Mindfulness: Meet the Inner Narrator
This month, we’re talking about “trigger states.” Many of my clients can identify their personal “trigger foods” (we’re going to talk about that more next month!), but people rarely develop an awareness of their “trigger states.” You know – those times when you make uncharacteristically poor decisions.
Dealing with the pressures of chronic stress, which often leads to short-changed sleep cycles over a long period of time, can have unwanted effects in your health and fitness journey. You probably know from experience that when you’re under-rested and over-stressed, your food choices are worse, you exercise less, and the results show up in your waistline and low energy.
In the last two weeks, I’ve covered these topics and strategies that you can use to improve your time management and stress coping skills.
But today, we’re going to dive even deeper into mindset – specifically, mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
The word “mindful” has become a buzzword, commandeered by marketing campaigns to cast a spiritual halo over concepts and products ranging from yoga classes to cappuccinos. Because the term has been so effectively co-opted to mean something like “relaxed,” the word has lost its potency.
Oxford Dictionary defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”
While I like this definition, I like to take it a step further by encouraging clients to not only accept thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but also to question them.
My definition of mindfulness is:
The ability to detach from the voice that runs nonstop in your head, to discard self-limiting old beliefs, and to develop new stories to replace them – all in ways that affect your behavior.
I often call the voice the “inner narrator,” because this nonstop storyteller threads together a cohesive narrative of your life, interpreting your experiences as you stumble through some situations, and shine in others. This narrative, as though in a movie, defines your life by describing scenarios in a way that matches your “story.”
In other words, your inner narrator is the one who has the power to explain bumper-to-bumper standstill traffic as either bad luck (“Oh no, I’m going to be late! I’m always late!”) or good fortune (“Awesome! Now I have time to finish my makeup!”).
Your narrator writes the story. This power of interpretation – explaining events and driving behaviors based on your beliefs – can affect every part of your life, from career to marriage to parenting.
But it becomes particularly potent when it comes to an area where you have an especially subjective viewpoint – nutrition, fitness, and body image.
When it comes to your body, you often lack objectivity, and your sense of reality is extremely malleable. Otherwise, how could you feel fit and on top of the world one day, only to try on a tight pair of jeans the next day and vow to go on a diet (and actually feel fatter)? How could you lose 50 pounds, only to experience decreased self-esteem and increased body anxiety? How could you look back on photos of yourself from 20 years ago and wonder, “How could I think I was fat then? I was so thin!”
The problem is that when you allow the inner narrator to tell the whole story – and you believe it – you make two critical errors:
- You believe that the inner narrator is always right
- You believe that the inner narrator is you
Not only are you more than your thoughts, more than your feelings, and more than your body sensations, but the inner narrator is also (often) wildly inaccurate. The logic may be sound, but the premise of your inner narrator’s reasoning is often wrong.
Believing the voice of the inner narrator without pausing to question it or test its assumptions leads to:
- Self-fulfilling prophecies that drive self-sabotage
- Lack of control over eating behaviors
- Punitive (and often unhelpful) exercise strategies
- A de-stabilized sense of self that can change from day to day based on events, thoughts, and feelings
Here’s the antidote:
You are extremely capable of rising above the interpretations of your inner narrator and re-writing your story from the broader perspective of your higher self.
When you practice mindfulness, you can learn not only to interact with this nonstop voice, but also to re-program it for an optimal experience of healthy living.
It’s more than just becoming an optimist with positive affirmations, however. In order to break through and create new behaviors (and results), the first step is to realize that you have choices.
You may not have control over your genetics, your current weight, or maybe even what you perceive to be poor eating habits – but you do have agency in deciding which mental frequencies you will “tune into,” like a radio.
Mindfulness is anything but passive. Instead, it is a consistent and daily discipline of staying aware of your beliefs, interpretations, and reactions, and developing the mental strength to create real change in your life, inside and out.
There are many ways to develop mindfulness, but here are a few that I highly recommend “for beginners”:
Strategy 1: Question Your Automatic Thoughts
As humans, we have automatic negative biases. This means that our interpretation of events often has a negative slant, unless we make an effort to change it. In other words, most of us have a “cup half full” setting.
Questioning yourself creates space between you (your higher, “authentic,” best self) and the tape that is constantly running in your head. It allows you to realize that sometimes, it’s not “you” thinking – it’s just the Inner Narrator.
