This week, I am going to merge two very important areas of my life: Therapy and long-distance running. Over the course of the past 9 years, I have trained for and completed 8 half marathons and 1 full marathon. As a therapist, this has been one of my primary means of practicing healthy self-care, creating structure in my life, and managing stress. Needless to say, I have had countless numbers of miles and hours over the years to build mental strength, physical endurance, and this week's metaphor. Ready. Set. GO!
On a grey and muggy day in February of 2017, I found myself about half way through a half-marathon sucking wind, generally hating life, and feeling very, very close to just calling it quits. I was half way through training for a full marathon and doing this race as a "casual training run" with a medal at the end. Admittedly, I was way less prepared than I should have been and was not having any fun at all. So at mile 7 I decided I had a choice to make -- walk off and just go home or figure out how to pull through and finish what I started. I was able to convince myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other and over the course of the next 6 miles, I realized a few key lessons about running, therapy, and ultimately just life in general.
1. START. Anywhere. Buy tennis shoes, walk, jog. Do whatever you can today but start because you’ll never get there if you don’t.
I began running in earnest in graduate school in order to balance stress at school, meet new people, and offset the copious amounts of cajun food I was consuming in New Orleans. I had been a runner in high school and had a casual on-again/off-again relationship with it ever since. My friend (and now colleague) was an avid runner at the time and convinced me slowly that though the longest distance I'd ever run was a 5k, I could do a half-marathon. Starting something new -- like therapy -- takes courage and just enough of a push to get started. Humans love to dream and make plans -- in their minds. The most exciting part of any project tends to be when you're thinking about all the cool stuff you could do or the fun materials you'd get to purchase. Putting that idea to task can often feel elusive. Calling or emailing a therapist to set an initial appointment can be a challenge all its own. Actually showing up to your first appointment? Pretty difficult stuff. However, taking those first two steps is crucial toward getting on your way to some place other than where you are now. So maybe you're in the stage of just thinking about therapy: take some time to look at therapists and practices in your area, identify what things are important to you to look for in a counselor (accepts insurance, skill set, gender, areas of focus, geographic location, etc), read a self help book that you resonate with. Wherever you are, start doing something today -- even if it's a small step, if it takes you across the start line, you've begun the race!
2. Know where you’re headed but don’t forget where you’re starting from right now (even if you’ve been further ahead before).
Having a sense of direction in therapy is helpful. Often folks at the start are in the mentality of "anywhere but here." They know they are in pain and want that to change. This is a good first step because it can get you motivated to move but the next question becomes "if not here, then where?" Exploration of this aspect can be done through personal reflection and with support of family, friends, and/or a therapist. For those who are experiencing a set-back in life, it can be difficult to not get caught in the frustrating loop of "this used to be so easy for me, I don't want to have to start all over." If you've been in counseling before and made progress, initiated life changes, got healthy, or found balance, it can be painful to realize that those changes weren't permanent. As soon as I finish running a race, I tend to take way too long of a break from running and then all of a sudden I went from being able to comfortably run 10 miles to feeling like my lungs are burning at 2. It happens. It's frustrating. And it's ok. Being frustrated with yourself or feeling like you should be in better shape than you are now is not going to make training any easier. Honoring where you're starting from and getting clear about where you are headed helps you be realistic about the road ahead.
3. Find a training program that fits into your life but remember that you may need to make it fit into your life.
One of the toughest conversations I have with people in therapy is getting clear about the fact that in order for things to change -- you have to change. That may seem super obvious but of course it's human to want to keep doing everything the way we currently are and magically have things just feel better, healthier, happier, and easier than it does right now. There are often some clear steps that can be taken to start making life changes but it will likely require a willingness to make those things fit into your life. Going to bed earlier so you have more energy for post-work short runs, spending 3 hours on a Saturday morning running all over Texas, and trading time watching TV or with friends for doing what's required for your training are some adjustments that might be required to be successful. Waiting until you have the time just given to you to make changes will likely keep you waiting your whole life. There will always be reasons not to.
4. You need to get in your training runs along the way but remember that nutrition, sleep, and stretching are your bread and butter.
Admittedly, this is one of my weakest spots. I can come up with a training schedule and keep myself to it (bullet journal!) but it's difficult for me to remember that running is only half the battle -- especially the more confident I become in the running part. Going to therapy is great! But it's only one hour out of your week. I encourage people coming into therapy to think about the other 167 hours of the week when they aren't in therapy and what can be done there to reinforce what happens in session. If I go for my scheduled training run then come home, don't stretch, don't drink enough water, and eat a box of Twinkies, I'm going to undercut my progress and potentially get hurt. Beginning therapy and the change process can start slow but in its most effective form, it will encourage and lead to other smaller changes in other areas that give the brain and body the energy it needs to take care of itself, regulate emotions effectively, and improve physical health. Without those things in place, you can only get so far emotionally.
