Getting Caught Up in the Mind-game
A while back, I was sitting out in the lineup. I paddled for a wave. Caught it. Rode it as well as I usually ride waves. I smiled and enjoyed myself. The sun was out, the water was clear and blue and shining, and I felt strong paddling into the wave. I’d done a turn or two and I was content.
Once I kicked out of the wave, however, all I could think about was what I didn’t do. I didn’t hit the lip like I should have. I didn’t attempt a floater, didn’t do as powerful of a cutback as I “should” have, whatever else.
“Carissa Moore or Bust”
As I paddled back out I thought to myself, “Why can’t I just be happy with this wave? What is the big friggin’ deal?” And then, I realized I was subconsciously comparing myself to none other than Carissa Moore, elite 4x surfing World Champion and soon to be 2020 Olympic competitor, who has most likely been surfing for longer than I’ve been alive. She’s had myriad coaches, trained at an extremely high competitive level, and basically just shreds.
I was thinking about all this as I got back into position to catch another wave, and I realized that this is what I do—I compare myself to the most objectively unattainable standard possible and then feel bad about it.
I also realized there’s a phrase to describe these kinds of thoughts: cognitive distortions. Considering we’re coming into the end of January, when many people have “given up” on New Year’s resolutions, or are struggling to maintain those (often very lofty) expectations of themselves.
Mind Your Mind
So, for today’s Mindful Monday, I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about being more mindful of our minds. Combatting cognitive distortions requires mindfulness, because we have to realize we are engaging these distortions in order to reject them.
It’s one thing to talk about what these cognitive distortions are, but, I think, an entirely other thing to discuss what we can do about them. So, I’ve come up with 15 examples of how I combat distortions using the metaphor I know best—catching waves.
Whether you find yourself experiencing these distortions about a New Year’s resolution gone south, a bad surf session, a difficult exam, a fight with an SO, or any other number of situations, know that there’s always a way to get back out there and catch some stoke!
Cognitive Distortions of all Kinds
Filtering is any time we “filter” out the positives and only dwell on the negatives. We often filter when we’re already in a negative headspace, because brains are weird and they like to fixate on the negative when we’re already feeling down.
A perfect example of this is when you paddle out and catch 10 waves, but you focus on the 1 that you fell on. You’ve effectively filtered out the positives of the experience and distilled it down to the single negative one.
Shift the Focus
When you catch yourself filtering, take a deep breath, and name 5 things you did well or that you’re happy about. When I get out of the water, I’ll often tell myself things like,
“I took off late on one wave; I paddled harder than usual; The sky was gorgeous today; I’m happy I paddled out with friends; I saw a turtle” to hinder filtering.
2. BLACK AND WHITE THINKING
Black and white thinking was the inspiration for this post, because it was in the moment when I was comparing myself to Carissa Moore that I realized I was doing it. Black and white thinking is all about polarities: there’s no grey area.
As I think of it, it’s “Carissa Moore or bust” which is a little phrase I use to remind myself how ridiculous my black and white thinking is. Because, really, there’s no way I’ll ever be Carissa Moore, but that doesn’t mean I’m terrible.
Option 1, Option 2
What you figure out when you step back from Black and White thinking is that you are always a failure with this cognitive distortion. If the two options are 1. Idealized perfection or 2. Total Failure, you’ll always feel like a Total Failure.
So, what do I do when I started comparing myself to Carissa Moore and every other person on the planet who is better than me at surfing? I imagine all the people in the entire planet who know how to surf, and I imagine myself in a long continuum of human beings who enjoy surfing.
And then I tell myself I’m not great compared to a lot of people, but that I’m also better than many others. After that, I ask myself why it even matters, and head back out into the waves.
We’ve all done it. We have one surf session and decide we are the kookiest of kooks, or one great one and decide we are the next GOAT. In either direction, you’re setting yourself up for despair. Overgeneralization is primarily associated with fixating on one specific negative experience and generalizing to your whole self: e.g. I failed one quiz, thus I’m a terrible student.
It can go the other direction as well, too, though, and what is important for combatting overgeneralization is reminding ourselves that nothing is permanent and every day and experience is different from one to the next. Some days will be great, and some will be terrible.
Re-phrase and Re-frame
Change your language with over-generalizations. Instead of saying, “I missed that wave, I suck at surfing” try “I missed that one wave, I guess I’m off today” or “there’s always another wave.”
4. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
People do fortune telling in relationships when they incorrectly assume they know what the other person is thinking or feeling and act in that way. Or, we set ourselves up by coming to conclusions about an experience beforehand.
