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My Head Shrinks: Cognitive Distortions in Mother Mother's 'Grief Chapter'

By Sarah Hajkowski


On February 16th 2024, Vancouver indie band, Mother Mother, released their ninth studio album, Grief Chapter. As a regular Mother Mother listener, the group's engagement with mental health head-on has always resonated with me. The following analysis serves as a cross-section of three tracks on this most recent album for their encounters with cognitive distortion, with elements of the author's own mental health narrative.

Grief Chapter is not only about death, but also - going by its title - about the processing of death and loss. It’s fair to call the 2024 12-track leap a deathly album, but the message is more than that, it is surprisingly measured and cautiously, almost inarticulably, hopeful. The naming of the speakers’ “headspace” or phase as a Grief Chapter largely implies a midway point. There will be more chapters after this one, and it’s necessary to be in touch with our dark fringes to operate as a wholly integrated person in the world of many colors.


Among the many thoughts Grief Chapter provokes is the question of cognitive distortions, or distorted patterns of thinking. Such distortions occur in most individuals at some point. Readers are not judged here, but rather invited to take this narrative for what is useful, and self-reflect in the ways that ensure your safety.


TRACK 11: “END OF ME” + BINARY THINKING

One of the most reactive tracks on Grief Chapter is number eleven, “End of Me.” The speaker here is confronted with thoughts of what their literal death might look like, and latterly what it might look like for a version of their self-concept to ‘die,’ the version that isn’t wealthy and is still creating new art.


Passive or active suicidality is in play with the former train of thought. The speaker implies feelings of isolation, of not feeling seen, heard, or loved as they need to survive and thrive with the counterpart of fantasy.


Suicidality is a spectrum, defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “the risk of suicide, usually indicated by suicidal ideation or intent…It can also be defined to include suicidal thoughts, plans, gestures, or attempts” (Anderson University Counseling Services).


As someone who has survived ideation and manages mental illness, I hold that people in pain deserve compassion inwardly and from others. I empathize with readers just beginning or feeling stuck in their work to love themselves and move away from suicidality.


In “End of Me,” the song’s speaker describes their ideal funeral. “Everybody's there, everybody cares about me / Am I a wretch to fantasize about my death?” they question rhetorically. Like so many individuals who grapple with suicidality, the speaker longs to feel surrounded with love, and hastens to judge their own value on whether these longings are “good/right” or “bad/wretched.”


Sometimes discussed as “black-and-white,” “polarized,” or “binary” thinking, the speaker of “End of Me” is struggling with one of the major families of cognitive distortion, a highly common pattern of thinking and interpretation which has seen a surge in recent decades (Bollen ten Thij, et al.). Cognitive distortions are thinking patterns not based on fact and often contribute to negative feelings and perceptions.


Binary thinking is likewise one of the most common cognitive distortions. This is when an individual perceives their existence through a pattern of extremes. They may view their own behaviors in terms of strict success or failure (self-perception), struggle to adjust within deadlines or expectations (self-defeat), and/or see the world with a narrow “good/bad” view (hopelessness).


Binary thinking in extremes can add to the struggle for a suicidal person because it enables a negative view of life events to grow beyond evidence. If life can only be “good/bad,” or a person can only be “loved/hated,” “surrounded/completely alone,” “successful/a failure,” “smart/stupid,” or “okay/depressed,” it looks like relief to see suicide as a way out of pain, out of perceiving extremes that feel very real.


I have had my own experiences with these and other distortions, and like it is for many individuals, the work cut out for me is to identify where my exaggerations are and what is true in evidence. I may express a feeling in terms of “everybody” or “nobody,” just as the speaker of “End of Me,” envisions a fantasy where “everybody cares” for them.


In fact, neither of these extremes relate to what I am feeling. It is an irritating yet factual reality that no single person can possibly know “everybody.” These are skewed perceptions based on the force of feeling. While I can validate mine or the speaker’s feelings as being (super) unpleasant, what really shifts the discomfort of this headspace is doing my psychoeducated detective work. Where is this feeling coming from? How is it true or untrue, or both?


