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Little Things From Dr. Dug

CREATIVE PSYCHOLOGY WITH DR. DUG
  • Dr. Dug

Savage swimmers and Other Battles for Survival

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Many years ago, my physical therapist wanted me to start swimming. At the time, I was living in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, not too far from the Jackson Park Recreation Center. Jackson Park was a real gem of a facility with trees that encircled a tiny fitness center and, amazingly, an Olympic-sized outdoor pool.

For some reason, I was the only person who was ever there, other than two lifeguards. The aforementioned lifeguards were therefore available to direct their full attention to my swimming attempts.

One day, one of the lifeguards asked me, “What do you think you’re doing out there?” My powers of perception told me that this was a loaded question, but I decided to go with it and replied with trepidation, “Swimming?” Despite my clear discomfort with this conversation, the lifeguards proceeded to heckle the skill I apparently never correctly learned.

The two lifeguards eventually taught me how to swim out of some combination of pity, compassion, boredom, and friendship. By the end of the summer, I was a more-than-decent swimmer and could be found, more days than not, enjoying this lovely urban oasis.

In contrast, I now swim in a small 25-meter indoor pool at the gym, where the norm is to share lanes due to shortage of space. As I swim back and forth, like an aquatic hamster, I sometimes ponder the behaviors around me. There is the Angry Backstroker who creates a monstrous wake, the Oblivious Breaststroker with the unpredictable wingspan, and the Blind Crawler who stares at the bottom of the pool while zigzagging through the water. Perhaps the most insidious are the Water Aerobics Activists who appear so friendly, but who have perfected passive resistance by walking directly into the middle of your lane and then refuse to move.

I wondered to myself, “Why are people acting so aggressively?” and “Do they act like that even when they aren’t squished together in this tiny pool?” The swimmers appeared to be fighting for space, almost as if their survival depended on it.

I realized that I was witnessing road rage in the water. This was the aquatic version of the normally-sweet grandpa who flips off other cars on the freeway. Who would have thought that swimmers could be so savage?

Why does Swimmer Savagery happen? In a way, it really is a matter of survival. Behavioral economics would say that when something seems scarce, its perceived value increases. Along the same lines, the theory of evolution would suggest that when resources are scarce, living creatures feel driven to fight for their share lest they cease to survive. Both motivators can cause even the meekest among us to suddenly become a fierce competitor. This scarcity-focused mindset makes sense out in the wild where one must compete for the once-a-year corn crop provided by Mother Nature.

However, it’s probably overkill in a suburban swimming pool.

The Scarcity mindset can cause us to be vigilant (almost paranoid) about even the possibility of not having enough. As predicted by behavioral economics, we can spend an awful amount of time assessing our world in terms of the “valuable” things that are lacking, that are almost lacking, that are going to be lacking, and even that used to be lacking. Then, as predicted by the theory of evolution, we can obsess about how to obtain that valuable thing or obsess about how horrible it is that we don’t have that thing.

Ironically, when we are obsessed by the deficiencies in us, others, and the world, people start to see us in terms of our deficiencies, which then feeds our obsession. On the other hand, when we’re focused on our strengths and resources, and satisfied with what we have/who we are, people start to see us in terms of our accomplishments and potential, which then feeds our sense of abundance.

An Abundance mindset is helpful in that it provides the energy, confidence, and clarity needed in order to grow and improve. In contrast, a Scarcity mindset saps your energy, cuts your confidence, and clouds your clarity. Worse yet, it potentially leaves you in a chronic state of wishing for what you don’t have and blind to opportunities for fulfillment.

In other words, and perhaps contrary to what your gut may be telling you, feeling satisfied and fulfilled is not the same thing as stagnation. It is possible to celebrate what you have and work toward your goals.

If you are feeling courageous or adventurous, perhaps just for today (and maybe tomorrow), I’d like to suggest that you redirect your “no not enough” thoughts to “yes thank you!” thoughts, and point your energy toward specific growth strategies. At the end of the day, take note of any changes in your energy or general outlook.

You may also notice that changing your typical mindset is difficult and requires work. Sometimes even I can’t help but miss the trees, the sparkling blue 50 meters of water, and my little spot of peace in the middle of South Chicago! However, the payoff is high every time you are able to shift to an acknowledgement of abundance.

In terms of Swimmer Savagery, you have probably guessed by now that there is a cure. The steps are pretty basic: acknowledge and appreciate the available space, reassure yourself that space in the pool will almost always be available (even if you must wait), give thanks for your physical capabilities, and most importantly, laugh at your own evolutionary tendencies.

As for me, I’ll be in my lane watching the light glisten off the blue walls, listening to my own breath, and remembering with gratitude that one summer when I was heckled by lifeguards. #DrDug #LittleThingsFromDrDug

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