sometimes our deeply held beliefs about ourselves don't hold up to scrutiny
For years, I’d been sure that I was not getting enough sleep. I would wake up in the morning feeling tired, often disturbed by the vivid dreams I experienced. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d anxiously count the hours that I could still earn if I fell asleep right then. How many hours short of the magical eight would I be? Would I be able to function?
Sometime during 2020, this all changed.
This is interesting, because I wouldn’t say I’m getting more sleep. My dreams are not less vivid, and I still wake up frequently. So, my sleep habits themselves aren’t different– but my experience of them is. So, how is this possible? I’ve taken control of the narrative. Let me explain.
How much sleep was I getting? My perception was wrong.
As a Buddhist practitioner, I’ve been taught to be skeptical of my own perceptions. Reality, after all, is completely subjective. I love cilantro, but to others it tastes like soap. You might think lizards are cute, while someone else finds them terrifying, etc. And perhaps you remember this 2019 phenomena in which we all debated the color of the shoe. But when it comes to certain experiences, we have our blind spots, and it can be very hard to even notice that our perception is simply a perception– and not factual reality.
One morning, as we were walking the dogs, and I was lamenting my sleep habits, my partner said, “Why don’t you wear your Apple watch to bed and use it to track your sleep? Maybe it’ll give you some good information.” I was initially skeptical (this should have been a sign– I’m often resistant to challenge things I really want to believe in!), but decided to give it a try.
What happens when we examine our reality?
I had an outdated and incorrect perception of myself as tossing and turning, when the reality was that I was sleeping for long undisturbed stretches of time.
After a week of tracking, I couldn’t deny that I was just plain wrong about my sleep. The results almost shocked me. The truth was that I was getting eight hours of sleep almost every night. When I woke up, it was for a short time, and then I fell right back asleep. I had an outdated and incorrect perception of myself as tossing and turning, when the reality was that I was sleeping for long undisturbed stretches of time.
Changed perception changes reality.
Once I saw that my perception was incorrect, my experience with my sleep changed almost immediately. I no longer had the middle-of-the-night-anxiety about getting back to sleep. On waking, I didn’t fret if I hadn’t gotten eight hours– the data showed me that I could do just fine on less. I no longer identified with myself as a sleep sufferer.
Studies show that optimists enjoy better health than those with a pessimistic outlook. (Of course, as a recovering pessimist, my initial reaction to those statistics was, “well, THAT’s great. I’m screwed!”). Thankfully, our brains can change, as can our thought patterns. That’s the magic of neuroplasticity. Even if you’ve always been a pessimist, it’s possible to become more optimistic– and to positively impact your health.
We can control our own narrative.
One of the incredible gifts of our giant human brain is that we have the
power to control the narrative of our lives. While we may not be able to affect the events of our lives, we do have the power to change how we’re perceiving it.
I recently heard journalist Suleika Jaouad recalling how she first began chronicling her battle with leukemia. “Something about the act of putting pen to paper, in the privacy of a notebook, gave me a sense of narrative control at a time when I’d had to cede so much control to others,” she said.
At the same time that I’d begun tracking my sleep, I also began keeping a morning journal. I’d wake up, write for 20-30 minutes, and then move on to meditation, dog walking, and breakfast. This has been a really powerful tool for me. Remember those vivid dreams? The journal’s a place where I can set them down (for later analysis, if I want) or leave them behind. It’s also a place where I can make conscious choices about my interpretation of the prior day’s events, or my feelings about the day to come. I’m not denying my reality– these are tough times, globally– but I’m able to remember that I control the narrative.
Our imaginations are incredibly powerful. Left unchecked, along with our unexamined beliefs, we can find ourselves living our lives as a character in a story we aren’t enjoying. Challenging our perceptions gives us a chance to explore new ways of being in our lives.