I am mastering sleep

To continue along a theme I started yesterday on the power of internal thoughts and dialogue on your feelings and behavior, I decided to go into another personal example.

Some of you know that I have struggled in the past with getting enough sleep. But in the last couple of years I have truly started to understand the difference that getting good, consistent sleep makes for me. It allows me to be less distracted, more engaged, less triggered in terms of emotional volatility.

Good sleep allows me to be more creative, more flexible in my thinking, and more generous in spirit. It helps me keep my weight stable and gives me more consistent energy. Sleep allows me to make better decisions and to pause before responding to stimuli. It “cleans up” the toxic stuff that builds up during the day.

But for years I struggled with periodic insomnia. Notice how I define that in the past tense? In truth, I still struggle sometimes. But I was considering the difference in telling myself “I suffer from insomnia” and changing that thought too: “I am learning to master sleep.”

Sleep

It may seem like a subtle difference. But when I consider the feeling that results from “I suffer from…” it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel defeated. When I instead practice the thought, “I am mastering sleep” I start to feel hopeful, as though I am making progress. It means I have not yet figured it out, but that I am getting there. Actually, that is what is true for me.

Back when I started tracking all this stuff with the Wellbeing Finder about a year and a half ago, I really struggled. Knowing that getting better, more consistent sleep was the goal, I could see what factors led to better sleep. So I experimented with different things, like powering the devices down at least an hour before bed. I was shifting my drinking and eating patterns too. I quit alcohol and cut way back on sugar and flour.

It turned out some of those factors were much more relevant than I thought in getting a good night’s sleep. Now that I am used to receiving better quality and quantity of sleep, I am a total convert! But I need to realize this is a skill that can be mastered. Even though I suffered from insomnia in the past, I am gaining mastery over good sleep.

If you are mastering sleep, do consider what language you use as you learn to embrace this beautiful and restorative habit. Imagine if you used kinder language to describe the process of change, and describe the issues as relevant to the past but not the present. Perhaps that will help you, as it has for me, to let go of the need to be perfect. Mastery is an ongoing process but so very worthwhile.

“I Choose To” vs “I Have To”

Almost everything you do in a typical day is optional. Except breathing, that one is required. Even eating is optional. Humans have survived during millennia in periods when they have not had enough to eat, and had to spend multiple days (sometimes weeks, months) fasting. Not that I am advocating this, but if you wanted to skip a meal now and then, you could choose to do so without dire consequences, unless you have a medical condition.

Going to work is not optional, you might be saying right now. You “have to” pay your bills and you “have to” earn money to buy food, gas and all the associated necessities that allow us to live our lives. You probably have people depending on you, and this can add to the feeling of “I must” go to work.

There is a subtle change in energy when we realize that we choose to go to work every day, because there are consequences if we do not, versus “having” to go to work, as though we are slaves. We choose work and earn income because it gives us choices in our lives, and allows us to do things we want to do. True, maybe we do not all do work that feeds our souls, and we may deal with some annoyances or people that drain us.

When you accept that there are not really many things you HAVE TO do, you may realize that much of your internal dialogue is actually a lie. This dialogue with yourself causes anxiety, and it does not serve you. It was kind of eye-opening when I realized this for myself. I realized I was whining and complaining about my job and feeling sorry for myself about it.

It was probably while reading a book called The Four-Day Win by Martha Beck  about identifying thoughts that we have (or had) before we find ourselves eating too much or eating food that is unhealthy. When we get really mindful about those impulses we may find ourselves trying to avoid thoughts that are painful, like “I have to go to this event” or “I don’t want to make this phone call.”

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Those of us who have struggled with emotional overeating in the past have used food to distract ourselves from some emotion or procrastinate some thing we do not really want to face. We live out of integrity with ourselves because we have a mental dialogue that is a lie (“I have to” rather than “I choose to”) and we find it difficult to face reality and our own emotions.

Sometimes we feel lonely or disconnected, and it is harder for us to admit this and reach out to a friend for companionship than it is to eat a cookie and milk. Perhaps that was the pattern we learned as children when we felt sad, or what our parents might have done to cheer us up. As a temporary measure, maybe the ice cream made you “feel better” – the hit of dopamine and sugar in the brain certainly had an immediate effect. The longer-term impact of the insulin released in the body did not give us healthy results, however.

We may not have learned to process our feelings completely, if we were consoled or soothed with food rather than taught that are feelings are valid, and it is okay to feel them instead of eating them. We may not have understood that our thoughts influence our feelings, and so by exploring what thoughts led to those emotions, we could question those thoughts to see if they are really true.

Do I really “have to” go to that family event? Or do I choose to go to the event because I love these people and want to show my support for them? Do I “have to” write all those holiday cards to a huge list of people? Or do I choose to write some holiday cards because I would like to stay in touch with loved ones?

Though it is a subtle change in language, changing these internal messages to ourselves helps free us from a victim mentality. It empowers us to realize that we have the ability to choose. Sure, maybe some people will not like it if we skip an event. But we are not responsible for others’ feelings, only our own.

My favorite meditation mantra which helps me live in my integrity while avoiding the lie that “I have to much to do” (which is one of my ego’s favorites) is:

“I have time for everything I need to do today.” 

It is true. All I must do today is breathe. Everything else is optional, and a choice I make. Realizing this truth sets me free in so many ways. I hope it does for you too.