De-distorting your mind

Oh man! Today Hector had a rough day. He has been training his ass off. He is pushing hard at work, pushing hard at training, and pushing hard at home. Before starting class, he’d been telling me all the things that he has going on. We talk it over and decide to go easy on the workout. The workout that day calls for pull-ups. We worked on them for a little while. Then it is time to go, and we decide to modify them by assisting them with a band. It is a rough workout, everybody is suffering, and only some young shots can truck along. At the end of the class, I go to check on him: “how did that go?” I ask. “Well, not good, man. I still have too much weight on me for pull-ups, and I suck at running, so I just tried to not fall too far behind from everybody else.” I tell Hector what I saw. Before we started that workout, I had given him a couple of things to focus on, and he did. I tell him that it was really good, and I remind him that for today, we just wanted to go easy. He acknowledges it and sighs. I know there is something else, so I ask. He sighs again, “it’s been five years, man. I have been working at this shit for five years, and I still suck at pull-ups. It is just frustrating and demotivating, you know?” I know! I want to tell him I totally understand, but he has to work, and he leaves. This same thing happened with Henrick two weeks ago. They go right when I have all the smart things to say. The only difference is that Hector smells much better. But I am still stuck with what I want to say to this dude, so here I am. This one, Hector, is for you.

This is not the first time this happens to Hector. As a matter of fact, it happens quite often. Usually with pull-ups. It is absolutely right he cannot do pull-ups yet. And he has indeed been working out for five years. What Hector fails to see is that five years ago, he could not hang from a pull-up bar. He could not. Today he was doing pull-ups with a minimal amount of aid from a band. The improvement is tremendous, but he just can’t see it. The main problem, though, is that instead of seeing his growth, all that Hector can see is the confirmation of his inadequacy. Do this more times than not, and your progress will definitely suffer. The reality is the same, but your feeling of frustration, the focus point of your attention, turns your feelings into self-fulfilling prophecies of defeat. 

What happened to Hector happens a lot to all of us. Let me deconstruct Hector’s example. I know exactly how it goes because it happened to one of my athletes, I just created the Hector character for stylistic purposes. Mostly because Henrick and Francine are tired of me using them for all the examples of how things can go wrong. Anyhow, so what happened to Hector is that in the middle of the workout, when he realizes he is behind everybody else, he loses focus, and he can only think about how everybody is going to be waiting for him at the end. Everybody is very friendly and is always cheering for him when he is last. He does it for other people too. But he hates it when it happens to him. The few times we have talked this over, he describes it as a super-strong trigger for embarrassment: “everybody is thinking ‘here comes Hector, always last.’” That feeling of shame turns into self-hatred. “I am a fat person. That’s why I am always last.” When he gets to the pull-up bar, no coach in the world is going to get him out of the mental cluster-fuck he is in: all he can see is that he is fat. This sense of embarrassment has turned into a confirmation of something he is, and he cannot change. Naturally, at the end of the workout, he can only see that all those five years of training have been in vain. 

We can schematize what happened to Hector in the following way. There is an activating event: being passed by all the other athletes of that day’s workout. Some ingrained beliefs are rooted in his mind: “if you are last it’s because you are fat, and BTW you are just fat.” These ingrained beliefs or core beliefs turn into automatic thoughts: “everybody is going to be waiting for the fat guy at the end, AGAIN! And they will be feeling pity for the fatty.” And this turns into embarrassment and self-hatred. This schema is the base of classic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Beck’s system of thought. I have been using it this past month left and right. It is that time of year! The majority of my clients, from my CEOs to my teenager athletes, have been feeling overwhelmed and stressed AF. The usefulness of this model is that it allows you to identify triggers, beliefs, and consequences pretty quickly. We cannot change the triggers, but we can change the beliefs, and this, in turn, will change the outcomes. How we feel and how we see reality is what will determine our actions, and that is really all that matters. 

Changing the beliefs takes work, hard and satisfying work. The task is to identify how and when those core beliefs act and debate them every time they operate. The cool thing is that because we are all in this together, Beck and one of his students, David Burns, have managed to identify what they call habits of mind. These are just general ways in which those core beliefs usually operate in all of us. These habits of mind are distortions of reality that bring us down and hinder us. Hector’s line of thought is the best example of this. Next, I am going to present to you some of the most common habits of mind, according to Burns, and I will give you an example of how they operate on Hector. The purpose is that when you learn how to identify them, you will be less prone to fall for them. Keep in mind that these habits of mind are super effing sneaky. So you might recognize the obvious ways in which they operate, but the subtle ones are harder. My aim is that my examples will help you with this. 

