Learning, unlearning and anxiety with Nick Wignall

Learning, unlearning and anxiety with Nick Wignall

Aug 3, 2021 10:48 AM
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Dominic Zijlstra
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Anxiety is learning gone awry. But it can be overcome by unlearning and relearning. We also talk about staying motivated by following your curiosity, about self-compassion, paralysis by analysis and immersion.
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About learning how to learn
About learning how to learn
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Anxiety is learning gone awry. But it can be overcome by unlearning and relearning.
We also talk about staying motivated by following your curiosity, about self-compassion, paralysis by analysis and immersion.
Connect with Nick at https://twitter.com/ndwignall
Find out more about Superlearning at https://dominiczijlstra.com/superlearning.
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Hello, and welcome to a new episode in the super learning professionals interview series. Today I'm joined by Nick Bricknell. Nick is a psychologist and also a blogger and podcaster. So welcome Nick. Thanks for having me. I'm glad you're here. Yeah. Yeah. Very interesting. So can you tell me a bit about your journey to become a psychologist and what led you to learn your journey there?
It's interesting. Cause it starts with learning. I was out of university. I was a teacher and then I taught middle school and I taught like English and history. And I kind of found that for a couple of years, that I was more interested in how kids learned specifically as opposed to what they were learning.
And so that kind of got me down the rabbit hole of sort of psychology, which I hadn't studied at all in college. And so I decided to take some classes and then I did a masters program and then went all the way to get my PhD. And for the last six years or so, I'd been working as a clinical psychologist doing like counseling and therapy and one-on-one with.
So your journey actually started with, I guess like meta-learning medical nutrition, learning how to learn. And from there you've moved to more clinical psychology. So there's still like some metal learning element evolve to what you're currently doing or is it a different area? Absolutely. I mean that the idea of learning and even kind of metal learning very much influences the way I think about mental health and psychology, a lot of.
What is called psychopathology. So stuff like depression or anxiety or not all of it, but a lot of it is actually the result of learning processes gone awry. And so what we call treatment in a lot of ways involves relearning things. And there's a variety of ways you do it, but, but for instance, anxiety, you know, if someone has an anxiety disorder, what anxiety really is is you your, your brains.
Fear center. The part of your brain, that's responsible for sounding the alarm. If there's something dangerous that's going to kill you. Right. It gets confused. You, you accidentally teach it that certain things are life-threatening dangerous. When in reality, they may be uncomfortable or painful or scary, but they're not actually dangerous.
Right? So if you imagine in your spouses on a business trip and you imagine their plane crashing and you start feeling really anxious, That's because your brain thinks this hypothetical scenario of your spouse crossing an airplane is dangerous in reality, it's uncomfortable, but it's not actually dangerous to you.
And so getting over anxiety involves retraining or helping your mind relearn that, what it thinks is dangerous. Is it actually dangerous to you? It's learning all the way. Okay. Well maybe you give some examples of what that relearning process looks like and how you can help people treat things like that.
Yeah. Sure. So for anxiety that the core kind of treatment that really shows up across any type of anxiety, whether you're talking about panic attacks or social anxiety or health anxiety, or chronic worry or whatever it is, it comes down to this technique in variety of forms called exposure, technically exposure with response prevention, the basic idea.
Your brain doesn't really learn. So the core problem is your brain thinks something is a life-threatening danger when in reality it isn't. Right. So whether that's like, what other people think of you or that like weird pain in your chest? Or like what? I don't know, whatever it is. So the trick though, is you, can't your, brain's kind of like a dog.
You can't tell your dog. Oh no, this thing's not dangerous. Don't worry about it. Your dog doesn't understand. It only learns through behavior, right? In particular being rewarded or punished for certain types of behaviors. So the idea with exposure is if you have a phobia of spiders, say, you just won't go anywhere near a phone.
Even saying the word spider causes anxiety. You can't just tell yourself anyone who has a phobia knows intellectually. Okay. They're not actually that dangerous. I, this is kind of right. But you can't just tell your brain that you have to teach your brain that through behavior, right? Your brain only really for the most part learns in response to behavior.
