Phobia About Education: I was Home-Schooled by a Domineering Mom

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Reader’s Question

Throughout my childhood I was home-schooled by an oppressive and domineering mother whom I bitterly resented, and I came to associate those feelings of resentment with my education. As a teenager, I dropped out of high school. I now need to study in order to get my GED (General Educational Development tests), but whenever I so much as contemplate studying any of the things which I need to study for my GED test, I feel sick to my stomach because it reminds me of the time my mother spent home-schooling me as a child.

It’s not that I don’t like to study. In fact, I greatly enjoyed reading An Essay on the Principle of Population by Robert Thomas Malthus and have been working my way through An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I think they’re both very interesting. The problem is that whenever I attempt to study any of the same disciplines which my mother attempted to teach me as a child — math, science, geography, etcetera — I am filled with an overwhelming feeling of hatred and revulsion such that I can’t bear to approach any of the necessary studies.

How can I get past this so that I can study the things I need to?

Psychologist’s Reply

Although there are benefits to home-schooling, the lack of variety of teachers is definitely one of the drawbacks. When there is only one person who teaches, then the student misses out on differing perspectives and teaching styles. Moreover, as you pointed out, the student may also inextricably link that teacher with their studies and if the experience is not positive, then it can become a problem. However, with time and effort, you can conquer this difficulty.

There are a couple of ways you can overcome the phobia about education that you described. One option is a common process used to treat all kinds of phobias (e.g. about spiders, flying, heights, etc.). The first step is learning Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This is an exercise that gets your body relaxed by alternately tightening and relaxing the individual muscle groups starting from the bottom of your body to the top (or vice versa). Once you know how to relax your body, the second step is to imagine situations involving your education that make you anxious. Start with the situation that is the least anxiety-provoking. Think about that situation while you relax your body. Once you are able to think about the situation without becoming tense, then you can move on to a situation that is more anxiety-provoking for you and repeat the procedure. You will do this until you can think about education and studying without being sick to your stomach. It is important to know that this takes time and a lot of effort and practice. It is certainly not a quick fix and it will help to work with someone who is experienced in cognitive behavior therapy techniques.

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Another way to help you resolve the anxiety you have around education is a cognitive-behavioral method called “Thought Substitution”. When you think about math and a negative thought of your mother pops into your mind, substitute it with one that is more pleasing. For example, since I’ve always enjoyed algebra, if I were to do this exercise for math, I would substitute a thought of me solving for x. For geography, you could imagine a pleasant place (say, the lovely beaches of Grand Cayman). In other words, banish the thoughts of your mother and her teaching methods each time they arise and replace them with pleasant thoughts of what you learned or how you felt when studying a particular subject.

It sounds like you are someone who loves learning for its own sake, so I hope that you can continue your education, both informally and formally if at all possible. College could be a very enlightening and enjoyable experience for you. As a former professor, I can tell you that I adored self-motivated students! You liked reading the writings of Malthus and Smith, so there is a strong chance that you will be able to enjoy other topics too. Please don’t let the bitter memories of your mother stop you. Education is such a gift and I hope that you can give it to yourself.

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