Getting past shame when you’re learning something new

A few years ago, I took the opportunity to learn about a new-to-me approach to writing sermons. I was serving a congregation at that time, so sermon-writing was something I did a lot of, and I’d been doing it for years.

But I’d been feeling a little stale in my approach, hungry for some fresh ideas. So I was excited to sign up for a workshop led by a fantastic preaching professor. Over three days, he taught us a structure for sermon-writing that made logical sense, touched my heart, and left me feeling excited and hopeful. It was just what I needed!

After I got home, I started working through the exercises in the workbook he’d given us so that we could follow his method.

That’s where the trouble started.

About an hour into it, the initial excitement I’d felt had melted away. In its place, a queasy mixture of overwhelm, frustration, and shame boiled up.

Shame rears its head

The overwhelm and frustration, I kind of understood. I was trying to teach myself a new and important creative technique, after many years of doing it differently. Intellectually, I knew that learning a new writing method would take some time and tweaking.

But what about the shame I felt? What was going on there?

Looking back, the shame monologue in my mind went something like this:

OMG, that preaching professor was so amazing! His preaching is soooo good. Compared to his sermons, I think mine are pretty crappy. So I guess I’ve been preaching crappy sermons for years?!? How did I not know this? How did I not figure this out on my own waaaay before now? I must really suck. Maybe I’ve always sucked! Gaaaaaa!


At the time, I didn’t have the tools to interrupt that shame monologue and replace it with a kinder message to myself.

Today, I’m so much better at catching and tending to those spikes of shame, and even finding the positive gift in them.

Here are the two insights that helped me get there.

Insight #1: There’s no shame in not knowing something already

The first insight came from one of my coaching instructors, Lynn Meinke. Here’s the essence of what she told my training group at the beginning of her time with us:

You are here to learn. In this class, I’ll be teaching you a lot of new things. Now, sometimes adults feel ashamed or embarrassed when they’re learning a new skill. They feel like somehow they should have known it already. But how could you know something if you’ve never learned it before? So please, let all that go. Instead, let’s all enjoy the journey of learning and growing together!

I took her words to heart. And indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed her class, not least because she so deeply embodied that spirit of learning as a joyful adventure.

That experience stayed with me. So the next time I was learning a big new thing and I felt that familiar miasma of shame and overwhelm creeping in, I was able to pause, and reflect, and discover something new.

Insight #2: Shame can be a cue that you’re losing touch with your own wisdom

Here’s what I discovered:

When I’m learning something new and shame pops up, that shame is actually a message that something’s feeling out of alignment with the wisdom in my own heart.

In this new situation, once again I was trying to teach myself a new creative writing technique. Once again, I was following the step-by-step formula provided by a teacher I admired and trusted.

I was getting frustrated because it just didn’t seem to be working for me. When the formula called for me to brainstorm 10 variations on a particular theme, all I felt was blank. Blah. Nothing.

That old familiar shame started to creep in, whispering to me that I was no good at this.

But this time, instead of joining the “I suck” emotional chorus, I realized:

Wait, this formula isn’t working for me. I’m struggling here because it actually doesn’t fit the way I think and feel and write. When I try to follow it, I feel like it’s pulling me away from the core of who I am and how I create.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. But I wasn’t beating up on myself any more.

When in doubt, pause and percolate

I took a break from working on that project for a few days. Off and on, I thought about what the teacher was trying to teach, and how it was landing with me, and what I knew about myself. I just let it percolate in my brain, hopeful that some insight would reveal itself in time.

A week later, the answer bubbled up in my mind, and I could finally see the path forward unfolding in a way that felt good in my heart: Keep what helps and let go of what doesn’t.

It sounds simple. And I suppose it is. But I had to get there in my own way, in my own time—like anything else where our heart is involved.

I needed the time and space to gently integrate what I was learning, not just force myself to do things someone else’s way. To be in conversation with the new ideas and techniques, not taken over by them.

Eventually, I started to write using the parts of the formula that felt good, right, and peaceful in my heart. The parts that didn’t feel good, I just let them go and wrote it my way. And when it was done, the busy, whirling analytical part of my brain felt at peace.

Trust what your heart knows

Do I still admire those virtuoso instructors who do what they do so brilliantly? Oh gosh, yes.

But I’ve learned over the years that my heart has its own wisdom too.

And so does yours.

So the next time you start to beat yourself up for not being able to follow somebody else’s brilliant way of doing whatever creative thing it is, I hope you’ll stop and remember:

Your heart has wisdom that wants to be heard. You can take what serves you and leave the rest. And trust that your way will be just right.

Maybe even brilliant.

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