How decrease my levels of frustration when learning a skill?
February 18, 2012 12:53 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over the sudden fear, anxiety, frustration and embarrassment I feel when learning a new skill?

I am an adult with anxiety issues. These are most apparent whe I am learning a new skill in front of other people. As soon as I get to something even slightly difficult, my frustration seems to skyrocket and I lose control (this involves crying, shaking and just plain losing it) . Then I am instantly embarrassed and feel the need to stop and run away.

For example, I have wanted to try knitting for years. I took a class this morning, and the second I fell behind everyone, tears and embarrassment. I was able to finish the class, but burst into tears as I left and I''m still crying three hours later.

I'm on meds (took a Xanax before I went because I was pretty sure this would happen) and have been in and out of therapy.

This is preventing me from living my life - I'm too terrified to drive, to cook, and basically learn anything for fear of being slow or not the best. Help!!
Thanks for any advice.
posted by Shebear to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Understand, it's not about you. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 1:11 PM on February 18, 2012

Years ago, I took Tae Kwon Do, and one day we were learning how to use nunchaku.
A kid next to me was getting frustrated because he was having trouble learning. He was near tears. I turned to him and said, "Do you know how many times Bruce Lee smacked himself in the face when he learned how to use nunchaku?"

Moral: Every expert at something started out knowing nothing about it and made lots of mistakes while learning.
posted by luckynerd at 1:14 PM on February 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Do you remember the REAL consequences of not doing things right? (there are not usually that many if you're not working as a Dr. etc)

This week I didn't notice/ act upon something at work and I FELT SOOOOO AWFUL- but... when I think about a ACTUAL consequences (NONE)- it wasn't so bad. I wasn't going to be fired and I'd tried my best- what more could I do? That was huge- in the past I would have spent a week worrying about it...

you're not going to get shafted in any meaningful way for not getting your knitting right. Sounds lame, but I imagine most everything is like that.
posted by misspony at 1:24 PM on February 18, 2012

I don't know if advice from random Internet strangers will help. This sounds like a job for a therapist. That said:

1. None of your classmates care. Really. You take a class as an adult, everybody is there for their own fulfillment, not to score points on other people. Nobody's going to look at you and think "Oh look, shebear dropped a stitch. What. A. Loser."

2. When you take a class as an adult, you're the customer. You're in charge. Nobody can lord anything over you.

3. You're not the best. At anything. Ever. There's always somebody better than you. Get over the idea that you can be the best. You never will be. You may, however, get to be damn good at some things. 10,000 hours and all that.
posted by adamrice at 1:29 PM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two words: Larry Cooper.*

In beginner band, I was anxious about squeaking and otherwise screwing up on clarinet. I felt that everyone else was getting everything perfectly and that I was just an idiot, until I realized that Larry, sitting next to me, was always saying things like:

"We've never done this before."
"How do you do this?"

and then it clicked with me that everyone was having pretty much the same problems, and they were all too self-conscious to be paying much attention to me.

Wish I had more heart-warming news about Larry. Turns out he was a special breed of dumb-ass, and he dropped out after one year. But I doubt I'd be a musician today if it weren't for him. He was just enough of a Forrest Gump type to be saying what everyone else was thinking.

I sort of consciously adopt the Larry Cooper role sometimes if I have to learn something technical in a group setting. I personally prefer to study stuff on my own, but if I'm forced to learn something in front of everyone, I'll ask the stupid question as long as I have a glimmer of thought that at least half the others have the same question and their egos won't let them ask it. I see some eye-rolling and sighs, but I'm also rewarded, as often as not, by an instructor who's been hoping to God someone would ask the stupid question and appreciative looks by at least half the others, who were wondering the same thing and hoping some Larry Cooper among them would ask already.

It's sometimes also helpful to remember that these people you're surrounded by will probably not in your life after the class is over, and if they're the type to snicker because someone's having problems in a beginner class, you probably don't want to be their friend anyway.

*not his real name
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

My karate instructors see this all the time, and they all have some variation of the following speech:

"Look, you just started. You're not supposed to be good at it. It's hard. If you were good at it on your first day, we'd all be kind of freaked out. Make mistakes! The only way you're going to get any better is if you make mistakes."

You have to get your blue belt (two or three months of regular practice) before you are expected to know anything at all. Before that, you're a white belt - you're expected to show up and try your best and if your best involves only tripping over your own feet once or twice an hour, that's great!

Seriously, a LOT of people struggle with this attitude. Particularly overachieving, really smart people who are accustomed to being good at things within their particular sphere - moving outside it (say, to an activity with a physical component) can be really disorienting and require you to redefine yourself as someone who is not good at something, rather than someone who always kicks ass. But the people who acknowledge that they're not good at things can get better - and the people who can't do that never will.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:37 PM on February 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I tell my philosophy students that the point of class participation is not to be right, it's to be publicly wrong in interesting ways so we call ALL learn from your interesting errors.

Every time you're successfully wrong, you're one step closer to being right.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Oh my gosh, I am right there with you. I don't try out as many new things as I probably should because I'm scared of screwing up. I don't pursue what I like because I think that I'm not good enough and what I'm doing is just embarrassing.

The end result? Nothing changes. I don't grow as a person.