So what you do is you, like you learn anything, you gradually work your way up through levels of difficulty and discomfort. So if I got a client who was definitely afraid of spiders, right? Literally the word, like she wouldn't allow people to say the word spider cause she'd get anxious. Right. So what we worked on is very slow.
We'd start with just imagining herself in her head saying the word spider. And that would get her anxiety up to like, I don't know, six or seven out of 10. Right. But we do that repeatedly and crucially, when she was doing that, she wasn't allowed to do what we call a safety behavior, which is something you do to make yourself feel better.
So you visualize something happier, positive, or you tell yourself it's all going to be okay. Or no, you don't do that because you have to show your brain. Distinct feels dangerous, but it isn't actually me saying the word spider feels uncomfortable, but, but I can do that and not do anything and nothing bad happens.
You have to literally show your brain that. So if you do that enough, right. What felt like a six out of 10 on anxiety? Eventually it starts to feel like a five and then it's a four and then it's a, and then once it's kind of low, it's like a tourist. Then you work your way up to, well, what's the next hardest thing, right?
So maybe it's like listening to someone else say the worst spider and you repeat the process over again, if on a fundamental level, this is how you learn anything. But like, if you're learning to play the guitar, you don't, you don't just like whip out your guitar and like start wailing. Like Jimmy Hendrix, you just going to sound awful.
Right? You have to learn how to like, hold the fret board first and it's uncomfortable and your fingers hurt, but you just got to do it until you build up muscle memory. And so it's, it's very much the same approach. So since you are an online creator as well, like you do podcasts and blogs, and I know how overwhelming and like also anxiety causing that can be as well.
And from my own experience, are you able to use those techniques you've described and apply them to yourself as well? Yeah. What are the tricks? I think, and the reason I've been able to do a lot of what I do on the side, like the putting out blogs and podcasts and stuff like that, which can be kind of anxiety producing and overwhelming.
Again, like anything hard. It's a lot. It's not easy, but it's easier to do it and stick with it. If it's something you really care about and really enjoy. Right. So say you want to learn a musical instrument, right? I suppose you could just learn how to play the two. Right. But if you're not that interested in the tuba, but you love rock and roll and you love watching videos of Jimmy Hendrix, whale and the guitar, and you just get super excited, but like maybe you should learn to play the guitar.
Like maybe that's going to be more successful in the long-term. Right. So similarly, if you're trying to, like, for me with my car, Putting my stuff out there, which is uncomfortable, you know, like writing my own ideas out and then putting those out into the world and letting people give me feedback. And it's, it's more tolerable because it's something I love.
I just love doing, I enjoy it. I think it's meaningful. I think it's helpful to people. And so in those moments where you get negative feedback from somebody, or you think, oh, this article is garbage, I shouldn't even publish it. The kind of knowing like, no, but you know what? I really care about this. Like this matters, maybe this isn't the best version of what.
But it is important and I'm going to put it out there anyway. I think it's an obvious, but weirdly overlooked idea that I think learning goes way better, including overcoming obstacles to learning like fear. If you're really tapped into something that's personally very meaningful and enjoyable and interesting to you, what you're learning and what you then like blog about and do podcasts about.
Yeah. As you describe the, just follow your curiosity, or is it. A longer-term vision. And do you S do you like take a look what fits into that? How do you choose that? Yeah, so a lot of it is honestly just being kind of selfish and following my own curiosity. I mean, I listened to what my audience member like want and what they say is interesting to them.
And sometimes I do write about that, but most of it is just like, what do I find? Interesting. And then in particular, the thing that really motivates me is. Taking kind of uncommon or like contrarian views on a lot of topics in psychology and mental health. And so for instance, I recently finished writing up a long kind of guide on the idea of, I call it the title of it is self-compassion for skeptics.
And so the idea that there's this term self-compassion, which is really important, like it is super, super important when it comes to wellbeing and psychology and emotional health. But. It's got this connotation. That's kind of like fluffy and new agey and wishy-washy, and it just sounds kind of not serious.