It’s crucial to remember that binary thinking appears in the majority of individuals at some point. It’s one of many ways the brain evolved from humanity’s primal ancestors.


"We mimic our reptilian ancestors by shutting down to conserve energy, increasing pain thresholds, and altering our consciousness level" (Ross).

The brain rigs its own innards and the whole plethora of one’s musculature, blood, and tissue that comes attached in the course of doing its complex job of trying to protect us. As such, binary thinking can be acknowledged as an attempt by the brain–albeit a misguided one–to help an individual through a difficult circumstance. It is not inherently bad. “Bad” is far too limited a category for the complex interactions we have with the internals and externals of existence. 


It is however important to manage our perceptions of the world in extremes; very rarely do growing individuals fit into categories like “always” and “never.” Extremes cloud evidence-based perception and allow negativity and inflexibility to fester.


Am I a freak / To dream about the street / On which I'll live when I am rich? - "End of Me"


With all the fun psychoeducation above, “End of Me’s” latter investigation of whether the speaker might one day “build a boulevard of bliss” likewise relies on binaries. The speaker is limited to only being a “freak” or whatever the opposite connotation is in their's or the listeners’ mind, a “good,” “normal” person, perhaps. They are concerned about the implications behind dreams of being rich, perhaps of a new and comfortable home, in a safe neighborhood.


Finally, the speaker of “End of Me” is giving voice to an anxious sense of self by including a sound byte from their experience in the concert forum. “Play ‘Hayloft’” cries Ryan Guldemond, the band’s lead vocalist in an imitation of the casual Mother Mother fan at a gig.


The message here is a fear of pigeonholing, of reaching a plateau. One reality of Mother Mother’s rise to fame is that internet virality, in particular trending on TikTok, bolstered the band–no single track so much as the 2008 original “Hayloft.” The speaker is concerned that “Hayloft” is the only achievement that the band will be remembered for, because it has been so unbeatably popular.


Indeed, admirers were drawn to the song from a variety of communities. Beyond the returning audience of indie and alternative listeners, a whole fandom superstructure–that is to say, card-carrying media junkies among tumblr.com’s “Top 23 of 2023” –flocked to the lyrics of “Hayloft.” In a surge of flexible meaning-making, fan artwork and animation saw it widely applied to many favorite characters of the hour . Its volatile narrative seemed to achieve that aim which Guldemond shared with Amber Neilsen of Soundsphere “…to make things hit hard and feel powerful.” 


The double-edged sword of this popular reception naturally is that Mother Mother was more widely known for “Hayloft” than anything else. At the beginning, hearing concert audiences request that they “Play ‘Hayloft!’” likely came with a swell of pride, but that has now been replaced by a nervous weariness. 


This concept directly interweaves with binary thinking because the speaker is self-defining in strict terms of who they are in alignment with “Hayloft” or in opposition to it. They can only be the version of Mother Mother that would play the song, or the version that is growing and positive and good. This is dangerous to the speaker’s integrated sense of self as it inhibits their ability to exist as an evolving, organic whole. It is limiting to freeze one self-definition and isolate it from all possible other ones. In evidence, human beings are more than their extreme sides and moments. Being asked to “Play ‘Hayloft!’” can still be a positive thing.


TRACK 9: “THE MATRIX” + 'SHOULDS'

One cognitive distortion ghosting Mother Mother’s “The Matrix” is the notion of ‘shoulds.’ ‘Shoulds’ or ‘should statements’ are another thinking pattern that derails perception beyond evidence. The reader will likely pick up on common threads and overlapping areas of any cognitive distortion. ‘Should statements’ share some territory with ‘binary thinking’ as they contribute to shame and stress about our own value, beginning in this instance with a standard, an expectation for oneself or one’s life that is unhelpful and often unrealistic.


‘Should statements’ perhaps obviously have their place in the complex circuitry of being human. Wanting better for ourselves and our lives and road mapping feasible and measurable means of reaching forms of “better” is found in evidence to be a trait of highly successful people. The prescient psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is quoted as having said that “Goals transform a random walk into a chase,” meaning that ‘should’ can be a catalyst, a foundation for continued growth.