This doesn’t mean you’re literally hearing a voice. It just means that when you find yourself enacting a negative belief, you can catch yourself and suggest to your psyche an alternative thought. Gradually, you will train yourself to be more perceptive and more challenging of your automatic beliefs and thought processes.
For example, when you try on a pair of jeans and they don’t zip up as loosely as they used to, your automatic thought may be, “It’s so hard to lose weight over 40 (or 30, or 60, or however old you are)!”
When you have a thought like that, mindfulness is the ability to hit pause and ask yourself, “But really, is that true? Haven’t I felt this way before? In perspective, is it really because I’m 40, or is it because ______________________?” Or you may even go a step further and ask yourself, “Are my pants really fitting tighter, or am I just feeling ultra-sensitive about weight right now?”
It is surprising how often our automatic thoughts are products of our beliefs, rather than reality.
Strategy 2: Develop a stillness practice.
You don’t need to buy a meditation cushion for this (but you can if you want to!).
Instead, a stillness practice is simply a time when you are quiet and unplugged. Here are some examples:
- Going for a nature walk
- Sitting and meditating
- Reading a devotional book
- Listening to music and sitting quietly
- Doing gentle yoga quietly
When you are still and quiet (and not on your phone or computer), it is amazing how much more attentive you can be to your thoughts.
This is where some of the cliches of meditation can come in (“Let your thoughts drift by like clouds…”), but honestly, many of these techniques are extremely helpful. Practice being aware of your thoughts, and letting thoughts go instead of chasing them down rabbit holes.
Doing so will help you build your ability to take your thoughts and feelings less seriously.
Side note: I am not saying you shouldn’t take yourself seriously. But if we’re honest, don’t we all take ourselves a little too seriously in all the wrong ways, while not taking ourselves seriously in the areas that could be helpful and constructive?
Strategy 3: Improving Your Mental Diet
We all know what we should do to improve our physical diets – eat more vegetables, get enough protein, a lot of water, etc. etc. etc.
But it’s important to keep in mind that – just as with food – we have choices about what we allow into our minds. One of my philosophies is that we must be discriminating and choosy when it comes to our media diet (and social media). This includes the news we watch, the magazines and books we read, the articles we read online, and the people we follow on Instagram. What we watch, read, and listen to will gradually become our beliefs.
Do you watch or read a lot of content that suggests singular “silver bullet” solutions to weight problems (Now it’s gluten! Now it’s fructose! Now it’s meat!)? Do you follow people on Instagram that fill you with envy (if you’re honest)? Do you read magazines that tout the new way to get Carrie Underwood’s legs or Robin Wright’s arms?
Most importantly, do you spend more time scrolling thorough fitspo social media accounts than you do actually working out?
The problem with media is that:
- It is sensational and loves to shock and surprise
- It thrives on continuously “new” content
- It often does not give back story (or reality), and causes you to compare your worst to other people’s best
When your media diet is saturated with miracle cures and “motivational” (read: jealousy-inducing) fitness or nutrition content, this affects your beliefs over time. Your beliefs gradually become more magical and less practical.
Your strategies for this week are to practice challenging/questioning your Inner Narrator, developing stillness practice, and cleaning up your media diet.
You may be asking, “What does this have to do with trigger states?”
Your beliefs about your body can create a perpetual trigger state, in which your disempowerment and lack of agency can actually affect your behavior.
These changes don’t happen overnight, but the changes that can happen quickly are amazing. You will be stunned by how you will immediately begin to notice the way you think, and that it is something separate from you. You will be awed by the amount of choice and control that you have in shaping your worldview. Most of all, you will be empowered to create real change in the way that you think and feel about your health and fitness journey.
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” Each week, I e-mail strategies to my mailing list on Monday. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!
Last week in “Stress Management: Time, Boundaries, and Your Body,” we talked about how improving your relationship with work (and people-pleasing!) can completely revolutionize the time and space you can create in your life for health and fitness. There were a few strategies for you to try. Let me know how this has been going by answering the questions below:
- Did you practice separating fantasy from reality? Did you notice that there were times that you exaggerated something in your mind, that was not urgent in reality?
- Did you practice tolerating discomfort? What was that like?
- Did you experiment with reducing your dependence on tech? What strategies or habits did you implement? What was it like, being less “plugged in”?
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