And so I decided, okay, this is really important, but I'm going to write about it from the perspective of someone who's super skeptical and goes into it thinking like, oh, this is nonsense. So that's very motivating to me. And again, like helps me stick through the sort of learning projects and creation projects that are, that are hard and difficult.
Right. That's super interesting. And do you have kind of a process to learn new things and then be able to write about them? I mean, like there's things like building a second brain and our stuff that's very popular out there. Now. Maybe you have a very contrarian opinion about that as well. So I kind of want to be the person who has frameworks and systems and.
Stuff for learning, but honestly, like I'm kind of sloppy and lazy about it. This interests me. I'm just going to dive into it. I'm so excited about it. That I don't have a great like system in place for taking notes, for instance, and sort of remembering important times. Yeah. My little heuristic is like, I always read with a pencil.
So I'm reading a book. Like I've always got a pencil. And so worst case scenario, I just like pick the book up and I flip through it and I find that one little mark somewhere and it takes me five minutes to skim through the book, but eventually I'll find it. I don't have like a really slick elaborate online system for searching for topics and stuff.
I would like to genuinely, like, I think that is something I aspire to because I think there's a lot of really great benefits that come from that. But the way I think about it is. I would rather start learning imperfectly than like, feel like I need to have some sort of elaborate system set up before I can start writing that sort of paralysis by analysis thing is just so deadly.
I see that just really derailing people so often that I like refuse to, to succumb to that. And so I just, I really default. Like sort of the Nike thing, like just do it, like, even if it's kind of not perfect and sloppy and, and rough and ready, and then if you want to later go back and sort of refine it.
So that's my approach to learning is pretty, it's a little kid, honestly, but, but to me also, like that's part of the fun of it. Like I have no problem. Just sort of like dropping topics. I get like a third of the way into a book and I'm like, nah, this is not nearly as interesting as I thought it was going to be like, see you later.
Qualms whatsoever about doing that. I think that maybe that is kind of my contrarian attitudes, the way I learned and maybe that'll come back to bite me later on, but so far it seems to be okay. Cause it, it keeps my motivation tank high, I guess, for learning. Yeah. I love that. It's definitely better to around that reckless side, rather than throw us by analysis.
So for you personally, in this journey, both professionally and as an online creator, what has been your biggest learning challenge? Yeah, so there's a few. So like early on, one of the things that was really hard for me was coming, I was like a literature major in college and I was a very. History literature, poetry, art, like that was the kind of stuff I liked and was interested in and studied.
And I didn't do any science whatsoever. But then when I decided I started a master's program in psych and had the idea that I wanted to go on to do a PhD, and I'm like, if you're gonna do a PhD, like you gotta know some science stuff, like you gotta be able to be a researcher. That's kinda the whole point.
Volunteered at this lab, in the medical school, at the university, I was going to and said, you know what? I don't know anything about anything you guys are doing, but I need general experience and knowledge. Like how do I be a scientist? How do I research? And so I said, I will work for free I'll show up and just do grunt work and data entry or whatever.
I would love to be able to just like, sit in on meetings and help out wherever I can. The woman who ran the lab, who's a wonderful woman, Harriet to it. She's Dutch. Actually. It sounds like she might be. I think her family is Dutch. She was gracious this to say. And so I just kind of jumped in and it was so overwhelming.
They'd tell me like, here, read this paper and then do it. Whatever. I literally, 20% of the words on the page. I did not understand. I had no idea what was happening and I'd sit on these things. And it was, I felt like a kid, like a, five-year-old listening to, you know, adults talking about politics or something like, so over my head, like barely treading water, but I think if there was any kind of secret there, it was stick it out.
Like trust that immersion is actually a really great way to learn. Like if you're learning a foreign language, as far as I know really the best thing that you can have all the like fancy flashcard apps in the world. If you can. The best thing to do is just like dive in, get messy, be around people who speak the light and just like try and, and don't be afraid to kind of Bumble around and sound like an idiot.