Try to enter things with an open mind, and let others know where you are, too. Last week I had a similar situation, I think - I left an oil-painting class halfway through because I wasn't at the same level as everyone else, and the teacher wasn't being helpful. But I called the studio and they were very nice, and I just explained where I was starting from and said, "oh, X is very good with beginners - we can transfer you to their class".

I'm in the same boat, I really am, and I think just know that the pros of learning a new skill or means of expression, as well as meeting cool people who share your interest are really worth any potential embarrassments!

On a teacher's note - when students come to me and say, "I'm so dumb - I don't get this!" I usually say, "hey! are you calling me dumb? I didn't get it when I was starting out either! :-) "

Not to go all shrinky on you, but I think in the last few years we've started being told as kids that "you're a perfect person! you're so wonderful!" and then when we aren't perfect, we feel like massive failures. Very few people are perfect in all areas. Very few people are even GOOD in all areas. You don't HAVE to be perfect at cooking AND sewing AND driving etc.....but I think not learning ANY of those is a bit problematic. I'm pretty reconciled to being a jack of all trades. It's not glamorous, but it's useful. :-)
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:03 PM on February 18, 2012

Love love love that you asked this question. I'm possibly starting a new job tonight and I'm SO nervous. I met with the manager and did a little trial run the other day. She really liked be but I've never worked in this industry before. What I'm planning to do (and have done in the past very successfully) is to act. Put on the best performance you can. Detach yourself from your emotions if you can. If you make a mistake, the show must go on!

I know it can be hard if you hate making mistakes and potentially looking stupid. You're not the only one with these fears, if that helps at all. But try the acting thing. You are in character as an excellent chef! You can chop, sautéed, fricassee and make a souffle with the best of them! And hey, if you mess up, are you really going to see the people in your knitting class regularly? If you never see them outside of class, then who cares what they think?!

Good luck!
posted by lovelygirl at 3:06 PM on February 18, 2012

aw, i can totally relate. i want to learn urdu as a first generation pakistani-american but i'm super sensitive about pronouncing everything wrong and having bad grammar that i break into tears anytime i attempt a conversation or when people ask me why i don't speak it.

i was thinking about how it's easier for children to pick up languages and i think not only is it easier for them to acquire language but it's really easy for them to pick up a new skill too.

but you know what? easy is the WRONG word. they struggle too and make lots of fumbles and blunders. the difference is that when you're young, no one cares but when you're older, you're mindful of all of the judgements can make of you.

the thing is when you're learning a skill, all of that criticism and judgement is coming from YOU, no one else. everybody else but yourself will strongly encourage you to continue on with whatever you're trying to do, including people who are in the same boat with you that worry about their own self-perceived incompetence.

were you criticized a lot as a kid or never lauded for your accomplishments? you need to know how fast and able you are to acquire a skill is not what you should value but rather applaud yourself for even taking the initiative to try something new and constantly compliment yourself for fighting to continue with it. this question alone shows you don't really want to give up knitting, you just want to give up the frustration of your inadequacy. you should feel proud that you're taking this step with this post to even reach out to try to gauge at a solution.

also when you're knitting, don't concentrate so much on the activity. people knit to relax and they feel great doing something while thinking or talking. have you ever tried to knit around people you know and like? your friends won't know if you're making a mistake (unless you tell them) and not only will it get you good practice but you'll enjoy knitting by taking it out of a setting where you would be comparing your work to someone else's.
posted by thischarmingirl at 5:41 PM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Three cheers for Larry Cooper, and for randomkeystrike (favoriting wasn't enough)
posted by ahaynes at 7:18 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

And Shebear, do as parents are told to do for kids now - praise yourself for effort & perseverance.
posted by ahaynes at 7:21 PM on February 18, 2012

I am not completely unskilled athletically. But nothing physical comes natural to me. I need practice. I don't think this is a case of "everyone is that way." I really am amazingly awful the first few times I try things. I remember working out with my friend who is a trainer and he was trying to teach me something new. I tried a few times, looked like an idiot, then turned to him and said:

"You know, I tend to be really bad at new things at first. But once I practice a while I'm fine."

Coming out and saying that alleviated my embarrassment. Then we kept practicing til I got it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:16 PM on February 18, 2012

There are lots of great suggestions here for how to approach things emotionally and philosophically. If I could make a practical suggestion, however, it's to not take group classes. If you can find someone to teach you knitting one-on-one, you will eliminate the problem of comparing yourself to other learners and feeling like you are falling behind. You will still have the discomfort of the learning curve, but maybe without the pressure of other students that will be more manageable.

Another thing you might try is taking a class in something you already know how to do. Do you already speak a second language? Can you line dance? If you take a beginner's level in a skill you already have confidence in, that part of the anxiety should be minimized. You should be able to keep up relatively easily, and that might give you the chance to experience the group dynamic under more comfortable circumstances. Possibly, you could make friends and move up through the levels with a group until you actually get to a level you find challenging. Hopefully, by then you will feel at-home with the other people in the class, and less anxious of making mistakes in front of them.

You could even combine these two, by getting someone's grandma to teach you to knit a scarf, then signing up for a kitting class with those basic skill in hand.
posted by looli at 9:27 PM on February 18, 2012

Three cheers for Larry Cooper, and for randomkeystrike (favoriting wasn't enough)

Gawsh, thanks. (if I like ahaynes comment, am I a self-congratulatory jackass?)
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:20 PM on February 20, 2012

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