5. Run your own race but don’t forget that others are out there running their own race too.
The process of therapy and seeking improvement looks different for everyone. For some, therapy can be a short term process to address a difficult life transition and for others it can become a life-long process of self-exploration and personal growth. Comparing yourself, your problems, your life, and your goals to other people around you is tempting but ultimately ineffective. To add insult to injury during the difficult race I was in, I swear I saw Willie Nelson go speeding past me. As a young, healthy(ish) 20-something, I felt negative and critical of myself to see someone in their 70's breeze past me and make the task look easy. Remembering to not get caught up in what others are doing or where they are in the process is challenging. You're on your own path and it will look different than other people's but for it to work best, it needs to be your race.
6. Focus on how far you’ve come instead of how far you have to go but don’t forget to follow the arrows that lead you to the finish line.
Mile markers. A blessing and a curse. When you're running a long distance race, time gets...weird. Minutes and miles can stretch out forever. Feeling like you've been running for ages only to see a yellow rectangle showing "1" can feel deflating when you want the number to say something in the "20" range. Once you've started the process of change, it is natural to feel a bit impatient. As much as someone can know that things won't be magically better after one session...they can still hope. Keeping perspective about what changes and steps you have taken -- even if they feel small is really important to not getting discouraged. Seeing Mile marker 1 is super discouraging when you view it as "25 more to go" vs. "1 down." Giving yourself credit for the changes that have already occurred is equally important to knowing where you're going. The balance between "I'm not where I was" and "I'm not where I want to be" can be tricky but is learned through time and self-compassion. That said, it's important to see even small moments of choice or change as important. Maybe you're only 6 miles in and still have 20 (.2) more to go, but that doesn't mean it's not important to notice the arrow that says "turn right." Going left when you pretty well know you should go right can lengthen the process, create more frustration, and (let's be honest) inevitably happens. The goal is to try and miss as few turns as possible.
7. Train with a buddy and have a cheering section but if you don’t have one, remember that doesn’t mean you don’t have support.
Running on your own can get quickly tiring and de-motivating. All together now -- everything is harder when we are doing it alone. Having a friend or a group to train with can make all the difference between sticking it through and calling it off. Bringing in some extra teammates will make the change process easier. Include your therapist, family, and friends in your plan -- ask for what you need, accept encouragement when it's offered, and talk about what you're doing! If the people in your life currently just don't get it, you may need to seek some additional support -- get involved in a therapy group, join AA, sign up for a kick-ball team, go to a yoga studio. Do whatever you can to make sure that you have people in your corner cheering you on -- even if all you have to begin with is one hour a week with a therapist.
8. Be kind to yourself when you get tired but push yourself to keep going. Dig deeper.
Therapy is hard work. Introspection and talking about feelings can sometimes be exhausting. Change can be draining. But please make no mistake that wherever you are right now is also exhausting and draining. There will be times when you feel stronger and times when you feel zapped. It's all a part of the process. Being critical, degrading, or frustrated with yourself for not feeling stronger or more capable will make the race feel harder and longer. Stopping and walking off the course will make it impossible. Remember, you are doing something incredibly difficult -- be patient and be kind to yourself. Being positive and practicing self-compassion will give the support to your brain that it needs to keep taking steps forward -- even when you (and your brain) get tired. It will be worth it.
9. Give it all that you have today but remember that this is not your first run nor will it be your last run.
Every day is going to be a bit different. Some days your best will be just getting out of bed and some days you will accomplish all you set out to do. One of the challenging tenets of therapy can be to accept that whatever you are doing today, is your best. You are doing the best that you can AND you can do better. Said in another way -- whatever you can complete today is the best that you have but it doesn't mean it's all you are capable of doing. You will not "arrive" in therapy -- or in life. Much like in running, you will start many races and cross many finish lines but that isn't the end all be all of your career. Continual change and growth is required for a successful life. Celebrating every finish line is important because it acknowledges progress and little victories. But it's also important to remember that even the worst day, the worst mile, or the worst race doesn't define you. There will always be another race, another chance to train, another chance to learn, another chance to try unless you decide to hang up your running shoes.As a final note, and perhaps a bit of an aside, therapy is an excellent tool to help get in touch with an authentic version of yourself. Being mired down in the day-to-day of work, home, family, stress, money, etc. can steal the belief that there is more to be had. Finding yourself often comes through finding passions, causes you care about, activities that you enjoy, and people you want to spend time with. I will often encourage the folks I work with to take on a challenge during the course of their treatment and as a closing thought I will issue it to you: Make a list of THIRTY things that you enjoy and that make you feel like yourself -- a good cup of coffee, my pets, crossing off every item on a to-do list, etc. It seems simple but can be pretty difficult past a certain number. Identifying, making time for, and pursuing the items on that list can be one way to "start" your race.