I think one thing that helped me too, was to be really unabashedly kind of earnest about the fact that like, I didn't know what I was doing, but I was really. To learn. And so I would ask kind of dumb questions or questions that probably seem dumb to a lot of people and were probably annoying to some people.
I definitely got that vibe, but I think what won out over that annoyingness was. Like earnestness of no, you know what, like, I just love learning and I really want to learn and I want to be more helpful and I will learn fast. I guarantee it if you indulge these, some of these dumb questions, sometimes just let me be messy for awhile.
And so I think it kind of goes back to that bill. I don't know if it's, I think it's just an ability or an inclination to be okay with things being kind of messy and that like, if you allow yourself to sit in those situations, You learning will learning will almost happen if you put yourself in the right situation with the right mindset.
Of course, that's a little oversimplified, but I think that angle on learning is maybe underappreciated by a lot of people who focus more on the formal stuff, which is important and can be really important at times. But I think there is an, the kind of messy just throw yourself in a approach is a little underrated.
I love that. Being okay with taking a beginner's mind and admitting your Derek. Yeah. Start from scratch. And I guess you're right. Like a lot of people struggle with that and just tend to get overwhelmed or anxious by all the, I mean, the information is ever growing that's out there. Do you have any methods to help people be comfortable with, with taking this, this beginner's mind and being okay with like being the dumbest guy in the room?
Yeah, I think so one way to kind of frame the villain here in this situation is imposter syndrome. People like struggled to jump in, like I'm describing because they feel like an employee. I can't go join this lab. I don't know anything about science. I didn't take any science classes and the, all these people are super smart or whatever.
And I'm going to look like an idiot. I think a lot of people struggle with, well, like how do I deal with my imposter syndrome? How do I, you know, how do I cope with it? Or how do I, you know, what are some tools to, but I think the real secret honestly, is that. It's normal to feel like an imposter. The first time Jimmy Hendricks picked up a guitar, like he probably felt like an imposter too.
Like he didn't know what he was doing. Like everybody's an imposter and everybody feels like an imposter in certain situations. The fact that you feel like an imposter around all these people at this lab meeting or whatever, that's just because this is one situation where they don't feel like an imposter, but if you put them on like the basketball court, they would feel like an imposter because they've never played basketball before.
So I think that really being intentional about reminding yourself, Just because you feel like an imposter and you feel inadequate and you feel incompetent. That doesn't mean anything about your, you as a person or your potential or whatever. Like everybody starts off as we're all born imposters. We don't know anything.
So I think you can sort of level the playing field in your mind. It's a little like the old trick people say when you're doing public speaking to imagine your audience naked. I think it's a little bit like that. It's just like acknowledging sort of the common humanity. Feeling like an imposter and feeling inadequate.
That's normal. It's not a bad thing. It's, it's uncomfortable. It's a bummer. It would be great if I could pick up the tuba and just be an expert tuba player, but that doesn't happen. It doesn't happen for anybody. And so the fact that I feel like an imposter, it's just because I feel like an imposter. It doesn't mean that there's something wrong with that.
It's actually very normal and. Fighting with your feelings of being an imposter and just sort of accept it and go like, yeah. I mean, I do feel sort of anxious and inadequate going into these meetings because everyone else is super smart and knows a lot of stuff. That's kind of normal. It doesn't mean anything's wrong.
It's the way all kinds of learning happens. So this goes back to that idea of self-compassion that we talked about at the beginning. Things come full circle. Yeah, exactly. I love that. It also ties into like, what are. Ask next, like, you're very curious about a lot of things and not afraid to dive in. So how do you inspire others to work with or friends and family to take that?
Approach to learning, which is, which is very joyful and rewarding of. It's just such a hard question. I'm very interested in Medicare. I'm curious about curiosity and how it works. I think it's kind of an under, under studied thing. We don't, I feel like we don't, it's a little bit of a black box. I don't know how not to be curious.