▶ All or nothing. (Splitting)

Example: There is a five-round workout at the gym. Hector looks at the board, it is deadlifts and rowing. He can murder that thing. He comes out with anger, but during the fourth round, he has to slow down a lot. He was doing great, but then he just feels like he crumbles. He is pissed. “I always slow down in the fourth round. I just lack grit, I just need to hang on there, that’s all”.

Solution: He does not always slow down in the fourth round. There have been plenty of workouts where he thrives, and the fourth round is fantastic. He just does not remember them. However, Hector is trained to find generalizations, so after thinking a little bit, he identifies a problem. “Always?” He knows better. He decides to track his lap times for the next month. He discovers there is no lack of grit, he sometimes comes out too hot, that’s all. After this month, Hector refines his strategy and his approach to workouts. He starts kicking ass and passing people at the end of workouts. The young shots end up asking him what kind of shake he drinks.

▶ Jumping to conclusions

Example: You know it, it is those pull-ups again! This time there is this new athlete at the gym, and he is the same age as Hector. He’s been at the gym only for four months, and today of all days, he gets his first pull-up. Right next to Hector. Hector is happy for the dude, but… “FUCK! I have been doing this thing for five years, and I haven’t been able to get a pull-up, there has to be something wrong with me, I should have been able to do a pull-up by now.”

Solution: When there is a “should,” there is an assumption. Hector is in cluster-fuck mode, but something strikes him, and he realizes he is jumping to conclusions. Is there really something wrong with him? He decides to ask me how long it takes to get a pull-up. I give him several examples of different clients and how long it took them to get pull-ups. Then I proceed to show him how far he has come. Then I tell him what I think he would need to do to speed up the process. Hector ponders about it and realizes it is not worth it for him. He will let things take their course. Sure thing, in the next workout, he manages to do a pull-up with one of the thin bands in the gym as assistance. He smiles. Progress is slow. 

▶ Catastrophizing (Magnifying or Minimizing)

Example: Hector is out with friends. He has been working on his nutrition, and he feels he is doing great. He wanted to cut the carbs out, and he is doing it. This week he has not eaten a single muffin, man! And he effing loves muffins. It is Sunday. He is having brunch with friends, and Jeremy orders a stack of french toast to share. Hector is having fun with his friends and feels kind of embarrassed to tell them he is on this nutritional thing. He caves in to the French toast. He feels guilty right away. He does not overdo it, he does not go all “fuck-it” on a bender, but all afternoon feels terrible. He cannot shake it, he feels like he always fucks up everything.

Solution: Hector identifies there is an “always” there. He debates with it and realizes, “hey, I don’t always fuck up.” He still feels like everything is ruined. The light bulb goes on! He feels fear! It was not explicit, but there it was, he fears he is going to lose all his progress and that this was just the beginning of the comeback to his old self. He then realizes he is not that old self. He only ate a single piece of french toast, “no biggie”, and he moves on. 

▶ Personalization

Example: It is Olympic weightlifting day. I am coaching. Hector is lifting. I love working with him. We get along. I love lifting, and I want to transmit to him my love for this thing. For me, it is about working towards mastery and towards refining every detail. After each lift, I give him feedback. We focus on one single aspect of the lift, and we work and work and work. The time is up, and we have to stop. For me, it was an excellent session, all I can think about is how much better that extension got, “Hector is so coachable.” But for Hector, it was not the same. All he could think was: “man! I just kept doing it wrong and wrong and Juan had to be there coaching me the whole hour.

Solution: Hector apologizes to me before leaving the class. “I am sorry you had to spend that whole hour with me.” I understand right away! I realize I was so focused on having fun coaching him, I did not read any of his body or language cues. He was feeling judged. I explain to him that I was not cueing him because there was something wrong, or because I had to. I was coaching because I was having fun, and I was trying to use his superpower of being very coachable to make him an even better lifter. Hector took my coaching feedback personally; He took responsibility for my behavior and then felt guilty. After we talk, he realizes I was having fun, and that I think he is a good lifter. He does not fully embrace it. But he does not feel guilty anymore. 

There are many more habits of mind. There are many ways in which you can apply different habits of mind to the same situation. These are not logical arguments. They are not absolute. Quite the opposite, they are various ways to frame reality. Some of them are useful; some of them are hurtful. Burns’s book, The Feeling Good Handbook, is full of solid examples of how to identify these cognitive distortions to make your life better. This model was developed to treat depression, which can tell you how severe these sneaky bits can become. Next time you are feeling some kind of way about your training, think about them and see if you can catch yourself distorting your own self, like Hector. 

Stay strong and undistorted!