Guest post by Kyler Shumway, MA.
Co-host of You Belong, Love & Autism for teens!
Unfurl a large blank scroll in your mind and stretch it across the table. This is your timeline, the story of your life. To your left, we see your birth. To the right, we see you, at this moment, checking out the Love & Autism blog.
There is a lot of story between these points. You might have memories that stand out; birthday parties, the first days of school, that trip to the beach, that time you farted in a public elevator and tried to cover it with a cough. But we knew. We knew.
These memories come together to form what psychologists call "schemas," or foundational beliefs and feelings about yourself and about the world. Your life story is rich with memories of relationships. Some of those relationships were helpful and positive, while others were toxic. There may be significant gaps between these memories, where you felt invisible, disconnected and friendless. Imagine what it would be like if you tried to tell your story using only those relational memories. These are the building blocks of the schemas that shape your view of friendship.
Some of you may have come here in a place of great pain, isolation, and rejection. You may have powerful schemas about yourself and others that make you feel hopeless when it comes to friendship. I know, I have some of those myself.
No matter how overwhelming these schemas feel, you have the power to find acceptance and belonging. I believe that with all my heart. This chapter is all about recognizing unhelpful relationship schemas, and learning how to challenge the beliefs that hold us back.
I give you… The Seven Deadly Schemas.
Schema #1: “I am not a social person”
Alas, many of us carry this schema around with us. We work up the courage to go to a party, only to sit by the chip bowl avoiding eye contact with others. This belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it? We sit back and watch the social people engage with one another while we focus on eating snacks in comfort.
And that’s the problem. The comfort.
Those of us who agree with this schema tend to feel uncomfortable when they act socially. There seems to be a powerful emotion that comes with that discomfort – fear. And it happens even in the smallest of small talks. We are afraid of messing up and saying something stupid. We are afraid of what the other person thinks of us. We are scared that they are going to notice how anxious and uncomfortable we feel. As soon as the conversation ends, we breathe a sigh of relief and return to our chip bowl.
The brain is very good at learning what feels unsafe. Although most social interactions are not life-threatening, your mind is trying to get you back to that chip bowl, that safe haven. Each time we avoid the discomfort our brains learn to reinforce the avoidant behavior. "Stay by the bowl…" your brain rattles, "you are not a social person."
So, how do you challenge this schema?
It's simple, but easier said than done. You have to lean into the discomfort. You have to talk back to your brain and tell it why you want to be social; give it a reason to push through the pain. Sometimes, you can try adding something to the schema. "I am not a social person, but I want to try and make a new friend today.” I use this all the time when I need to motivate myself to do a workout. My body will screech “I don’t want to lift weights today,” and I will add “but I want to get stronger and be healthy.” And just like with working out, challenging a schema takes time and practice. It may be difficult at first, but I promise it gets easier.
Schema #2: “I just don’t fit in”
This schema is tricky. One time, I accidentally walked into a women’s bathroom. And, at least last time I checked, I am not a woman. As soon as I realized that I did not fit in, I quickly left. And I never went back to that McDonald’s again.
Sometimes, we really do not fit in. This is another lesson that our brains are really good at learning, and it is an important skill to have. Otherwise, we might walk into the woods to try to join a pack of hungry wolves. The feeling of not fitting in keeps us safe from potential threats and keeps us in comfortable situations.
The problem is, this schema can grow into something much larger.
We might feel like we do not fit in with others at all, that we do not deserve relationships, or that we are too alien and weird to connect with other people.
Just like the schema of not being a social person, this schema is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The partner in crime of “not fitting in” is “others will not accept you.” So why bother? Why waste your precious time and energy trying to be social, trying to fit in if you will only be met with rejection. In the great quest of making friends, you have decided instead to stay in your cozy house under the hill.
So, how do you kick this schema?
This one is all about risks. Every wager comes with odds, and in a way, every social interaction is a gamble. We cannot control what others might think or say, and so we cannot predict the social outcome. What odds might you give being rejected by others? Probably not one hundred percent, right? But that is how this schema makes us feel. We feel unacceptable, unlovable, and hopeless.
In a way, fishing is a bit like gambling. People wager their time and money to get out on the lake and try to catch a fish. Try. They might cast their line a hundred times with no luck. And yet, people keep fishing. As far as I know, people who fish do not start the day by saying “there’s no way any fish will want to bite my lure, I should probably just stay home.”
Take the risk.
Recognize that there is a risk of being rejected, of others not making space for you. And if you are rejected, that is okay. You can always fish again tomorrow.
