Mindfulness and Self Referencing

by James Porter July 26, 2010

Self-referencing is a term psychologists use to describe the way in which we see ourselves. Most people see themselves in a narrative way, in other words: in stories. Sometimes these stories are positive: "I'm a nice guy, I play by the rules, I have integrity." And sometimes they're negative: "Why do bad things always happen to me; I'm so unlucky; My spouse is a pain; My coworkers are rude."

People who practice mindfulness often develop a different approach to self-referencing known as "an experiential approach." This approach looks at each thing that happens to you as a unique event, tied into this moment, with subtle differences that can be clearly seen from other previous, yet similar events.

So if you're a person who practices mindfulness and a loved-one is treating you poorly, you are more likely to say to yourself, "my spouse is being difficult right now but he's not always like this."

So the person who practices mindfulness (and there are research studies that confirm this) is experiencing his or her reality differently from someone who sees events with a narrative focus. For a person with a narrative focus, difficult events seem to have a cumulative effect over time. New stories (those negative things we say to ourselves when we are experiencing stress) pile up on top of old similar stories, thus making the breaking point substantially lower for a person with a narrative self-reference.

In other words, a person with a narrative focus is going to experience a difficult moment with his or her spouse as just another example of a continuing saga (like a camel collecting straws): I can't believe he left the toilet seat up again! I can't believe she interrupted me again! Whereas the person who practices mindfulness sees each stressful moment as a unique event. "He's a little distracted today. Or, she's just excited to tell me something."

I've been practicing mindfulness now for over a year, and I got a taste of this phenomenon last night when I went online to buy some theater tickets. If you've ever bought tickets online, you know that they always give you a certain amount of time (usually about 5 minutes) to complete your order. And of course, if you don't finish in five minutes, you have start all over again. When this would happen in the past, it would always infuriate me. (My narrative view was; Why does this stuff always happens to me?)

So last night when it happened again, I thought I'd react in the same old way I always did. Now trust me, there was definitely a voice in my head that was urging me to do this. But there was also another distinct voice, probably coming from my left prefrontal cortex, (the seat of rational thinking and an area that - in a VERY recent Harvard study - shows structural changes after just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation) that said: "Isn't it amazing that at 10 O'clock at night when the people in the theater box office have all gone home, I can still buy these tickets, and know exactly where I'm going to sit, and even print out the tickets on my computer. I know what I did wrong and it's only going to take me a few minutes to enter the information again. And that's a lot less time than it would take for me to obtain the tickets in any other way."

To be honest, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was so relaxed about the whole thing. Notice how this experiential focus isn't cumulative. It recognizes what is happening, that it's frustrating and that there's really no other choice than to just deal with it. I didn't pity myself because my self-referencing had clearly begun to change. It was just an event that I quickly adjusted to, and realized would be over as soon as I started the order process again.

Check out future blogs for advice about how to develop a mindfulness practice and several more things you can do to foster an experiential view on the stressful events that happen in your life.




James Porter
James Porter

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