Sometimes I’ll paddle out already thinking I’m not going to enjoy myself, or that people are looking at me. Then I’ll be distracted, immediately fall, and get even more paranoid that people are judging me. Focus on the specifics of conditions and the day without value judgements. For example, say that the waves are messy and small but not that it’s going to be unpleasant.
Our minds influence our experiences, so when we’ve already made conclusions (I’m going to fail/ I’m not good enough/ I can’t do this) we generally manifest those conclusions and prove our incorrect thoughts right.
Catastrophizing is pretty much what it sounds like. When we catastrophize, we go from 1 to 100 real quick. One wipeout turns into the end of our surfing, one break up means we will die alone, one mistake at work means we are incompetent at our job.
When you start to catastrophize, about anything, reflect back on all the other times a situation felt extremely drastic but turned out not to be. Think about how much energy you spent magnifying a problem that turned out to be minor. Then, get realistic with your expectations and keep going.
I take everything personally. I think the weather has a vendetta against me when it’s gloomy, or that the Universe is conspiring against me when the waves are terrible on my day off and great on the day I have to work. I take responsibility for other people’s emotions, and make my emotions their responsibility, too.
In the water, I’ll often get caught up thinking people are going to get mad at me, that my presence in the water will have some kind of direct impact on other people, and that I will be judged or disliked for it.
Why so Serious?
The best strategy I’ve found to combat personalization is to take yourself less seriously. Fall off of a wave, laugh at yourself, look dumb, make mistakes, and get off your high horse. I stare out at the vast wide ocean and tell myself I’m not so special as to influence the cosmos and the tides.
Everyone else is in their own little world experiencing things regardless of you. I remind myself that I’m not all that important, and that almost nothing revolves around me (in the best possible sense), especially the waves.
7. CONTROL FALLACIES
There are two types of control fallacies: internal and external. When we focus solely on external control, everything is out of our power:
“The waves sucked and that’s why I didn’t have fun” “My teacher is too hard on me and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
When we place all the power in the external, we take no responsibility for our influence in a situation. The waves might suck, but you can still enjoy yourself, and a teacher might be challenging but that doesn’t mean you have no power.
Conversely, an internal control fallacy is when we assume everything is within our control. We take on responsibility for everything.
“It’s my fault they are unhappy” “If I had been better, I wouldn’t have disappointed that person”
Finding a balance between internal and external can be as difficult as standing up on your first wave. Assess what you are capable of controlling (your outlook, your paddling, your mindset) and what you are incapable of controlling (other people’s thoughts, the weather, the waves), and challenge the inconsistencies.
Find the Balance
For example, maybe you feel you lack internal control in improving your surfing. Make a list of surfing skills you want to improve on, and work on them each time you surf.
Or, you feel you lack external control on your surfing. There’s always something outside of you standing in the way. Make those obstacles into challenges, and see them as opportunities rather than hinderances.
8. FAIRNESS FALLACY
It’s not fair when someone cuts you off on a wave. It’s not fair when the winds switch right when you paddle out. It’s not fair that people are better than you, or that they are worse than you. Rather than focusing on fairness, focus on yourself.
Life is (Un)Fair
I could get mad that the winds switched, or make the best of it. I could feel irritated and try be a jerk back to the person, or let it go and keep enjoying myself. Focus on what you can change about the situation, rather than the (un)fairness of it.
Blaming everyone else for your emotions or blaming yourself for everything are two sides of the same coin. In both instances, we lose sight of what is in our control and what isn’t.
Counteract blaming with facts. Instead of “that other surfer cut me off and now I’m pissed off” be objective—“that surfer cut me off and now I’m choosing to feel angry”.
Blaming ourselves for everything that’s out of our control is problematic because we take on responsibility for what’s not ours.
Whose Fault is it, Anyway?
Someone gives you a dirty look in the water for no reason and you immediately think, “I must have done something wrong, I shouldn’t be here, AGHH”. Really, the sun was probably in his or her eyes, or they thought you looked familiar, or they just have one of those faces. Who knows? Either way, it’s not your deal and you need not make it so.
But I’m also an avid user of them. Shoulds are our way of invoking guilt, theoretically so we will do something we don’t want to do:
“I should exercise more/ I should write/ read/ draw/ eat this/ make more money/ be this/ that/ not do this/ do that”
There are endless iterations of shoulds available to us, but if you think about it, how many times did you follow through with “should”? How many times did you instead do the exact opposite, and, following that black and white thinking track, do the polar opposite again and again?
Who Says I Should?