When ‘should’ is distorted, however, it shows up in the taunting black and white of a finish line that seems ever elusive. One of the most debilitating ‘should’ statements I’ve encountered was in the reality that I was a late bloomer in learning and being licensed to drive a car on the road. Clinical anxiety complicated the journey. But it seemed to me to symbolize something huge and awful about myself. ‘I should be able to drive myself.’ ‘I should have been less afraid to learn how.’ ‘I should grow up and get out there.’ 


Suddenly this isolated skill issue of driving threatened to signify a broader truth about me as a growing young person. At its height unchecked, the cognitive distortion of feeling like I wasn’t doing what I should have contributed highly to self-hatred and a wounded sense of self-efficacy. ‘I can’t do anything right’ was a black-and-white sentiment just a few streets over from ‘should.’ Failing to meet my own expectations turned to acid in my perceptions.


So then, what ‘should’ statements are holding back the speaker of Mother Mother’s “The Matrix?” The lyrics open up this subject beginning with the speaker’s sense of discomfort in themself and how they show up in the world.


“So why you so shy? Why you so shut off? / You're running out of time / I want you to fly, I want you to pop off” an imaginary interrogator demands of the speaker. Here the expectations for how they socialize, how they pursue their goals, and the timeline they have left to alter this are all framed with a critical fixed mindset. They are encountering a binary; either they can be someone who is ‘shut off’ or someone who ‘pops off.’ And the value judgment that follows these two extremes is clear. The speaker has the self-belief that they ‘should’ be the latter, further that they shouldn’t be “stressed” or “depressed.” They struggle between ‘should’ perceptions articulated by their mother and father and, more broadly, by society.


With the above, one of the most dazzling insights of “The Matrix” is its investigation of how life in late-stage capitalism too affects mental health at the personal level. ‘Should’ messaging has many layers, one of the most under-discussed being its linkage with money-making, with product mindset, with age norms. ‘Should’ is the essence of capitalism. Even as the system name implies a massive multi-structure operating with ghostly omniscience to affect life on a global scale, we must recognize that capitalistic ‘shoulds’ are often experienced in a highly individual sense and have hard-hitting implications for one’s sense of self and accomplishment.


“Yet it [capitalist production] squanders human beings, living labor, more readily than does any other mode of production, squander­ing not only flesh and blood, but nerves and brain as well.” - Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3

A matrix is defined in the social sense as “the systems and structures in society that keep us bound to the traditional ways of living and working…These systems can include societal norms, cultural expectations, educational institutions, and corporate structures that often prioritize profit over people.” (Shabbir).  As early as the mid-nineteenth century economist Karl Marx identified a conflict between thirsty capitalism and protecting the quality of life for the individual worker. Again, phenomena describe trends in a wider scope. Yet the phenomenal is also the individual. 


“Fuck no,” the speaker says “to living in The Matrix.” This can actually be viewed both as succumbing to cognitive distortion messaging and finding a healthy subversion of it. On the one hand, they’ve taken some generalizations of how others have lived their lives, specifically the idea of “living in a basement,” and subscribed to the narrowness that they ‘should’ live somewhere else, somewhere better. The hazard of accepting a distorted ‘should’ in this case is that one might find indeed themself living in a basement, and if it’s the option they have, it has to be good enough. But looked at another way, the speaker’s rejection of The Matrix is a liberation from ‘should’ distortions, as they are rejecting the system that reinforces such rigid standards.


'Fuck no to my one sweet life squeezed tight in a vice grip,' -"The Matrix"

The speaker refuses to be constrained, “squeezed tight,” by The Matrix. Conversely, , they must be olly-olly-oxen free; their life expansive and breathable–the speaker must both recognize the power of ‘should’ distortions and actively resist them. This is a powerful stance to take in the midst of a relentless societal narrative associating workaholism with a sense of self to the extent of “obsessive passion–an obsessive involvement with work while neglecting other needs” (Travers, Forbes).


