Dear Practice Friends,
In mid-January, Tara Parker Pope authored an article in the New York Times’ Well Section on the power of expressive writing entitled, Writing your Way to Better Happiness
. In it she notes:
The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast…Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing – and then rewriting – your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
I would argue that we have all sorts of narratives, or scripts, related to different aspects of our lives, which reflect our attitudes, our pre-dispositions, and our judgments of what is normal, abnormal, superlative and/or lackluster, especially as it relates to exercise and diet. These scripts are sometimes easily self-recognized, and other times are so close to us that they are like contact lenses, something we use to see without knowing we are looking through them.
For example, many people in the studio know that I love pie, fruit pies specifically. While living in NYC I used to eat it three or four times a week; I was conscious of the fact that I wanted to eat it, and likewise conscious of the fact that I couldn’t stop. However it took a lot more soul-searching and professional help for me to uncover the script, “I deserve a reward for after a long day at work.” And as Tara Parker Pope correctly points out in her article, you have be aware of what your current narrative is in order to re-write it. In my case, I still eat pie, but far less than I used to, and I try to make a nice run or workout the reward for a good day at the studio.
When it came to exercise, my script used to be, “I need to try harder.” I could “hear” myself thinking this even after a really solid work out. What I couldn’t hear was the subtext, “because you’re not good enough.” Again, with help, time, and practice, I rewrote the script, so that exercise is now an opportunity to let go of critical thinking and an invitation into the sensations that I experience as I move on the reformer, the mat, and the bench. Does the old narrative ever pop up from time to time? Yes, absolutely, but the way I relate to it now is different: because I can see it more often than not, I have some measure of freedom in how I respond to it.
So, what’s your story? Having trouble seeing it easily? Here are a few examples of scripts that clients have brought with them to their sessions over the years:
I need to win
100% isn’t enough
No pain, no gain
Never give up
My doctor told me I need to exercise
Exercise is repetitive and repetitive = boring
I need to look great in my swimsuit, yesterday
I’m a good person; why do bad things keep happening to me?
Look closely at each of these examples and you will see in them the potential for both beneficial and deleterious outcomes. The drive to win can be an admirable and amazing quality and lead you to great success, and it can also destroy your life and the lives of people you are close to. In the case of someone who holds a passive orientation to exercise (“I’m here because my doctor said I should be here”), there is an opportunity for transformation, and it is incredible to see how much a person can change in this regard once they recognize the value of staying in shape.
The key to managing your personal narratives for your own benefit comes first in acknowledging that they are there, and then finding out how it reads. Before you charge off to your best friends (or your Pilates Instructor), demanding them to tell you what what your personal narrative is, take some time to to explore your attitudes toward different facets of your life. Try asking yourself three times, “what is my attitude toward exercise?” The first time, answer the question as if you were talking to your employer or someone interviewing you for a new job (the politically correct response). The second time, answer the question as if you were talking to your spouse or partner (the heartfelt response). The third time, answer the question as if you were talking to the friend who knows everything about you, including stuff about your partner that you promised not to share with anyone (the ultimate no BS response). You may end up with three very different attitudes. Which one is real? The all are, because they come from you, and you are a multifaceted individual.
Keep working your way around the various pockets of your existence, from exercise and diet, to your career, to money, to politics, to religion, to romantic relationships, and to family. You may discover patterns emerging. Are your attitudes primarily optimistic or pessimistic? Are they progressive or conservative? Are they idealistic or nihilistic? Do they embolden you to action or keep you locked up in fear? Once you have mapped out the landscape of your attitudes, it becomes easier to see the scripts that drive your action or inaction. Then you can begin to make shifts in your patterns that will not only affect one narrative or your outlook toward one aspect of your life, but can ripple through your entire self-system, deepening your own self-understanding and generating a deep sense of personal contentment. As one of my playwriting professors in college used to say, “the first draft is usually 20% inspiration and 80% crap; for a masterwork, revise, revise, revise!”