We speak to so many women that tell us they aren’t learning because they don’t think they are capable of learning. Some say they are worried they will fail. Others say they are simply too old. We say pish-posh to this. Everyone can learn something new.
Humans need to learn. We have an innate desire to learn and progress. Psychologists call this mastery and it turns out it’s fundamental for our happiness and wellbeing.
And we have evolved so that we are capable of constantly learning, no matter how old we are. While it’s true that we are most effective at learning new skills before we hit early adolescence, there is no difference in our ability to learn new skills between young adulthood and middle-age. So those Gen Zs don’t have the edge you might have suspected. Our ability to learn does start to decrease once we hit 60 - but we can still learn then, it just takes us a little longer.
Learning has been proven to have positive benefits to confidence and self-esteem. So if you’re sitting there thinking that you aren’t capable of learning then it sounds like you’re the sort of person that would benefit hugely from doing so.
So what is stopping you? Why do you feel you aren’t capable of learning?
If you feel you aren’t capable of learning something new then it’s likely you have limiting self-beliefs - beliefs about yourself and your abilities that are holding you back and stopping you achieving what you’re capable of.
If you feel that you aren’t good enough to learn or that you’re too old to learn, then it’s likely that these limiting self-beliefs are holding you back from more than just learning.
Limiting self-beliefs stop us from pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones. We like to stay in our safe space where there is security and structure. The lower our confidence levels the less we are likely to leave our comfort zones. But the more we stay in our comfort zone, the more anxious we feel about leaving it and the less likely we are to push ourselves. So our comfort zone gets smaller and smaller over time. The more we leave our comfort zone and push ourselves, the more we build our confidence to do more and so our comfort zone expands.
Where do these beliefs come from?
Limiting self-beliefs can be formed in childhood. Here we start to form beliefs about the world which help us to generalise and understand the world. They are shaped by our parents and other dominant figures. Interestingly, teachers have a very powerful impact on our self-beliefs. As we grow up we widen our range of sources to include our peers and what we absorb through the media we consume.
Despite forming new beliefs as we age, the beliefs we form when we are young are stubbornly held and can impact our success throughout our lives. If we believe that we aren’t good enough then we won’t apply for a job or for a promotion, for example. Beliefs impact our actions and make us do or not do things in our lives that can hold us back.
You may feel a lack of confidence around learning something new because of generic limiting self-belief in your own abilities that may have been gained in your childhood, or may have been acquired along the way due to negative experiences.
You may also feel a lack of confidence around learning something new because of limiting self-beliefs specific to learning, which may have been formed at school or during negative learning experiences in later life. UK schools are designed to support people to learn in a very specific way and are suited to a small group of learners. If you don’t learn in this way it’s likely you found school frustrating. Maybe you didn’t ‘perform’ well. The school model of learning has influenced other places of learning. Traditional classroom-based learning models, or what is known as ‘chalk and talk’, pervades society still even in this digital age. Perhaps your negative learning experiences went beyond school to higher education or into work-based learning.
Common limiting self-beliefs here include:
- “I can’t learn new things and I will likely fail the course”
- “I will be really slow and won’t be able to understand the lessons”
- “I am too old to learn”
- “I’m no good at that subject”
- “I’m stupid I am no good at things”
Overcoming limiting self-beliefs
The first thing to realise about our limiting self-beliefs is that they are just that - beliefs. They aren’t facts and they aren’t based on evidence. You need to sit down and spend some time reflecting on your personal limiting self-beliefs.
1. Consider where these beliefs have come from
Reflect on what the source of these beliefs could be.
Perhaps they are linked to general low-confidence about yourself and your abilities that have been shaped by interactions with your parents, your family members, your teachers or even your friends or your partner.
Perhaps you’ve had bad experiences of learning in the past and have struggled and that’s where these beliefs have come from.
The first step in overcoming them is to try and think about where they have come from.
2. Consider the evidence associated with these beliefs and list positive instances under each one
Even though self-beliefs are just that and aren’t fact, we usually perceive them as being fact. So the next step is to acknowledge the beliefs and explore the evidence associated with them. It’s important to realise that the evidence you use to justify these beliefs is circumstantial and this can help you to overcome them.
But how do you do this?
You start by listing the limiting self-beliefs, for example, “I can’t learn something new”. It’s likely that you will immediately dwell on all the times you failed to learn something/grasp something new. Now is the time to end this and to think about the positive instances.
Take each limiting self-belief in turn and compile evidence of instances when this belief has proved to be untrue. In the example “I can’t learn something new” cite as many examples as you can think of where you have learned something new, whether it was something at school, on a course, at work or at home. Come up with as many examples as you can think of, even if it’s something like “I learned to make pancakes”.
Now examine your lists. Have you been fair on yourself? Now you are faced with the evidence do you think those self-beliefs are factually correct or not? Only when we are faced with evidence that contradicts our self-beliefs do we see that it’s not fact at all. They are just things we believe that have no basis in fact.
3. Challenge your negative thoughts
Go back to your list of limiting self-beliefs. They all manifest themselves in negative thought patterns. To overcome these negative thoughts you have to immediately contradict them with a positive thought.
Negative thought: “I am no good at learning”
Positive affirmation: “I am good at learning, I can learn”
Or if you genuinely don’t think you’re a brilliant learner then you can say things like:
“I can learn if the circumstances are right for me”.
Internal praise reinforces dopamine release in your brain and if you keep doing this you will start to train your brain to think positive rather than negative thoughts.
