5 Simple Steps to Learn Mindfulness That Really Work

Quite some years ago a colleague dragged me to a mindfulness training for mental health professionals. At that time, mindfulness was not considered a fully valid concept in psychology.

As a psychologist who valued science, I viewed it as nothing other than new age, mystical hippy nonsense. I anticipated a flaky conference, and I was not disappointed. At one point, they had us all stand up and mill about aimlessly while humming for 20 minutes. Then we had to ask and answer some very personal questions with the strangers next to us.

Ugh. Not my cup of tea.

Fast forward to 2021, where mindfulness and science have met and married. And oh, what a glorious union it is! Mindfulness studies have been pouring from many of the best researchers in the world for over a decade. And the meaning of mindfulness has matured from simply “being in the moment” to a richer, more complex definition.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is being aware of what you are doing, experiencing, and feeling in the moment.

Here’s a brief list of just a few of the benefits of meditation/mindfulness that have been proven by research in the last few years:

  1. Helps you sleep better Black et al.
  2. Reduces your stress levels Zeidan et al.
  3. Actually changes the structure of your brain (for the better) Hölzel et al. Changes your body on a cellular level to fight cancer Carlson, et al.
  4. Helps you lose weight and maintain a lowered body weight Loucks, et al.

I have noticed that certain types of people struggle more with mindfulness than others. In fact, it is particularly absent and difficult for people who grew up in families which were not tuned in to the present moment or their emotions (Childhood Emotional Neglect).

Did your parents notice what you were feeling as a child? Did they help you name your emotions, express them and manage them? Attending to your inner experience, and especially to your own feelings, does not come naturally to most. If your parents didn’t teach you how to do this, then you have to teach it to yourself.

But never fear. Because the good news is, you can! In fact, one of the best things about mindfulness is that it is astoundingly learnable.

Here is a simple exercise that combines both vital aspects of mindfulness: 1) focusing and controlling your mind, and 2) being aware of what you are feeling in the moment. It is taken directly from my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. This kind of mindfulness actually will help you with recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect.

If you take five minutes to do this exercise three times a day, you are forcing your brain to perform a function that is novel. You are forging new neural networks which get stronger and perform better each time you do it, even when you are not successful in identifying or naming a feeling.

The Identifying and Naming Exercise

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable chair in a room alone. Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.

Step 2: Ask yourself this question:

What am I feeling right now?

Step 3: Focus in on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:

“What am I feeling right now?

Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.

Step 5: If you are able to feel something but have difficulty putting a word or words on it, it may help to use a list of Feeling Words.

If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, it’s okay! Do not put pressure on yourself. Coming up with a word is less important than simply going through the process of trying to focus your attention and feel your feelings.

Imagine that there is a brick wall between you and your emotions. Each time you follow this four-step process, you are putting a chip in that wall. If you keep chipping away, again and again by doing this exercise, eventually you will, bit by bit, break down the wall and gain control of your own mind and access to your emotions.

If I went to a Mindfulness Training today, I would view it very differently than I did all those years ago. I would see it as a remarkable opportunity to learn more about an amazing, cutting-edge approach to improving mental health in this world.

I would see it as a way to combat Childhood Emotional Neglect in this generation, so that it will not be passed on to the next. I would see it as a tool that can bring calm, sleep and health to anyone who is willing to invest ten minutes per day.

Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that?

To learn more about Emotional Neglect or The Identifying & Naming Exercise, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Jonice

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Liz - September 9, 2021 Reply

Dr. Webb’s book, Running on Empty, opened my eyes to my CEN background – it explained so much! I discovered mindfulness several years ago, and have since studied with many mindfulness teachers, and have become a mindfulness meditation teacher myself. This is how helpful and important I found it! The combination of understanding CEN, plus a mindfulness practice – changed my life so much that I feel compelled to give back.

    Jonice - September 9, 2021 Reply

    Dear Liz, that is very admirable! Great job. Thanks for sharing your experience!

Jess - September 8, 2021 Reply

I keep the list of feeling words by my bed. Without the list I’d struggle to identify the feelings. If I have a disturbed night I go through the list to find the best three matches to my feelings. Then I find I go back into a much better sleep, quickly and easily, for the rest of the night. It’s brilliant and simple..and just a tad tearful!

    Jonice - September 9, 2021 Reply

    Dear Jess, that is a wonderful use of my Feelings List! Thanks for sharing, your idea will help others.

Stephen - September 7, 2021 Reply

Mindfulness was definitely lacking in my childhood. I don’t think my Dad was ever able to accurately read my emotions (or his own), even when I told him flat out how things made me feel, it was never acknowledged. I could be furious, happy, drunk, high, starving and about to pass out, or sometimes I would even see how long I could go without talking, or see how monotone and depressed I could sound, and nothing was ever noticed. I could basically do whatever I wanted because he was so oblivious. It is too hard for him to hear how he came up short, so whenever I try to have a serious discussion with him he turns the TV up over me. He interrupts constantly and doesn’t actively listen. He basically watches TV every waking moment that he isn’t working. I realize now that I grew up with a man trying to escape his life. We never talked about anything personal growing up – only superficial topics. He also never stops talking. He hears me approach and starts talking to me before I enter the room and almost never even takes a breath, he is also hard of hearing and yells all the time. If I get a phone call he talks while it is ringing until the second I pick up and still tries to talk over me. He acts indignant when I ask him anything personal or even just how work is going and he hardly ever asks me anything about my life.

Chris - September 5, 2021 Reply

Thank you for this article and the research references. Mindfulness meditation has been the single most helpful thing in my life in getting in touch with my feelings/emotions…and so much more. Your leadership in CEN is also right up there for me as far as helpful and insightful information. CEN was my upbringing for sure. Thank you for your knowledge bringing this to light!!

Diana - September 5, 2021 Reply

My friend has been horribly abused (all of the types of abuse from hundreds of people all through childhood and as an adult too). Because of this she has mental illness including horrific sleep issues. She started therapy and mindfulness was part of it. It took her 27 weeks of trying to succeed (her head constantly races so was very difficult). For the first time in decades she slept more than a couple of hours. Slept over 7 hrs which never happened even as a child. Miracle! One problem though – she is now more aware of her body so is now feeling the fybro pain much more. Anyway, I just shared this to let folk know not to give up trying to do mindfulness cos it will be so worth it.

Mark - September 5, 2021 Reply

Step 1, I can very dimly picture a blank screen, but the thoughts are still there undiminished. Do you have a suggestion?
Step 3. Where am I putting my focus?

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