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Interrupting Our Own Storytelling: a 4-Step Path to Mindfulness

We tell ourselves stories all the time. Often we tell our stories to others. Here’s how this might look.

“Well, I tried the best I could to be a great co-parent after the divorce, but my ex-wife was too angry and didn’t want to include me in any of the parenting decisions, even though that was part of our legal decree…”

Yadda yadda yadda. I’m telling this story to myself or to a friend, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a story.


Interrupting Our Own Storytelling

Stories can be positive or negative or neutral. In the story above I am replaying a story over and over in my mind, trying to solve or resolve the pain or frustration still associated with the memory and trauma I have related to my divorce. Okay. But I don’t have to keep telling the story. There’s no real reason for me to keep weaving this self-deprecating and self-destructive yarn about my divorce. It doesn’t help anything. It will not change the outcome, nor how I feel about my ex-wife. It’s called ruminating.

Today, when this happens, and I notice I’m in storytelling mode, I clap my hands (bang!) and say “Stop!” It’s sort of like pausing and noticing during meditation that my thoughts have become distracted again. I need to return to the breath, in meditation. In my storytelling exercise, my return is to my own moment of the “now.”

“I am telling a story.” I say. This is the first step of awareness. Noticing that the story has begun.

The second step is interrupting the oration that is going on, either in my head or externally to another person, to pause the story. “Stop!”

I can then notice what I am feeling. I can check in with my mood. And label that. “At this moment, I’m angry and a bit bored,” I can tell myself. Again, I’m labeling the mood, not trying to change it, not passing judgment about my mood.

Finally, I can ask myself, in the moment, “What is the next right action, for me?”

At this point, I have choices. Do I want to continue telling the story? Do I want to stop telling my story and check in with the feelings and mood that is present in my body-mind-spirit? Do I want to go for a walk and change my surroundings? Do I want to do an activity to interrupt the storytelling and move my actual life towards a positive action that leads towards a positive outcome?

What Is The Next Right Action?

It’s important for us mood-driven people to get real clear on one point: no matter how you feel, you have got to get your shit done.

For me, in the past that has involved family commitments, job commitments, tennis match commitments, just basically getting my stuff done. And, also me in the past, I would let a blue mood derail my plans for an entire day, an entire weekend, a season. I could fall down the depression hole and get very little done, of the things I needed to get done. These were things that involved other people counting on me. My DONE or NOT DONE had a huge impact on my wife, my kids, my manager at work, my tennis partners.

What I’ve learned over time is this: interrupting a mood is possible. Resetting my day towards ACTION regardless of my feelings, and moving on, taking concrete steps towards what I need to get done. That’s the trick.

The practice above involves 4 steps.

  1. Noticing
  2. Interrupting
  3. Labeling
  4. Deciding to take the next right action

These are the major steps to recovering my mindful centeredness at any time. I may not WANT to do my job today. I may not feel like playing tennis this evening. I may feel like I need to take the afternoon and evening off… That’s a choice. I can STOP the story I’m telling myself.

“I am sad. I am missing my kids. My kids never respond to me when I ask them to lunch or breakfast or dinner. I am angry. I am sad. They don’t love me. They don’t respect me. I’m not a good dad.”


This runaway freight train of dark rumination does not serve me or my kids. There is no benefit to “feeling” these feelings and allowing them to wreck my productivity and success at my job. So, I stop the story. I label how I’m feeling in this moment. (Hungry, Tired, Sad) And then I take the next right action. For me, today, it’s to get finished with this article and get prepped for my afternoon team meeting at 2 pm.

Making Choices In the Present Moment

Here’s what I see are my potential next actions.

  • Brew a stiff cup of coffee and dig into the prep work for the meeting in 2 hours
  • Go for a walk
  • Take a nap
  • Do something fun (set up my PS4 and Rockband, for example)
  • Call someone I want to connect with
  • Write something else
  • Do some mind-mapping about the coming new year
  • Keep spiraling down the disappointment at my kids’ lack of response from yesterday
  • Get mad at my kids in a new text shaming them for not responding
  • Pause, and meditate for 15 minutes to recenter and reset.

Do you have a good handle on the activities you can do when you need to stop the circular thinking? Can you have a ready list of “next right actions” that are similar, yet slightly different, from your to-do list?

Making a Change, Setting a New Habit

Changing a habit is not easy. It takes focus, commitment, and resetting. I don’t always see my ruminations, and I can lose hours in a daydream state if I’m not paying attention to the moment and my place in it. I am working on this practice for myself, right now. It’s not routine yet. But I’m becoming more aware of my wandering mind and its powerful storytelling feature, that can derail my serenity.

The power of awareness in this very moment is a key focus point.

  • In any situation, I can STOP and check-in with my body, mind, and spirit.
  • I can pay attention to my energy levels throughout the day and use my micro correction strategies to keep myself in a positive and forward-moving position.

Keep interrupting the stories you are telling yourself and others. Take control of your thoughts and actions by pausing in the moment and recentering then resetting your trajectory. Aim for your long-range goals. Make concrete progress towards your immediate goals. And stay the course.

Your comments and ideas are always welcome.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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