I am a typical youngest child. The last in a long line of strong personalities. I was often viewed as spoiled by my older siblings who spent more time in trouble than I was, but I was just raised by older parents than they were. In fact, I got away with more because my parents decided that they were too old and tired to fight the same battles of attrition my siblings fought. However, being the youngest, I had developed a skills that they had not; the ability to learn through observations.
Being trail blazers my older siblings valued learning by trial and error. I learned by observing their errors, and having so many older siblings, I was able to learn through many many many errors. It is amazing what you can learn by just taking the time to sit and watch other people. It is the equivalent of stopping to smell the roses, because you are able to notice the subtleties that tend to go unseen.
Growing up in a house full of strong personalities, I was only able to assert myself passive-aggressively through well-planned verbal jabs that would cut the deepest. My brother would try to get me riled up or to lose my temper, but I wouldn’t. Other brothers would try to insult me into testing my masculinity against them physically, so I would not resist and let them win an quick and unfulfilling wrestling victory. Even when I was big enough to not get beat up, I still would not wrestle, I would just stand with one of them on my back to let them know I could do something. It was knowing that I had gotten under someone’s skin that would bring me the most joy.
Since I work in Special Education, this ability to learn through observation helps me professionally. With 90% of my students having verbal communication hindrances, I am forced to rely on what I observe, because behavior is communication. Over the past few years, several parents have commented on my annual Education Plans for individual students saying that they have not had a teacher “get” their child in the way that I have. I can only attribute that to being able to take the time to stop and observe.
I have learned to apply this observational skill to my external world. It helps me to navigate difficult and new situations, and gives me a level of comfort to know that I can determine how to engage with or relate to anyone at a superficial level, which is probably why I was a pretty good car salesman. However, when this skill is turned internally, it becomes something entirely different; a cognition.
Cognition is the mental action of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. This has been a valuable tool for me, and I have been able to learn some things about myself that have helped me to become the person, spouse, and father that I am today. However, sometimes we learn things that are incorrect, or have a damaging effect on ourselves. Unfortunately, these are things that continue to repeat in our heads as truths until we begin to behave in a way that makes them true – like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This negative cognition affects what we do, but it is not always obvious to us or others around us what these thoughts are, or that they exist.
For example, if I approached fatherhood with the thought that I don’t know what it takes to be a good dad, then I can either buckle under the weight of being overwhelmed, or overcompensate. If someone buckles, then they are able to get help, but if someone overcompensates then they are being a good dad, but that negative cognition is eating away at them over time. There are many negative cognitions we may be telling ourselves that we may not even know. Some of them may be I cannot trust my judgement, I have to be perfect, I am not good enough, I am not in control, or many many more.
There is value in taking the time to observe the physical and social world we live in. It is also just as important to take the time and space to reflect on our internal world, and the affect it has on our external relationships and goals. I have gotten sidetracked by the business of life. I have forgotten to take time away from work, and away from my family to take care of myself. I need to remember to take time to reflect on myself so that I am in a good place mentally, to be what my family needs me to be. Don’t you think that your family would want you to be in a good place as well?
Someone once said that if you put an “ism” on anything, people will take it seriously. So I’m going to refer to this process of taking the time to reflect on our internal thoughts and behavioral patterns in order to grow personally for the benefit of others as Cognitive Observationalism. I hope you will join me on this path of self-care.