills? floated through many minds. I was not exempt. Concerns like these can block your enthusiasm and sabotage learning. But don’t let them, because it’s good for you. Studies by the London-based Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, an educational think tank, have found that adult education is linked to better health in general, including lower weight, more exercise, and a happier outlook. So whether you’re thinking about signing up for voice lessons, trying out for community theater, or going back to school to get a degree, be aware that there are five sneaky (but predictable) trolls, aka fears, lurking under the bridge to a brighter future. Here’s how to make it safely across the stream.

Fear of Failure

When I was admitted to Harvard Medical School, I was sure that there had been a computer error and I’d soon be exposed as a fraud. It turned out that many other students felt the same way. (Misery loves company, so the pervasive insecurity was comforting.) In the years since, I’ve found that even if you’re an expert at something, fear doesn’t necessarily go away. A lawyer friend of mine stops just short of terror every time she has to give a final argument in front of a jury. Her client’s future, at least in part, rides on her skill. If fear cripples her, the case is lost. But often it gives her an edge. In learning to accept fear as part of the territory, rather than resisting it, you can find your edge, as well.

Fear of Embarrassment

It’s one thing to quietly flunk out of school. It’s another to crash and burn publicly. Flubbing the closing argument, singing karaoke in an unknown key, or forgetting your lines in a play can feel humiliating. And humiliation can make you want to pack up and go home. That’s why brainstorming sessions often begin with silly icebreakers: While impersonating a barnyard animal may pale in comparison to coming up with a really stupid idea, it’s easier to take risks when everyone agrees to be foolish together. (Hence, the age-old advice to visualize your audience in their underwear. ) Joking aside, if you really feel undone by a persistent fear of embarrassment in social situations, you may have social phobia, a condition due to the deficiency of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. The good news is that it’s highly treatable with a combination of meds and therapy.

Fear of Being Less Than Perfect

If you think you have to do everything flawlessly, your self-defeating thoughts and behaviors can make it hard to do anything at all. Perfectionists tend to set unreachable goals and then flagellate themselves for not reaching them. The judgmental habit is learned early, in a family where you grow up thinking that you’re loved not for who you are but for what you accomplish. The result is that any criticism feels like a mortal wound because it means you’re not worthy of love. Perfectionists can’t stand making mistakes—but it’s impossible to learn without risking errors. So if you’re a perfectionist, try thinking about goals differently. Ask what you really want, rather than focusing on pleasing other people. Enjoy the journey, whatever the final destination may be, and take one step at a time, which makes progress more realistic and attainable.

Fear That Learning Will Take Up Too Much Time

A friend of mine recently committed to a year-long program in radiation technology, which she added to her full-time job in the shipping department of a hospital. A year of 16-hour days has been quite the challenge. But keeping her eye on the goal—a more rewarding job with better pay—makes it worthwhile. Life is filled with trade-offs. If you’re not willing to sacrifice time to learn something new, that’s information about your priorities. Maybe the kids are too young for you to think about going to graduate school. Or maybe you’re too attached to the party life. Whatever the reason, if you don’t feel that education is worth the time you give it—and that now is the right moment to commit—the troll won’t let you cross the bridge.

Fear of Not Getting What You Want When You Want It

This is better known as impatience. When I was a graduate student learning to cut ultrathin sections of tissue to observe under the electron microscope, I was all thumbs. I complained to my professor that he did in minutes what took me hours. He looked at me in disbelief, saying something to the effect of, “How conceited can you get? I’ve been practicing this for 10 years, and you expect to master it in a week.” With that, he shook his head and left me to ponder my own narcissism. Lots of things that look easy take years of effort. Whether you want to play the piano, meditate, or become a doctor, practice is the very essence of learning. The idea is to enjoy the process, rather than focusing on the final product. That way, you’ll delight when you achieve a new level of mastery—and also at every twist and turn in the road that takes you there. Tips for getting over barriers to growth

Use the buddy system

If you want to try a continuing ed course, talk a friend into registering with you, and you’ll have someone to share the joys and challenges of the experience.

Sign up for Toastmasters International

It’s an organization that coaches people in public speaking. Because that’s the number one fear for most of us, overcoming it will help raise your self-esteem and make it easier to take other risks.

Join a book club

Or better yet, start your own. For advice on how to organize a reading group, log on to

<< back