Schema #3: “I am so awkward”
I hear this all the time in therapy sessions, and I tell it to myself sometimes. Just like the other schemas, this feeling of awkwardness has a purpose. Feeling awkward is the mind’s way of alerting us that we may be doing something inappropriate or wrong. Think of it as a sort of internal radar that pings every time something out of place happens.
People on the autism spectrum or who identify as autistic tend to have trouble with this radar. They are not always able to pick up on social cues, which means they have to learn them manually. Nonetheless, autistic people can still have these same feelings of being awkward because of how others might treat them.
Sometimes the thought of being awkward is helpful. It helps regulate our behavior and keep us from doing something bizarre or dangerous, like biting someone just for fun. No, please don’t do that. That would be awkward. And for the right reasons.
But mostly, the thought of being awkward keeps us from taking risks and being ourselves. We get so caught up in how we think our hair looks, how our words are coming out, and how that little bit of spit just flew out of our mouth, it distracts us from being fully present and in the moment.
Think about the last time you tried to talk to someone while they were distracted. Maybe they were talking and texting, or trying to make eye contact with someone else, or late for a meeting somewhere. It probably felt, well, a little awkward for you. This is what happens when we get caught up feeling awkward. We are not focused on the person we are talking to, we are focused on ourselves and all of our little imperfections.
The key to overcoming this schema comes in one word: acceptance.
You have to radically accept that, unless you are a flawlessly designed social robot that communicates with perfection, you are going to be awkward sometimes. And that is okay. You can let yourself be a human being, foibles and all.
You are a complex creature, gifted with talents and flaws that make you interesting.
Have you ever thought about what makes superheroes so exciting? Superheroes are entertaining to watch because they come with great power - while also being vulnerable. Superhero shows would be far less attractive if the hero had no weaknesses, no areas for improvement. Imagine a hero that could never be killed or harmed and who could stop any enemy at any time. Although that hero may be impressive, their story would get boring after a while. There's no adventure when the outcome is certain, and the hero has no room to grow. This is why we love characters like Batman, who, despite having riches and gadgets and wicked black spandex, can still be hurt by bullets and mean words.
You are incredibly human, which makes you incredibly imperfect and incredibly valuable.
Schema #4: “I am boring”
When I was in the 3rd grade, I suddenly realized how boring I was.
Even with a weird name like “Kyler,” people didn’t seem to remember me for anything. I wasn’t the cool kid, the smart kid, the pretty kid, or even the mean kid no one likes to be around. I was the invisible kid. And then one day, I came up with a brilliant solution to my problem: I decided to take on a British accent. The Harry Potter books and films were booming back then, and so I had plenty of exposure, and I was ready. "'Ello guvnor! ‘Tis quite hot out t'day, yeah?"
What I wasn't ready for was the way people reacted. "What's wrong with you?" "Why are you talking like that?" "You're weird." Weird? Wrong? I was trying to not be boring, but I did not like being those things. So, I went back to being the invisible kid.
The fear of boring-ness is seated right next to the fear of rejection. Perhaps worse, the fear of being boring is the fear that others will feel nothing towards us. How are we supposed to make new friends if others do not seem interested in spending times with us?
The trouble with being boring is it puts us at a nasty fork in the road. Option one, we keep being boring and avoid making a total doofus of ourselves. Option two, we try something new to try to be less boring. But, there is another option.
Imagine you are in a courtroom. There is a judge, two lawyers, and you. You have just been put on trial for the heinous crime of being boring. One lawyer is putting forth all of the evidence that you are, indeed, boring. The other lawyer is putting forth evidence to the contrary, anything that indicates that you are even the slightest bit interesting. What do you think these lawyers might say?
If you were to look at a chicken’s egg, just a plain old white egg, you might say that it is boring. But if you look closely, you might notice that the shell is rough and textured. There might be a slight curve to the side of the egg that sets it apart from the others in the crate. Even this egg has something special. What makes you so sure that you are more boring than this little thing?
Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us has memories and experiences that make us who we are, and guess what? There are exactly zero people in this universe that are exactly like you. Think about it. If you had an identical clone, that clone would see the world through an entirely separate pair of eyes and form different ideas and interests.
And, even if you were totally boring, that doesn’t mean you cannot be special. In the story of The Little Prince, a young boy encounters a fox. The fox asks the prince for deeper connection, to be “tamed” by the boy. The fox explains that without the connection, the boy is just like any other boy, and the fox is just like any other fox. When the two became friends, the boy said “He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”
Schema #5: “People don’t want to make new friends”
This is our first schema that deals with others, rather than ourselves. You can almost hear the echoes of feeling left out and unwanted.