4. Our top tips for study
The previous advice around overcoming your limiting self-beliefs can be applied to any belief in any situation. But what about studying something new? Here we have some specific advice that can really help you get your learning journey off to the best start.
Before you start
You can help yourself by doing some things right before you’ve even started learning.
1. Choose the right learning provider
Some learning providers will offer a more nurturing and supportive environment than others. If your confidence is low then you are going to want to find a learning provider that is approachable, is geared up for training people with low confidence, has a welcoming and approachable attitude and ideally where you can learn with others in your situation.
You might think that all learning providers are the same but they really aren’t. There will be different cultures at each learning organisation and not all will be suited to low confidence learners. Consider the following two examples.
A small independent learning provider offers a digital skills course training senior leaders from all over the world. Hardly anyone seems to ask questions in the student community and they all seem to grasp the content quickly and easily. No one encourages them to ask questions. On the course, students work in small peer groups on projects throughout the course. There are lots of forceful male peers in the project groups. A woman finds herself contributing ideas that aren’t listened to and aren’t chosen to be taken forward. Over time they find themselves contributed less and less and they feel scared to ask questions in the community in case they look stupid, even if they don’t understand the lessons. How would this impact their confidence?
A small independent learning provider offers a digital skills course training women that have been on a career break. There is a facilitator in the student community checking in with everyone and encouraging people to ask questions. The group is active with people asking questions and getting support from the facilitator and sometimes from each other. On the course, students work in small peer groups on projects throughout the course. There are lots of supportive women in the project groups. A woman finds herself contributing ideas and each time she is met with positive reactions from her peers. Her ideas are chosen to be taken forward. Over time they find themselves contributing more and more, asking questions in the community and even occasionally answering other people’s questions. How would this impact their confidence?
It’s clear that the second example is likely to build a student’s confidence a lot more than the first example. Being reassured, nurtured and encouraged is the way to lift someone up.
The more you fear learning, the more important it is to do your research and to find the right learning provider for you. Some things to consider include:
- An approachable admissions team. Approach the admissions team handling prospective student queries/questions and see how they respond. Don’t be afraid to let them know that you’re nervous about learning something new and aren’t particularly confident. See how they respond. Look for empathy and understanding in their answers, as much as reassurance that they can help. Be wary of a ‘salesy’ approach that seems to push you to make a decision without considering all the factors.
- An empowering community. Having a supportive learning community of people like you can really help build you up and make you realise you have got this. We find that women supporting other women can be particularly powerful in building up confidence levels. Choose a learning provider that has learners like you and an active student community wrapped around their courses.
2. Choose the right course
There is evidence to suggest that adult learning seems to have its most positive impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy when the learning provided meets the needs of the learner so it’s important to choose the course carefully as well as the provider of the course. Here are some things to look out for:
- The right difficulty level. If you are low confidence about your abilities then you want something that will push you slightly out of your comfort zone but not too much. Ideally, the course would push you out of your comfort zone bit by bit each week in a manageable way, so that you can build confidence slowly rather than be thrown in at the deep end - which isn’t always great for people starting from a low baseline.
- Structure. Avoid self-paced courses that have no set structure with no accountability. They have average graduation rates of 8-13% and the last thing you need is to drop out and knock your learning confidence even further. If you do want to do this type of course, consider getting a study buddy who will learn with you and you can hold each other accountable.
- Feedback and support. When you are low confidence you’re often second-guessing yourself. “Do I really understand this I don’t think I do”. The ability to ask questions from the subject expert can help with this. Think about finding a course where you get some feedback on your progress either from graded quizzes, so you can test your understanding. or from tutors. Do be aware though that the more feedback provided on a course the more expensive it’s likely to be, particularly if you would like 1:1 feedback because this is logistically challenging to provide and so always comes at a high cost.
During the course
Going into a new learning experience can make you anxious and stressed. Your fear and doubt will likely peak at this point and those limiting self-beliefs and negative voices will kick in. Try to replace any negative doubts that arise with a positive affirmation.
Be patient and kind with yourself and don’t place too much pressure on yourself to hit the ground running. Expect a slow start and lean on the support structure that’s wrapped around the course to ask questions and to explain anything you don’t understand. No question is a stupid question.
You will make mistakes along the way as you are a beginner. Mistakes are inevitable. Don’t see them as a failure - see them as an opportunity to learn. Remember humans learn best by making mistakes. Don’t let your mistakes dent your confidence, or even worse make you drop out and think you can’t do it.
Take a few minutes each week to list everything you have achieved that week. List the things you have learned, the things you are proud of, the things that surprised you about yourself. This will build your confidence as you’ll focus on all your successes and will help keep you motivated to finish.
When you finish
Hurrah you’ve successfully completed the course! Don’t rest on your laurels, sit down and reflect on the experience. Reflect on your successes and share them with others, whether your fellow students, your friends or your family. Focus on the evidence that dispels your limiting self-beliefs that you can’t learn. And add the course to your LinkedIn profile to show your success to the world. It’s time to celebrate!
Don’t forget that all the Digital Mum’s courses are designed specifically around the needs of mothers, some of whom have been on long career breaks and their confidence has been at rock bottom, so if you study with us you’ll be off to a good start. Visit our Work That Works Academy to find out what courses we have on offer at the moment. We are also offering free short courses and some free webinars over the next few months as part of our #LearnIn campaign to encourage mothers to lean into learning and these are all super short and easy to fit into your busy lives. Sign up to our newsletter here to find out how to access these.