Unlearning Our Unsavory Qualities


"This conversation is over, you've done enough damage for one day," my friend's mom said as she took the phone from my friend's hand and hung it up. (Or as she "clicked on me", as I would've described it as a middle schooler in Teaneck, NJ.)

It was 6th grade and many tears had been shed over the last hour, as my friend shared how angry she was that I was spending time with another mutual friend. This friend was her best friend for years, and from the perspective of middle school girls I was stealing her away. 

I was caught off guard by my friend's feelings. This is how friendships are made, I thought. You meet new people, hang out and become close. Why was she mad at me?

I was surprised again to find that a few weeks later, when these two friends were spending more time together (without me), I felt the same pang of emotion that I'd caused my friend. There was a name for the feeling, jealousy, and I was experiencing it personally for the very first time. I registered it there and then. "This is jealousy, and I am resentful that I now know what this feels like."

I can clearly pinpoint this day in the early 2000s that the unsavory quality called jealously was added to the way I experience the world. It would show its face many times in the years to come. 

Our whole lives are made up of moments like this. Sometimes the moments when we adopt new qualities are very distinct. They're snapshots in time in our lives that we can identify, after which everything is changed. In other cases, our incorporation of new qualities — good or bad — goes largely unnoticed. It might be a gradual process, so we're unaware as the quality sneaks into our repertoire. Or maybe what we're learning is so embedded in the way things work around us that we're unaware it's even learned at all. 

But the fact of the matter is that they are, learned. Every quality about us is something that's developed during the course of our lives. Some of these learned traits are amazing — think resilience, determination, strength. Others are not so amazing. 


I remember the day I learned not to speak my mind — the quality of meekness you might call it. My older cousins were my idols, and they were so very cool. I'd hang on their legs as they'd leave a family gathering to meet their friends. I was three going on 17.

Then one day it hit me. If they were to bear my presence, I'd have to start acting a whole lot more mature. In my mind there was no option to be the annoying little cousin. So I quit my clinging and shut my mouth because I knew nothing cool would come out of it, and achieved the closeness to them I so wanted, silently. That was the day I learned that to be cool I had to say less. I'd assume this through all my years in school and beyond.

The yogic understanding is that at our core we are all pure. When we're born, we're free from conditioning and learned behavior and ugliness that causes us to be anything but completely good and happy and alike. (Save for our karma, but that is for another discussion.) 

Just think about babies. They're full of life and smiles and pure, uninhibited expression of their deep truth. As we grow up, however, we accumulate layers of armor that pile up and distort "who we are", which is basically how we express ourselves to the world around us. We become guarded and emotional and we harbor grudges that impact our personalities and every single thing we do. 


I can recall the reason, though not the exact moment my brain learned to be occupied by two different thoughts. I blame it on boyfriends and cell phones.

With my first boyfriend, I learned what it was like to have someone consume your thoughts completely. I'd spend entire hours thinking about him. But when my focus was required elsewhere, that train of thought would temporarily shut down and I'd shift to what was at hand. 

It was with my second boyfriend that I lost the ability to be fully present. I thought about him constantly. Eventually we broke up to go to different schools, hundreds of miles apart. But I didn't stopped thinking about him despite the separation. We had a constant running text conversation going, which didn't help. Half my focus was on the conversation in front of me, half was always on the conversation on my phone. Even when there was nothing in particular to think about, just the letters of his name would occupy a part of my awareness so that some part of me was always detached from the moment I was living. 

After many years the focus of this separate part of my thoughts shifted from him in particular to other people and things. But the propensity to disconnect from being fully present was cemented. That corner of my brain that could be occupied by something completely different than what was in front of me had been established. To this day, two very distinct things can occupy my thoughts at the very same time and I fight a steep uphill battle to be present.

With careful analysis and (for some things) a time machine, I think we could examine our lives and find the moment we developed each of our qualities. For the ones that serve us well we tip our hats. But for the qualities we don't love so much, what's available to us is a process of unlearning. 

Circling back to yogic belief, the moment we step onto a yogic path is the moment we start the process of unlearning. (If you come to yoga class you may not know it yet, but this means you!) It means unlearning all that has been conditioned or assumed, and that is therefore superfluous and layered on top of who we are. It is peeling back each experience and conversation that has added unsavory qualities to our armor, and doing away with them layer by layer until we connect back to our original essence.

As Marianne Williamson so eloquently put it:

Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us. 

But you don't need to be into yoga or to embrace spirituality to appreciate this. As far as I can tell, most of us start getting focused on becoming better versions of ourselves as we get older. That quest is parallel to the quest of a yogi. 

Where we all start is in a moment of recognition. We recognize where we're at today, and we start to move towards where we want to be. We all can start by identifying the traits or qualities we don't love in ourselves. The simple awareness we find in that moment is a huge step in the direction of releasing the trait from the armor we wear. You don't even need to trace its origin, though it can be helpful to give it some thought to when you developed your qualities. (I'm sure you'll recall moments of your own like the ones I talked about.) 

Once a quality is identified we start to notice when it's surfacing day to day. It doesn't happen immediately, but a step beyond awareness is being able to control the expression of this quality. I can start to control how jealousy impacts my life. Or I can choose to speak up and to not be meek. Or I can fight to find presence in every moment I remember to try.

It's taken our lifetime to accumulate many of these qualities, so releasing them can be a lengthy process. But as awareness is the first step on the path to change this is the first step to unlearning our unsavory qualities and working towards becoming who we want to be or who, in fact, we really are. 

Joanna Cohen