Learning to Ride the Wave

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about going with the flow – which is super easy when you are are Type A, sorta a perfectionist, and maaaybe a little tiny bit of a control freak. For me, thoughts about going with the flow tend to be a pretty good indication that things aren’t going exactly as I’d like them to. 

photo by Jordan Sanchez

And when things aren’t going the way we’d planned them, we’ve got a few options. We can push down our negative feelings and pretend that everything is SO fine and we are SO okay and nope, definitely NOT bothered by this new direction.

Alternatively, we can play up our negative feelings and stir in the irritability and anxiety, and now nothing’s going right and everything sucks and we’re never going to recover.

Or, we could find a happy medium by taking a tip from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and riding the wave. 

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was initially created by Marsha Linehan as a way to treat suicidal individuals who have Borderline Personality Disorder. Since then, it’s been used to treat depression, substance abuse, PTSD, and eating disorders. Like most other therapy modalities, I’m finding that its components are really applicable for every day life, whether you’re living with any of these mental illnesses or not. 

DBT encourages us to practice both self-acceptance and self-improvement.  “Riding the wave” serves as a metaphor for being mindful of our negative emotions and really feeling them as they come up, accepting them as they are, until they eventually pass (and they always do). 

Imagine the ocean waves in all of their unpredictability. Sometimes they are symbol of soothing and calm – when the waves are small, uniform, unaffecting. They’re easy to swim with and cool to the touch, a welcome relief under the hot, sticky sun. And other times, waves are rough and choppy. They’re loud with unsteady crashes and they’re so monstrous that they could consume us. We’re not sure when the waves will be soothing and when they’ll be treacherous – that depends on the weather, which we sure as hell have no control over (a point made abundantly clear by the 108° Los Angeles temperature outside as I type this).

And so, waves are like emotions: sometimes pleasant and easy, and other times seemingly out of control. Like the weather that controls ocean waves, our emotions are guided by our external surroundings – our romantic relationships, our jobs, our families. Trying to control ocean waves is pointless; you won’t get anywhere. Try as we might (and yes, we do try), a lot of the details of our surroundings are out of our control too. We can’t control what kind of mood our partner is in, or how hard that exam is going to be, or whether our request for a pay raise will be accepted.

When we ride the wave, we stop trying to control everything. We stop trying to suppress or elevate our emotional responses to stressors. We become mindful of whatever emotion it is that we’re feeling – angry, devastated, resentful, jealous, irritated – and we resist the urge to get swept up by the tide. We learn how to tolerate the negative emotions. When we do this, our emotions have less power over us. 

Ben Caunt writes about how to ride the wave of an emotion:

Observe your feeling

  • Pause and notice it.

Experience your feeling

  • Resist pushing your feeling away and instead, really feel it. Where do you feel it in your body?

Remember that you are not your feeling

  • You aren’t defined by this feeling and you don’t need to act upon it. Remember other times when you’ve felt differently. Remind yourself that feelings aren’t permanent.

Become more comfortable with your feeling

  • Do not judge your feeling. Accept it fully, as it is. Stay with it until it passes.

As Kanye West once said, “Waves don’t die, baby” and in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Sometimes quotes from a rapper and a master of mindfulness work nicely with one another to remind us to chill out and go with the emotional flow. 

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