The speaker of The Matrix operates more than symbolically within its squandering of nerves and brain. As an individual, they take the action step for their own mental health to continually avoid cognitive distortion triggers in the form of ‘should’ statements. Another ‘should’ lurks behind the complementary extreme represented by the speaker’s mother, the full-fledged flight from reality:


'My mama always said, ‘You got to find yourself a mantra’'

They repeat throughout the song, weighed down by the need to commit to one truth, one value attribution, one ‘should’ and one source for it to derive from: “Buddha said, Voodoo said, Guru said, Rumi said…/ But papa always said, ‘Gotta find yourself a job,’/ But mama said, ‘Nah, gotta find yourself a mantra.’"


As long as they can manage distorted thought patterns when they can be identified, that’s all any individual coping with mental illness can be asked to do. It becomes clearer to me, anyway, that the balancing act of my own mental health journey is allowing for triggering and uncomfortable states to affect me as they need to, knowing that I have the power to grow and get through them. It’s not that I will never be intensely uncomfortable and allow a cognitive distortion to throw me off-kilter, so to speak. Rather, I can sit in intense discomfort and use my evolving toolkit to continue working on my own mental health.


TRACK 5: “DAYS” + /DIS/QUALIFYING THE POSITIVE


Contemporary conversations about language frequently include discussion of what we’re meant to do with the human disposition toward labeling. It’s all too easy to go through the proverbial motions of our day letting experiences and feelings fall into boxes. Too, we’re programmed to retain the unpleasant or uncomfortable ones as a survival mechanism to avoid repeating them.


The speaker of Grief Chapter is hard at work in learning to take care of themself, as evidenced by the struggles and strengths of the album’s 12 tracks. There are moments when they lack the energy, the force, or the resources not to fall victim to labeling. But in the case of "Days," they are landing with a rounder perspective that balances self-compassion with proportionate judgment.


'Made up of the moments, on each one, it's like I'm choking/ I have days, days, days that I could do without / But I'll never, ever let 'em take me down' - "Days"

In my work to take care of my own mental health, I have continuously come up against moments where phrases that qualify as cliches have a surprising, sometimes maddening level of truth. Too often I've heard those I love and complete strangers alike speak of taking the pains and pleasures of life "day by day." Frustrating though it may be, musical poetry like Mother Mother's Grief Chapter will always be there to let us know we are not alone in active navigations of taking things hour by hour, moment by moment.


 

Resources

988 - Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

Psychology Today - Find Therapists and Psychologists

Many Reasons to See a Therapist - You Are Not The Only One


 

Sources

Bollen, ten Thij, et al. “Historical Language Records Reveal a Surge of Cognitive Distortions in Recent Decades.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2102061118. Accessed 6 Apr. 2024. 


Marx, Karl. “Capital, Vol. 3.” Marxists Internet Archive, digamo.free.fr/penguin3.pdf. Accessed 6 Apr. 2024. 


Ross, Dana. “A Brief Summary of Polyvagal Theory.” LinkedIn, 6 Feb. 2021, www.linkedin.com/pulse/brief-summary-polyvagal-theory-dana-ross-md/.


Shabbir, Osama. “What Is Matrix & How to Escape Matrix!” LinkedIn, 26 Apr. 2023, www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-matrix-how-escape-osama-shabbir/.


“Suicidality.” Anderson University Counseling Services, 30 July 2020, anderson.edu/student-life/counseling/suicidality 


Travers, Mark. “A Psychologist Explains Why the ‘anti-Grindset’ Movement Could Save Us All.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Nov. 2023, www.forbes.com/sites/traversmark/2023/11/14/a-psychologist-explains-why-the-anti-grindset-movement-could-save-us-all/



 

About the Writer

Sarah Hajkowski is a poet, playwright, and journalist based on the East Coast, USA. In addition to Erato, she is a writer on Medium.com, publishes plays to NPX: New Play Exchange, and freelances as a theatre artist. If not writing, she will be listening to music, watching horror movies, and connecting with likeminded humans.


Find out more at sarahhajkowski.com and reach out on social media.


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