No one looks good when they are learning something new. “Except baby animals!” said Miles, laughing. He could laugh about this now, but it had taken family support, and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to gain this perspective. Due to an all-consuming fear of looking awkward, Miles had been unwilling to learn new things, but now Miles was willing and brave. He had found a new identity.
Miles was a 17-year-old boy from the coast of Maine. His mother owned an organic farm and stand. His father was a carpenter. He had a few good friends and he liked his town.
The summer after his junior year of high school, Miles went to Los Angeles, California. His dad’s brother lived there and was a professional musician. Miles had visited LA with his parents before, and he liked his uncle, his aunt, and his two older cousins, Jamal and Jenna. He was invited to spend a whole summer in LA with his uncle’s family, and his parents decided he should accept.
When he arrived, his cousin Jamal immediately invited Miles to come play some basketball with him and his friends. Jamal was 18 and he had just graduated high school. He was friendly and tall and Miles really liked him. There was a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway, as well as a whole basketball court just down the block, walking distance from their house, at a local school.
Miles knew how to sail, to ice skate and snowshoe, but he had never played basketball. He was afraid of how painfully awkward he would look trying to learn to play. Miles said no to Jamal.
When faced with a situation, we have thoughts about it, based on our interpretation. This cognitive appraisal of the situation, rather than the situation itself, is responsible for how we feel about it. Individual differences in cognitive appraisal are determined by the “schema”, or general outlook, a person holds. This comes from our experiences and the culture to which we belong.
Miles was unaware of this, but at that time he held the outlook, “When I don’t know something I need to hide this, because I will look awkward, and people will think I’m a loser.” With this schema, Miles was becoming paralyzed and isolated.
A couple of days passed with Miles watching Jamal and his friends whenever they played basketball in the driveway. It looked fun. Then one day, after his friends left, Jamal sat down next to Miles.
“I used to be afraid of trying to learn new things too,” he said, unceremoniously.
“Really?” asked Miles, taken aback.
“Sure. You think you’re the only one? Nah. No one looks good learning something new. Except of course baby animals, they are cute when they’re awkward,” Jamal laughed.
Miles had never thought of that before.
“But then I went to therapy,” Jamal went on, spinning the basketball in his hands.
“You go to therapy?” asked Miles.
“Yeah. Therapy’s cool. It’s where I learned CBT. At first it was awkward, but I felt safe and it started to really make sense. I found out about stressful thoughts and how they were getting in way of my life. When I wasn’t believing my stressful thoughts I got to know myself better, and I found out that I love the feeling of learning more than I hate the feeling of awkwardness,” said Jamal.
“The feeling of learning,” said Miles, thinking about that.
“And it can go really deep,” Jamal continued. “Sometimes when I’m deep in the feeling of learning, I totally forget what other people think of me. It’s kind of a flow. A learning flow.”
“I never thought about the feeling of learning,” said Miles.
“It really boils down to this,” said Jamal. “Do you want to keep checking in with what you think other people think about you? Or do you want to check in with what you think about you?”
His cousin Jamal had played basketball his whole life, so no wonder he was good at it and not at all awkward. If Jamal had been in a sailboat or on ice skates, he might not know what to do and he might be super awkward. Miles realized that if he tried basketball, he would definitely look awkward, but that did not therefore make him a loser. And if he didn’t try, he would be sacrificing an opportunity to get close to his cousins and his friends in a new city. He would also be sacrificing the possibility that he might like basketball. In other words, he would be sacrificing opportunities to know himself.
Our behaviors are a reflection of our identity. What we do is an indication of the type of person we believe that we are, unconsciously or consciously. That is our schema.
When Miles arrived in LA, his identity was based upon the unconscious thought: “I’m a loser when I don’t know something.” After LA, and once back home starting CBT himself, Miles discovered an alternative perspective. This one reflected who he wanted to become: “I’m a learner when I don’t know something.”
Instead of focusing on what he wanted to achieve, Milles decided to build on who he wanted to become. It’s one thing to say that I’m the type of person who wants an outcome (knowledge and skills). It’s something different to say I’m the type of person who has an identity (a learner).
Practicing CBT, Miles also began to realize that he had believed when he was trying to learn something new, the people around him were judging him harshly. He believed he knew what they were thinking. But then he realized he did not really know what they were thinking. Maybe they weren’t thinking about him at all. Maybe they were admiring him for trying. Who knew? Not him. Not for sure. He decided he was wasting his life wondering what they thought, instead of wondering what he thought. As Miles became proud of being a learner, he didn’t care as much that he looked awkward when he was learning something new.
We change step-by-step. Each time Miles practiced basketball with his cousin he was a learner. Each time he raised his hand in class and asked a question, he was a learner. Each time he did this, Miles began to trust himself, and to start to believe that he could actually accomplish something new. The story he told himself began to change from I’m a loser to I’m a learner.
The method of CBT helps us to become who we want to be. Becoming the version of ourselves that we want to be requires identifying and then questioning our stressful beliefs. Who do you wish to become?
Dozois, D.J.A. & Beck, A.T. (2008). Cognitive Schemas, Beliefs and Assumptions. In K.S. Dobson & D.J.A. Dozois (Eds.), Risk Factors in Depression. (pp. 121-143). Elsevier Press.
Spiegler, O. & Leyendecker, B. (2017). Balanced Cultural Identities Promote Cognitive Flexibility among Immigrant Children. Front. Psychol. 8:1579.