Training Our Inner Narrator for Field Work
Being a field instructor can be one of the most simultaneously challenging and rewarding jobs. There are instances when you find yourself in a group of clients, all belly-laughing at something small and silly, lit by the unreal pinks and purples of a desert sunset, and then there are moments where you are navigating a series of emotional upsets, drenched by an untimely rainstorm. Regardless of the disposition of the clients or the climate, one of the most important expectations of field staff is that they maintain a stable baseline of unconditional positive regard for every single person, including their peers, in the group for the entirety of their shift. This expectation is laid out on the first day of training, and is reinforced during off-shift trainings, mid-week check-ins, and post-shift debriefs. This particular skill, approaching all people with unconditional positive regard, is one that takes great personal awareness in order to work.
I am always gushing to staff about how cool the brain is. During trainings, we evaluate how much waking time we spend in our brains. In the front country, most of our time is spent thinking—whether we are driving to work, cooking a meal, scrolling through posts, walking through a grocery store, etc. The wilderness is no different. Hiking, setting up a shelter, stacking wood and packing a backpack are all examples of times where the present activity can be easily paired with the mind wandering. And the times in which we allow our minds to wander are some of the most influential moments of the day. Waking up to a snowstorm and spending an extra ten minutes in your sleeping bag spiraling into a mind-pit of resentment and frustration is enough to skew the nature of the entire day. Spending a two-mile hike thinking of how beautiful the landscape is and how resilient you have become in a wilderness setting, is enough
to fuel an energetic camp set up.
The nature of our thoughts has extreme power over how our behaviors come out. As staff we
discuss this as an imperative skill they must master over time. Their inner narrator has so much influence over how they are able to accomplish wilderness skills, present with endless compassion and care for themselves throughout the week. Take the example of the snowstorm again. It would be very easy to lay in a warm sleeping bag and lament the moment when you have to leave the cozy warmth. Just the practice of the negative narrator in your head, emphasizing how miserable it could or will be once out of your sleeping bag, will change your perspective on the moments that follow. I call these “stop-and-fix” moments with staff, meaning once you realize that your inner narrator is starting to drag you into a negative place, you must stop and fix that narrator’s perspective.
The first step is addressing whether or not the narration you’re having is beneficial. If it is, and your narrator is setting you up to behave with confidence, intention and a hope to succeed, great. If your narrator is setting you up to behave as powerless, ignorant or certain to fail, not so great. The second step is to then redirect the narrator to a more empowered place. In trainings, we discuss the concept of a mantra to utilize in times where challenging a disempowering inner narrator is difficult. With the snowstorm example, you could engage in a
mantra of, “I have the gear to be comfortable in this environment, and I know how to take care of myself” or “This would be hard for anyone, and I am able to handle it.” The third step is to now believe the mantra. A mantra will never work if your brain follows up an empowered statement with, “Yeah right.” If you find yourself thinking your mantra is hokey, it won’t work. Step four is to now act as if with the new narrator. Referring to the example again, as you get out of your sleeping bag, put on your layers, and begin your day, continue to refer to your mantra as a boundary for your experience, “This would be hard for anyone, and I am actively handling it.” Perhaps some snow falls into your boot as you put it on, and now you get to choose between following the empowering mantra or the grumpy mantra.
This brings me back to the imperative awareness one must have in order for this to work. Awareness is the first practice and skill that a staff must master before any other in the field. They have to know where clients are, how they are, what the weather is doing, what resources are available for risk management, and so on and so forth. Additionally, they must be in constant awareness of themselves, from the location of their gear to the emotion of their inner narrator. As a staff, this practice of awareness both empowered me daily and also challenged me to be more accountable of how my thoughts and behaviors shaped the kind of day and relationships I had. To this day I continue to question my narrator’s tone when she wants to be lazy or when she wants to be powerless. It is a constant challenge to reassess how I narrate my experiences, both present and future. It is a challenge in being present and allowing yourself the power to have control of your own experiences.