‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know’: teaching yourself the life skills that your parents couldn’t

A guest blog post by Dr Ahona Guha, author of Life Skills for a Broken World

As I tentatively tiptoe into a new year (after 2020, no one is launching into a new year with any enthusiasm whatsoever), I’ve started to think about the psychological and emotional skills I will need to bring to this year as I navigate a world beset with so many difficulties. The concept of psychological skills can seem confusing to some.

Are these skills such as changing your tyres? Achieving the perfect hardboiled egg? Not quite. These psychological skills are capacities that we all possess (to varying degrees) and which help us navigate life with our mental health and psychological wellbeing intact. They help us understand and manage our internal processes (thoughts and feelings), build good relationships, and handle distressing times — essential abilities for any time, but especially at present, given the rapid changes in the world, and the distressing events surrounding us.

Like physical skills, psychological skills are learnt and nurtured as we grow up and as we absorb information from our parents, extended families, peers, and the broader culture. Some of us will lack certain skills (e.g., emotional management or tolerating change) because the adults around us didn’t have these skills themselves and couldn’t impart them to us. However, we can learn and practise those skills that might be missing from our toolbox, much as we do with physical skills (e.g. roller-skating).

Like many millennials, I learnt almost none of these skills while I was growing up. I was taught to do well at school and to work hard, but not much else. Although working hard has served me well, all the time I spent practising the Pythagorean theorem has been less useful. In my early twenties I struggled with relationships and friendships, knowing what was expected of me, knowing what was realistic, not buying too much stuff, managing change and uncertainty, anxiety, and navigating hard emotions. There were so many skills I needed to know and had to learn from scratch.

The hardest part was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no frame of reference to even notice that emotional management was a useful skill or that learning it might help me manage the anxiety I felt about life, study, and work!

I wrote Life Skills for a Broken World to remedy this gap in our understanding of the psychological skills we need. Chunked in bite-sized pieces —broken up by beautiful illustrations (thanks Angi!) — it’s designed to help you understand why we need a framework for life and to support you in creating a meaningful framework focused on building a good life for yourselves and for others. Rather than just focusing on individual happiness, Life Skills recognises the social and political environments we live in, and the importance of changing those to create greater equity and safety for all.

One of my favourite skills in the book (and probably the most topical) is knowing how to resist. It felt particularly relevant when I was writing this book at the height of the COVID-19 antivaccination marches. I was incensed by the self-absorbed science denialism I saw in these, and the way our individualistic and selfish (‘my body, my choice’) society was misinterpreting health information, engaging in rampant conspiracy theories, and ignoring the lives of the most vulnerable.

I wrote this section to help us make sense not only of how to resist — but also to support us with understanding why we resist. It homes in on the importance of interrogating our own acts of resistance to ensure that they have a strong ethical backing and are not simply focused on self-interest and entitlement.

Resistance is even more urgent in our current geopolitical situation. Activists are having to learn new ways of engaging in long-term non-violent civil action simply to ensure that civilians are not bombed to death, and are having to learn to hold hope while pushing back against intense pressure, accusations, and attacks. People who previously weren’t politically engaged have seen the costs of this apathy, and many are stepping outside their lethargy (‘I’m too tired, I just want to get home, cook dinner, and watch TV’) to act. I hope that this section provides people with some guidance on what advocacy and activism truly are — and the importance of harnessing social forces for the good of everyone, not just our own little in-group bubbles. I value learning, and continually work on building my understanding and knowledge.

The events of 2023 have shaken my perceptions of the world and left me with some questions about the future of humans — especially if we keep progressing as we are, with our moral turpitude and selfishness. I plan to do some more deep dives into learning about resistance this year, and am especially excited about two new Scribe titles coming in 2024 (not sponsored, I’m just a fan!): What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression and 12 Rules for Strife.

I also want to do some deep dives into critical and radical psychology. There’s some excellent work coming out of Canada (no, not Jordan Peterson). I’ve been aghast at the silence of the Australian psychology sector when it comes to addressing big issues like climate change and war, and have noticed that to a large degree, we accept and support the status quo — perhaps because of the relatively monocultural and privileged nature of the people in these professions.

I’m interested in changing this, and in letting pain radicalise my heart toward healing and hope.

Life Skills for a Broken World

A revolutionary framework for living well in a broken world, from acclaimed author and psychologist.

How can I manage heartbreak? How do I cope with death? How can I learn to tolerate anxiety and have hope?

In this helpful, practical, and realistic guide to good psychological health, Dr Ahona Guha shows us how to cope, thrive, and still feel hopeful for the future. Combining techniques from a range of therapeutic modalities, she demonstrates how we can build a range of essential psychological skills, and apply them to live a more tranquil and joyful life.

Life Skills for a Broken World is a breath of fresh…

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Ahona Guha

Dr Ahona Guha is a clinical and forensic psychologist. Her first book,…

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