The harsh reality with this schema is that it is (mostly) true. Some people just do not want to make new friends. Some people are happy with their current circle of friendship. Some people believe one of their other schemas, and so they do not respond when others try to connect with them. And some people are just jerks. This is all part of the glorious existence we live in.
I know, it sucks.
But you know what, this schema is not entirely accurate. There have to be people out there who want to make friends, right? Look at you, reading this book! You must be one of those people. One of the good ones.
Just like with the schema of being awkward, we have to learn to accept this part of our society. Life is not all rainbows and tacos. But, sometimes we do get tacos, and sometimes the rainbows give a sendoff to the storm.
You are not alone. Mark Watney from The Martian was stranded on a distant planet. He was very much alone. But you are not. You, unlike Mark, have the distinct advantage of being on planet Earth – a place filled to the brim with lonely souls just like you. Do not give up so quickly, my friends. Intelligent life is out there.
Schema #6: “That person is too cool/pretty/smart/funny for me”
Ah yes, this is the Goldilocks schema. We want to be friends with people that interest us, but if they are too interesting, we think they are out of our league. In order for someone to be a good friend candidate, they have to be just right.
I remember the first time my friend Dan and I did anything together. This was before we were friends, and I was quite intimidated by him. He was always cracking good jokes in class, he drove a nice car, and not to mention that he was a published author and executive of the largest social skills platform I had ever heard of. During our second year of graduate school, Dan helped me get my first website set up, and so I decided to take him out to lunch.
When I was in grade school, I did not sit at the cool kids' table during lunch. I didn't even sit at the uncool kids' table. I used to skip lunch altogether, just to avoid being rejected or feeling awkward. Even as a grown man, I was terrified by the idea of taking the Daniel Wendler, the cool kid, to eat out at a local burger joint.
The funny thing is, I later found out that Dan felt the same way about me. He saw me as the jock, the D1 college athlete, the neuroscience whiz, the cool kid. Once we had the chance to get to know each other, the possibility of friendship emerged.
You see, cool kids need friends too. Sometimes the cool kids are the ones that feel the most insecure inside, and would gladly welcome your friendship. And, just as you look at others and think, “Wow, they are way too cool for me,” there is a pretty good chance other people think that about you as well.
Schema #7: “I am not good at making friends”
I used to think I was really, really good at baking cookies. I used to pretend I was a hotshot chef, tossing ingredients across the counter, throwing the dough in the air like pizza, you know the drill. Don’t judge me, I was eight. I would bake these peanut butter cookies for my parents and siblings all the time. Everyone would take one, smile, and say thank you as I happily skipped back to the kitchen to clean up.
And then one day, I caught my mom sneakily tossing a few of the freshly baked cookies into the trash. I was dumbfounded and obviously hurt, but my mom explained to me that the cookies were missing a few key ingredients… and almost always had eggshell bits inside. Although everyone wanted to be polite and take my cookies, I just was not very good at making them yet.
Just as Dr. Carl Rogers once said, only when we fully see and accept ourselves are we able to change. At first, I wanted to argue with my mom. Maybe she was just jealous that I could cook, too! Maybe she wanted us to eat healthier, but she didn’t want to outright say that.
Or maybe, just maybe, I was not very good at making cookies.
Although Schema #7 might be somewhat irrational or blown out of proportion, it might also be a recognition of needed skill. In other words, it may feel very honest. This is all about learning how to be a good friend, but the end goal remains the same.
We want to be a good friend so that we can have good friends. And sometimes gaining friendship means we need to learn how to do friendship better.
So, I practiced. I asked for some coaching from my parents, I read actual recipes, and I got feedback after every batch. It took time, but I eventually got better at making cookies.
And you can, too.
The psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck is famous for her work regarding “The Growth Mindset.” Having a growth mindset is all about focusing on learning and continuing to persevere. As we continue to work on being a good friend, we perfect our friendship recipe. We keep pushing forward, try new things, learn from and accept our shortcomings, and try again and again until we get it right.
This post is an adapted excerpt from The Friendship Formula, a book written to help autistic and allistic teens and adults learn the art and science of connection.
Want to learn more?
Come to the 2019 Love & Autism Conference in San Diego! You can also contact Kyler via his website at KylerShumway.com.