Like I have a hard time putting myself in the shoes of people who say things like, well, I don't know. I'm just not clear. Like what would I be curious about? Or like what I'm curious about everything. Like literally anything, if I, if you like scratch and go a layer deep enough. And then also there's this weird thing.
I feel like curiosity is you have to be delicate with curiosity and you see this with kids a lot. Where if I see it happen all the time with my, as a parent, so I've got young kids. My oldest is six and my youngest is one and a half. So that as a parent, you want to be involved and you want to encourage your kids.
And like, so I remember one time seeing, seeing my daughter and she started drawing and she was drawing a picture of something, but what struck me is she was going beyond a little bit beyond the light, just like generic stick figure. And she was trying to do something a little bit more kind of realistic.
I was so excited for that. That's so cool. Like we've never talked about that. She just kind of came to that on her own. And I went over and I was like, that's awesome. Like, tell me about this. Show me, you know, I was trying to be like really engaged and encourage. And then it was like the, the whole dynamic changed it.
Everything became about me then, like as soon as she started drawing something else, she was like, well, what do you think about this? She had this innate curiosity that was like pushing her in these cool directions. And even though it was well-intentioned my getting involved in trying to. I don't know, push her even further or like help her do more or even just encourage her.
It actually squashed the curiosity. I don't know. Like, I think curiosity is so important. Like so many good things come from curiosity, but it's also the kind of thing where if you're too heavy handed with it, or if you kind of try to approach it directly either with yourself or with others. You can kind of ruin it or like squash it.
I don't know. I don't like the answer to that question. I don't know that I've found a great way other than one of the things I try to do in my writing is I'm very unabashed about taking very ordinary topics. So I'll write an article about self-esteem let's say common topic, people are interested in, right.
I'll and I'll say something, the title would be kind of generic. It'll be something. Five like five habits to improve your self esteem or something like that. I think that's important. Cause you gotta be clear about what you're talking about. If people are gonna read it. Right. But then what I do to get people to think differently about self-esteem is when I get into my article, the tone and like the examples and the way I talk about it is different.
Like I talk about it as someone who's kind of skeptical about the whole idea of self. And people are like, wait, what? Why you're a psychologist? How can you be skeptical about stuff? Right. And that, I think that like little bit of contrarianism or surprise. Maybe helps people themselves get a little bit more curious about this topic.
They thought they understood, but maybe there's sort of a different angle on it. So I'm not like telling people they need to be more curious or even saying from the outside, from the outset, everything about self-esteem is wrong or something. I don't know. Because I think you have to be kind of subtle about it.
If you're going to inspire if you're going to inspire curiosity. So that's a very long winded say way of saying good question. I have no idea. That's my take on it. Well, I think one, one good thing that came up there is surprising people is quite a powerful way of getting them interested in and curious, I guess one more question, I guess also related to the curiosity.
So curiosity. Two way you go down a rabbit hole. Cause you're really curious about it, or you're curious about this, but then you're curious about the next thing that you just acquire, like a very broad knowledge, but you don't go very deep anywhere. So how has that been for you? Do you have any opinions on whether you should acquire deep versus broad knowledge?
I don't know. A lot of the general advice about this that I hear is that if I heard someone describe the idea of being T-shaped where you. Broad horizontal base of kind of, you're fairly knowledgeable about a lot of things. And then you have like one thing that you're really an expert on. I think something like that makes a lot of sense.
Like I think it's good to be pretty well-read and versed in it in a lot of things and then have a one or two things or three or whatever that you're kind of deeper on. I think that generally makes a lot of sense, but I don't, you know, the way I sort of frame, I think the breadth versus depth thing is actually.
Subordinate to one of the things that I try to keep in mind a lot about is I'm intensely curious, but I'm also just like a very pragmatic, practical person, like at the end of the day, like I really care about just being like helpful in a really straightforward way to people. Like, it's great. If I can inspire curiosity and I can get people to sort of think a little more, more deeply about something or like, but really like at the end of the day, whether yeah.
Me learning something or, or trying to help someone else learn something. I don't know. Like I just really care about things being practical. And so I think that kind of guides my, the tension between breadth and depth. Like if I'm going into a topic, say someone requests that I write an article about self-esteem, we've talked about that.
