Usually, my blog posts address educational topics immediately. This post will be different. Just as we teachers have found our personal and professional lives blended out of necessity while we teach from home, my blog post today will address something personal and tie it to my professional context. By sharing my experience, I hope to help other teachers who may also be struggling to feel capable, competent, and valuable.
Today, I learned about the cognitive triangle, a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) concept that I wish I had known about half a lifetime ago. A person’s thoughts spark certain feelings, leading to certain behaviors. Around the triangle we go, sometimes going back and forth a while, over and over, for better or worse. Habitual ways of regarding ourselves form this way.
That said, however, learning about this theory has revealed my psychological and emotional mindset to be malleable, not set in stone. I don’t have to feel the way I do about myself. It’s a habit to consider myself the way I do, one formed as I traveled along the sides of the triangle, fearing to leave the path. Now, I know I can practice something different, but it needs to be deliberate practice, intentional practice.
It’s Been Like This for Too Long
Frankly, I am tired of perceiving myself as a problem child who needs to be tolerated. There may be people who are surprised to read that, but most folks who know me would say, “No surprise there.” The moment I make a mistake, I crawl back into a figurative hole into which I have dumped every negative thought I’ve ever had about myself. It’s pretty crowded in there. I’d like to close it forever and walk away with my head held high.
I’ve tried my best. That should be enough.
My triangle usually includes thoughts about being a problem, incapable, incompetent, and of little value, which lead to feelings of deep and utter sadness, confusion, and hopelessness, which culminate in behaviors that include tears, the tell-tale hunch into a semi-fetal position, and self-isolation. It’s exhausting, and has been for many, many years.
I’m tired. I’m also ready to be happy. Time to build a new triangle, a better triangle, a more productive triangle.
Could You Use a New Cognitive Triangle?
It’s hard to change, and during this health crisis, trying something new is harder than ever before. Everything seems to take longer, including self-care. Therefore, something as simple to remember as the cognitive triangle might help those changes become permanent.
It all starts with thoughts, with changing the thoughts that lead to terrible feelings that culminate in negative behaviors. Change the thoughts and different feelings emerge. Just like taking a deep breath when reaching a summit, filling the lungs with clean air, changing thoughts and feelings forces the shoulders back, and raises the head to face the horizon, both observable behaviors that reflect the intangible.
Perhaps, if you have read this far, you could use a new cognitive triangle too. Perhaps you realize you deserve clean air and to view the horizon.
As I said before using different words, there are no quick fixes. How do we eventually succeed in having a positive view of ourselves? Step-by-step, moment-by-moment, and day-by-day, I imagine. Having a positive view of myself is something new to me; it’s actually frightening. Hudson Therapy, in White Plains, NY, explains the challenge ahead very well.
It is not until we bring light to this process and begin to interrupt the cycle that any change occurs. This is where a lot of work in therapy is focused. The change doesn’t happen easily, rather it is hard. Our brains become accustomed to the way we have always done things, and it takes a lot of active and consistent work over a long period of time to disrupt this cycle and instill more healthy ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.Hudson Therapy
A New Cognitive Triangle for Everyone!
When I took the time to decide how I wanted to perceive myself (as capable, competent, and valuable), I compared that to how I actually see myself. The negative thoughts had a deflating effect, like letting air out of an air mattress. To truly devise a new paradigm for self-reflection, those negative descriptors need to be pushed aside rather forcefully. One way to keep them at bay is to make manifest the positive thoughts, on paper, on one’s lock screen, etc.
This is something we can teach others to do. We aren’t psychologists, but this concept is not difficult to share with others and we aren’t engaging in therapy, just sharing a tool they can use. As a literature and creative writing teacher, it is a tool I can embed in character analysis with no problem at all.
For example, this week in AP® Lit, we start King Lear. There is a treasure-trove of psychological issues in that play, starting with the first scene. Lear thinks his daughter, Cordelia, is diminishing his worth by not giving a grand speech about her love for him. He feels angry because he thinks his favorite daughter has betrayed him. He acts by disowning her. A good question for the students: How does that compare to what you might think about Cordelia’s response?
In Creative Writing I, we have been working on creating a character we can use in a short story. We can make the character believable using the cognitive triangle. If the character thinks “x,” then what would the emotional response (“y”) be? How would that translate to behavior (“z”)? Figure that out and create a believable character.
In English 10, we are reading Ethan Frome, and Ethan and Zeena are both psychologically wounded, but Zeena – a hypochondriac – is easier to figure out with the cognitive triangle method. Zeena thinks she is sick, she feels sick, and she tries to find cures for her various “illnesses.” Ethan’s report to the narrator about her decline makes it obvious that Zeena is more depressed than ill, and everyone living through this current health crisis knows that depression can manifest itself physically. The pain is real, but its origin is not in physical decline, but in the mental struggle. A good question for the students: Can we apply Zeena’s cognitive triangle to how some people feel today?
Finally, in English 11, we are reading All Quiet on the Western Front. This is a story about German soldiers in World War I, many of whom died or became part of the Lost Generation, suffering from what we now know as PTSD. My goodness – again, there are many connections among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to explore. A good question for the students: Can you trace the progression of the cognitive triangle through the narrator’s characterization?
The need for SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) is legitimate. This is one way I can incorporate SEL into my lessons. If you teach in a different content area, what thoughts do you have about incorporating the cognitive triangle into your curriculum?
Thank you for reading.