by Connie Armerding
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
"Two steps forward, one step back"—a universally frustrating experience. We all face it, whether missing turns on familiar roads, repeating kid clean-ups, or wrestling with unforeseen expenses after budgeting.
But what if this dance between progress and setback is mostly internal, marked by small emotional and spiritual progress followed by predictable defeats? What if we're not becoming the person we thought we’d be?
As I've grown older, I've sensed a circular pattern in parenting, marriage, career, and my soul. It raises a vital question: does repetition offer a chance to learn—or unlearn? Taking that step back and shedding what's no longer useful paves the way for change and growth.
Unlearning is learning, too.
Some habits and behaviors are harmful, and we're simply unaware. Growing up in sunny California, I made a habit of chasing the sun, relishing the outdoors, and soaking up as much vitamin D as possible. Although I applied sunscreen diligently, the consequences of sun exposure on my fair skin began to surface in the form of Basal cell skin cancer, right on the middle of my cheek. Resolving this issue meant not only surgical measures but also a fundamental shift in my habits.
Even as I embarked on the journey of unlearning my summer habits, more cancer resurfaced a few months later, this time on my chin. This served as a stark reminder that our past choices can continue to affect us, even after making positive changes. The remaining scars on my face are a constant reminder that true learning involves foresight, not just living for the moment.
This process of moving towards health is a powerful metaphor for an equally significant personal journey. When we encounter "cancerous" aspects in our relational and behavioral patterns, ignoring them is not an option. Instead, we must commit to removing what would contaminate us, making this discipline of unlearning an essential part of our growth.
Yet, the internal process is harder because it is hidden, allowing us to lie to ourselves longer if we avoid facing the truth. The damage of hidden cancer can be even more detrimental than it seemed when first detected.
I’m in the unlearning process of compartmentalizing my public and private life, a behavior often praised by societal norms. Instead, I’m learning the freedom found in the integrated life. In the public eye, hard work, hustle, and drive are celebrated, yet the cost of this is that those closest to me receive fractions of my attention. This mindset of constant hustle contradicts the teachings of Scripture, which calls us to seasons of stillness and rest, inviting the integration of our body, mind, heart, and soul to live in harmonious unity. Breaking down the barriers of a compartmentalized life is an ongoing process of unlearning; it requires a change in direction, also known as repentance.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus spoke of what occurs when new wine is placed in an old wineskin to warn us against hanging on to outdated, unhelpful thinking.
"Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins." (Mark 2:21-22)
This example of new wine in an old container invites us to self-reflect, cautioning against forcing new knowledge back into a framework that risks its loss. Old behaviors yield old results, so unlearning old mindsets and behaviors is necessary to make space for expanded growth.
Starting a new habit is tough. It requires mental effort to rewire deeply ingrained neural pathways. We can begin by monitoring the messages we absorb. The renewing of our minds is made possible by the transformative work of Jesus on the cross. The Holy Spirit's work kickstarts our growth, and Scripture teaches us what needs to be torn down and corrected (or unlearned) as well as what needs training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:15). God kindly reveals what must be surrendered, allowing Him to take our broken pieces and guide us toward wholeness. Transformation—or sanctification—is a process where God frees us from sinful habits and cultivates Christlike qualities within us.
This might feel like going "two steps forward, one step back." Unlearning old mindsets is essential to clear the way for new knowledge to take its rightful place.
Connie Armerding is an Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant, Author, Speaker, and Educator. She is passionate about equipping leaders by creating spiritually and emotionally healthy cultures among leaders and their communities. Connect with Connie on IG @carmerding or over at conniearmerding.com.