So I know a bit about self-esteem right. I might review some of my favorite books on it or something. And then I might do a little research that can kind of feel when I'm going too deep down the rabbit hole, because it starts to feel like, well, this is interesting to me, but like how much of this stuff is actually going to be helpful to someone who wants to go to like the first, next layer down of understanding self-esteem.
So that kind of cuts me off from going too deep. Right. Or I can have this on the other side of things, like ping-ponging around with like, and going to. I think that practicality also kind of reigns me in and saying, if you actually want to be helpful, you got to kind of like slow down and go a little deeper on this, or it's not going to be helpful.
It might be interesting, but it's not going to be helpful. So I think practicality is a good heuristic for kind of guidance. How you navigate breadth versus depth, at least for me. Yeah. I love that. I think it said obviously, if you can help people, then that's probably the right direction to go. Do you have any special ideas or visions for the future where you're going professionally?
What you're going to really want to blog or podcast about? Haven't got to two so far. Yeah. So I just, I think a lot about my, my field of sort of psychology mental health, it has a lot room to grow. So there's typically like the world of, of psychology and mental health and even kind of self-help too, in my mind, it's been sort of trapped on two extremes of the spectrum.
You have like kind of wishy-washy self-help stuff. That's, that's very accessible and cheap, but it's not very substantive in it. Yeah. Super helpful a lot at a time. Right. And the other hand you have like academic psychology and sort of one-on-one intensive psychotherapy like I do. And like, that's great, but it doesn't scale super well.
Like most people. Either can't afford that don't at the time for that, or honestly don't need anything that intense I'm really interested in and what I sort of hope that more people in my field get interested and start playing around in is that middle ground of like, how can we be more accessible and scale?
It gets sort of our message out to a, to a much broader audience, to more kind of ordinary people, but in a way that, where it's, it still maintains kind of the, the rigor and substance of what we know from sort of good science in, in psychology and behavioral science and mental health. And so that's a big part of what I do.
Blogging and podcasting, and that's kind of my big experiment or hypothesis is can we take a 90% of the substance, the good stuff and present it in a way that's also very friendly and approachable and accessible to a much wider audience. I don't have a big master plan, but I'm just sort of following my nose and doing what's fun and helpful.
And I wish, and I hope that more people in my field, I don't know, do the same, I guess kind of are be willing to kind of put stuff out there and get a little messy. And you gotta be careful. Of course, there are. Issues in there, and these are real struggles that people have. And so you definitely don't want to be too cavalier, but I think humanity in general could just benefit from a lot of that knowledge and wisdom that we have in sort of the science and academic side of psychology, mental health being more readily available.
So however we can do that, I'm all for it. Yeah. I love that. All right. So thanks a lot, Nick, for the interview. And, and do you have any idea for whom I should interview next on this side? Oh, man. Have you interviewed Scott Young? He's been suggested before. I really want to get in touch with them. I haven't reached out yet.
Yeah, he's fantastic. I interviewed him for my podcast and just a really, really interesting guy. And so, yeah, he'd be one person I'd love to hear you ask some more questions of, I'd be fascinated to hear how he, oh, he was definitely one of those days. I'll get the coach and reach out to him. Well, I'll tell you what.
I didn't know him at all. I had zero contact. I had, my podcast was tiny. I just cold emailed him and he was like, yeah, sure. If money's super friendly, like really nice guy super down to earth. So I say, go for it, man. Yeah. That's so good. Yeah. All right. So I'm Nick. If people want to find out more about you or get in touch with you, what's the best way for them.
Probably just my website, Nick dot com. It's my name and I C K w I G N a L L. I've got a newsletter that I send out once a week, which kind of includes all my newest articles and podcasts. And so that's kind of the hub for all my stuff. So if you're interested in learning more about what I talk about and write about and teach, that's a good, let's do it.
All right. Awesome. Thank you, Nick. For the interview. Yeah. Thanks for having me.

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