What Story Am I Believing Now?
I’ve watched my own opinions shift over time – someone I initially judged to be disastrously self-focused I quickly learned was a single mom raising an autistic son and she had to over-focus on herself and him to stay upright. (Then I had to work with my own judgment of myself for being – always! – so quickly judgmental.)
We do make judgments all the time, part of being a wise, discerning, successful human being. And we can get stuck in those judgments, beliefs, stories – too often seeing another person through our own filter, not for who they really are or how they are evolving. We can get caught in thought loops and think the same thoughts over and over.
(The running joke in meditation circles is that once you start paying attention to your thoughts, you notice that you have a list of the Top Ten that you hear over and over and over, nothing terribly original.)
As we strengthen our capacity of mindfulness to pay attention to anything we’re experiencing, we can begin to catch the stories and beliefs we tell ourselves over and over, the ones that can filter/distort our perceptions and are counterproductive to our resilience. With mindful awareness, we begin to experience their coming and going. We come to see that even deeply held beliefs about “the truth of the way things are” can shift.
Exercise: What Story Am I Believing Now?
1. Check in with yourself at regular intervals throughout the day. What am I thinking about right now? More importantly, how am I thinking about it? Lightly and freely? Ruminating and worried? Stuck in a loop?
2. Record your observations in a journal for a week. Again, there’s no shame or blame; you’re just seeing clearly.
3. At the end of the week, see if you can identify your five most often-repeated thoughts or your five most often-repeated patterns of thinking. Examples:
a. I’ve never succeeded at anything like this before; why in the world should I try now?
b. My brother is so stubborn! He’ll never change.
c. I knew I’d choose the wrong route to work/coat for the weather/ ice cream flavor; I just never get it right.
d. I never should have left the east coast, quit my job, gotten divorced – nothing has gone right since.
e. I hate going to those neighborhood social events; who could possibly be interesting there?
4. Choose one single repetitive thought to practice with. Practice noticing and letting it go, noticing it and letting it go. You want to receive the messages, but you don’t want to be stuck in an endless loop. Once the thought catalyzes some constructive action, some skillful behavior, you can let it go.
Letting go of a thought or story can be a novel experience. You want to make sense of your experience, using the tremendous power of your prefrontal cortex to do that. But when you can let go of one possible explanation and open your mind to the possibility that there might be others, you strengthen your response flexibility. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it” is sometimes the right stance. But when it’s not, letting go can allow you to be open to other, more resilient choices.
(You will find this practice and similar exercises in Resilience, forthcoming in September 2018.)