When I tell myself I should do something in the water, like stay out for one more wave, I ask myself whether I truly want to. When I come up with ridiculously outlandish shoulds, like I should be better at surfing by now, I ask myself—why? Who says I should catch another wave or be better? And, is that really the best choice?
It almost always isn’t. So, let yourself paddle in when you’re tired, be at whatever level you’re at, and not force yourself because you “should”. Aspire to do everything because you want to, with joy and resilience and compassion.
10. EMOTIONAL REASONING
Emotional reasoning is deciding that subjective emotions are objective facts. You know the classic phrase from Déscartes: “I think, therefore I am”? Emotional reasoning is basically saying, “I feel, therefore it is”. Just because I feel like a kook doesn’t make me a kook, as much as feeling like a badass doesn’t make me a badass.
Feeling vs. Reasoning
Listening to our emotions is important, as they can help us to learn about ourselves and grow, but deciding our emotions are facts is destructive. Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean you are bad, in surfing or in anything else.
11. THE FALLACY OF CHANGE
Sometimes we think we can get what we want from people and get them to change if we just put in enough effort. If I smile enough, and back off of waves, and talk story, I can get everyone out in the line-up to like me, right?
It’s Not them, it’s You
The fallacy of change means you believe that people changing will make you happier. You place the power on the external qualities of others, basing your worth on whether they change or not. Stop making your confidence depend on other people, because no one is going to be perfect, just as you are never perfect. And that’s okay!
Changing is valuable, but trying to force other people to change so we feel better about ourselves will only result in frustration.
12. EMOTIONAL LABELING
Emotional labeling is like overgeneralizing (see point 3) on steroids. It’s not just making a blanket statement like “I’m terrible” but making one especially fueled by an emotional charge. Remember that time someone cut you off on a wave? You might have told yourself that person was a moron/ a jerk/ a loser.
You made an emotional label based on your anger at being cut off and without any context. Maybe that person was new to surfing, and didn’t mean to cut you off. Maybe they genuinely didn’t see you!
Tone it Down
When we emotionally label others or ourselves we lose out on the subtleties of specific situations, fueling whatever negative emotion we are feeling with an exaggerated label.
13. ALWAYS BEING RIGHT
My pops used to say, “I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong”. This cognitive distortion is like that saying. There is no room for us to be wrong, ever, end of story. I think our need to be right often stems from deeper insecurities—I’ve often been unwilling to be wrong because I thought it would mean I was incompetent or defective.
The distortion of always being right means we are able to shut down any constructive criticism.
You’re Both Wrong!
Remember those two guys out in the water, one accusing the other of burning him while the other claimed he was being disrespectful? (If you’ve ever been out in a competitive line-up of any kind you know what I’m talking about) Remember thinking to yourself, “jeez, you’re both
wrong right, just get over it and go catch more waves.”
Yet they continued to argue, bringing down the vibe and missing multiple sets to boot. People do this all the time in life. We miss the sets because we’re too busy focusing on being right about the last wave, we get so caught up in proving ourselves that we don’t learn from each other.
The next time you find yourself battling for “rightness” ask yourself what waves you’re missing out on riding in the crusade to prove your superiority.
14. HEAVEN’S REWARD FALLACY
So, I let a couple people take off on me. I didn’t get mad, I was nice, smiley and genuine. I was in a rush to get to the waves but decided to let another car merge into my lane, even though it meant slowing down. I shared my wax, told someone the time, and picked up trash from the sea.
But the ocean still kicked my butt, and I lost my hairband, got held under, and broke a skeg.
The heaven’s reward fallacy describes when we believe our self-sacrificing behaviors and actions will (and should) result in some kind of cosmic reward. We are effectively acting as martyrs for the sake of a reward that may or may not come.
There’s No Reward for Being Awesome
Share your wax because you want to be nice. Let someone have a wave even though you’re deeper because they are learning. Pick up trash because you want to take care of the ocean, one of the great wonders of this world.
Do good because it feels good, without convincing yourself you deserve special treatment for it. Because you do, but assuming you’ll get it will only lead to disappointment.
Happy Mindful Monday!
Well, there you have it! These are 15 cognitive distortions and their surfing metaphor examples. I hope you had a laugh or two, and learned a little more about how to become more mindful.
Just as we must be mindful of our surfing to continue improving, we must mind our minds to improve our thinking.
And, just like with surfing, it takes practice to change old habits and create new ones, so be patient with yourself and keep trying!
Comment Your Thoughts Below
Do you fall into the trap of any of these cognitive distortions? All of them? None of them? Comment your thoughts, personal experiences, or anecdotes about cognitive distortions in surfing and life below!