We all have stories we tell ourselves. The internal dialogue we use to narrate our lives. Those stories have a strong impact on how we view the world and ourselves. The narratives create characters and setting in our minds, which we insert our identities and navigate the best we can. When you are trying to become healthier and happier, it is important that you do not let those stories become a barrier to uncovering that person.
There were many years that the internal narrative I possessed was one where I played the underdog and had to overcome many obstacles. Those obstacles included things like: lack of finances, lack of support, a biased system and an inability to be loved. The truth was that having this ‘come from behind’ story was positive in some ways. When I was full of energy and motivation, I would create the successful Hollywood narrative, where I’d rise above all the challenges placed in front of me. In those months and years, I accomplished many things and had many successes. It was this storyline that allowed me to finish college, go to graduate school and most importantly, become an endurance athlete. When it comes to performing in athletics, I have always raced from behind. The idea of being a front runner is not the story I allowed myself to consider.
The other side to this story is that when I was not as energetic and motivated, I often became sad with feelings of helplessness and loneliness. A very specific time period I remember this becoming a problem was soon after the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009. I have not went back and unpacked all of the narratives that I picked up during that time, however, when you look at the following years of 2010 to 2013 (when the storyline started to change), you can see some of the impact and consequences of those narratives.
The greatest lessons that I’ve learned from those periods of my life include:
— You have to protect who has influence over your narrative. I personally made a decision in 2012 to remove all news on television and radio from my life.
— You need to have at least one or two people who can help you create a positive narrative. I am lucky to have a few close friends that I can lean into for this.
— You need establish a habit of observation, so you can become aware of what your current narrative is. This has become a nearly constant habit for me, but initially it required a formal and scheduled action.
When you know you have a negative narrative, what can you do about it? That is one of the highest quality questions you can ask yourself. As I just shared, that question means that you have to become aware that this narrative exists. When I talk to many people, it is evident they don’t realize that the stories they are telling themselves and others each day are not supporting the life they have identified as ideal. So, what can you do to manage the storylines?
To answer that, I would like to share a personal example from running marathons.
On ideal race days, when I am running a marathon, the narrative trends from very positive to slightly negative. The slightly negative thoughts are usually when I begin obsessing about my current pace or the constant observation of the aches and pains that are present. When race day goes wrong, the story trends from positive to complete self doubt. The self doubt, in these moments, becomes so powerful that it has real impact on my physical performance. These narrative also rob me of any happiness that I might be able to find.
The value in knowing these sabotaging thoughts are going to be a part of the day, is that you can prepare and practice managing those negative thoughts. Here are two strategies that I have effectively used over the years when I race. It took me many years to realize that these same strategies can be effective when trying to manage the negative storylines in my day to day life.
Two strategies to manage negative thinking:
1. Have a mantra to fall back on.
One of the most powerful mantras I developed for racing was during 2002 through 2003. It became so powerful because I practiced using daily. The mantra was very simple:
“I am strong. My body has done the training.”
I have had other mantras throughout the years, but I recall this one getting me through some pretty dark moments. It was also a year that I set multiple personal bests, including setting my marathon PR, which still stands today.
The value of having a mantra is when it becomes automatic. When prepared, at the first awareness of a negative internal dialogue, I return to the mantra until the dialogue has changed. Here are some examples of mantras that might be empowering:
- I am a healthy person. I appreciate my body.
- I am strong enough to handle today. I have everything I need.
- In this moment, I am perfect. The future will take care of itself.
- I am happy today. Yesterday is over.
The key is to use a mantra that has personal meaning and value for you. For many people I know, this means leaning into a religious belief. The only suggestion I would make is that you don’t use someone else’s mantra because it worked for them. Take the time and go through the process of uncovering something of meaning for yourself. It is ok if what you uncover is only useful for a short period of time. As I noted, my mantra for athletics has changed many times over the years.
2. Disassociate from the negative and move into the positive.
Another effective strategy that I have used, is to remove myself from the negative thoughts, replacing the experience with something positive. In this case, I like to use a visualization practice. I find the happy retreat, then I begin to create that setting as completely as I can. I use all my senses. If my retreat is on a trail, outside a cabin in the mountains (which it often is), then what are the sounds that I would hear? What does the mountain air smell like? How does that air feel when I breathe deeply? In a race, I work through this process, over and over until the imagery becomes as vivid and real as my mind can make it.
This past weekend, I ran the Sundance to Spearfish Marathon. It takes you through Spearfish Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places you could ever run a marathon. Somewhere around mile 16 I lost track of what mile I was running as I was absorbed by the scenery. I made a conscious decision to never look at my watch again, until the finish line. It was easy to disassociate from the reality of the race. I didn’t worry about the lack of long runs in my training. I wasn’t too concerned about little aches and pains.
However, there did come a point where I started to feel a little tired. The fatigue wasn’t worrisome, but I began to notice my legs were getting tired and I wasn’t able to distract myself by simply taking in the scenery. It was also about that point when I saw one of the small flagged mile markers. It said I was at mile 23. To combat this, I made the decision to find something else to focus on. Despite being in a perfect setting, I had to find a new scene to distract my mind from the reality of the race. As you can see from the data taken from my watch, it was highly effective.
In your day to day life, you can not always fall into day dreams to avoid your stress and negative thoughts. However, I challenge you to create one visualization and work with it. Once you have practiced it, you will find that falling into the imagery, even for a brief few seconds or minutes, will enable to you tackle the sabotaging thoughts that creep into your storyline throughout the day.
The narrative that we tell ourselves and share with others can have a powerful impact on our lives. When those narratives consistently trend to negative storylines, it can be difficult to find health and happiness. Two effective strategies for overcoming those narratives are to find a personal mantra and to lean into positive visualizations. To use these tools in your journey towards health, practice often and make them a default response in those moments of need.