Don’t Avoid the ‘Black Box’

My kidneys hurt! If you had asked me four years ago where my actual kidneys were, I would have pointed to my back and that would have been the end of the conversation. But since 2013, when I missed the opportunity to finish 100 miles, and landed myself in a hospital… well… I’ve gained some familiarity.  My race ended that year at mile 86 because of rhabdomyolysis and a little bit of kidney damage.  Unfortunately my second attempt the following year ended much the same.  

Two weekends ago I made my third attempt at running 100 miles.  I have felt that I did everything I possibly could to set myself up for success: from dietary needs, to clothing, to training, to having the right crew there. But I was unable to finish the distance and I found myself needing to go to the hospital yet again.

Usually, waking up in the morning after the race there’s a halo effect. A period of time when you really don’t feel that bad physically, mentally, or emotionally.  You’re happy with what you could do, and you don’t have any question that you did your best.  But, if you’re honest with yourself, that halo effect ends, and all the uncomfortable emotions and self questioning begins to roll into your mind.

When you don’t achieve the outcome you want at something you’ve worked really hard for, you can’t help but to have feelings of self-doubt, sadness, and disappointment fill you.  I’d say for at least a good day or two I tried ‘strictly’ positive talk.  If that wasn’t working?  Tried and true distraction!  Watch TV, build a birdhouse (not really), or start planning the next race, ANYTHING to not have to feel those emotions that were felt so god-awful.  

But when I’ve finally stop all my ducking and avoiding, cease pushing away all those uncomfortable emotions, or just plain lying to myself with mental smiley bumper stickers, like “I’m fine, everything’s fine!, I always end up taking the only action that has ever helped me process my feelings and improve my process.  It’s what I call…

Deciphering the ‘black box’.  

This is the process of getting to the bottom of what happened after the plane “went down”.  In my case? The plane is the most recent race that went awry, and journaling a ‘court stenographer’ account of everything that transpired is the most helpful thing I can do for myself.   After every event, successful or not, I write down anything and everything I can remember about my race — what went right, what went awry, and everything in between.  This journaling allows me to see what ‘wins’ I can take away from a race (that honestly I might never have seen without Deciphering the black box)  and what ‘setbacks’ I dealt with, so that instead of just letting self criticism erode any further efforts, I can improve and learn grim the entire experience regardless of the outcome.

If I’m honest?  I want no part in this journaling.  It’s hard to face those setbacks and the feelings that accompany them.  To  see them as anything but something to be avoided at all costs. I don’t want to remember the things I didn’t do right (or just plain didn’t go right).  But, I know from past experience and deep practice, that unless I go to that place where I can actually explore and see what I could do better next time around in anything, I am destined to keep repeating the same mistakes.  

And as uncomfortable as all these emotions are, they serve as the greatest motivators for me to improve.  They don’t only allow for growth, they promote it!  They are the catalysts that get me to write down everything that happened, to improve my craft, to get up and try again.  If I could ignore them, stuff them down, or just plain avoid them and that was the answer to get them to subside, I’d probably do just that.  But from past experience, I know this.

There is only relief from my uncomfortable emotions when I allow them to have their say.

Avoidance of uncomfortability, of disappointment, fear, or shame is something we all try to do.  No one wants to hear what these emotions have to say because they feel self-incriminating!   We know what we did wrong, right?  If we’re truthful with ourselves, those uncomfortable emotions that we’re feeling are not there to punish us.  Rather, they’re there to urge us to take actions that will help us get better at what we’re trying to accomplish. Like the medicine our mother gave us when we were young: just because it was hard to swallow, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good for us.

So, I acknowledge that I’m feeling like I’ve failed, that I’ve let myself and my crew down by not finishing the distance.  I use those feelings to spur myself into action.  Picking up my computer, I begin writing down every single thing that I can remember that happened during the event, diving head first into that black box in my mind, without judgment.  When I finish, I have a lot of substance that I can learn from.  Best of all?  I feel better!  My emotions have been heard.  I have information that might allow me a more successful attempt at those challenges that are so dear to my heart…or even the ones that are brought to my doorstep.

Me and my kidneys are at least now walking with the knowledge that there were a lot of things that I could’ve done better for that race and a great many things I did right.  Most importantly,  without my emotions clouding my reason because I’ve allowed them their say, I can also see the things that were actually out of my control.  Although I know the outcome wasn’t mine to dictate, I do know reviewing my ‘black box’ has allowed me to improve my thoughts and actions in any challenges that I decide to take on in the future.  And consistent effort and improvement is something I can live with.

Staying in Your Sacred Center

I remember watching the World Series of poker with my son. It’s one of those amazing things we’ve shared with each other for a very long time–he love of poker.  Not just playing, but also watching it on TV, because you get to see all the player’s cards. Texas Hold ‘em is one of those games where you can lose all of your money in one fell swoop.  

You would see these young, professional players with millions, absolutely positive they were going to win the hand only to find out someone had a better one.  This is where the amateur player would end up ultimately losing to a more seasoned player, because they become emotionally compromised. Basically they are thrown emotionally off-center, and they start playing hands they normally would never play, trying to catch up the losses, and they may just lose heart. 

It’s not that the more seasoned players don’t have emotions while they’re at the table. Of course they do. It’s just like those emotions aren’t making the choices for them. They’re still able to use that reason and strategize.

I used to think the only way to get to your sacred center was to process your emotions, get through them, and then bring yourself back to that wonderful place where you feel completely authentic and truly yourself.  It’s a wonderful idea.  I assumed that everything in life works in a very linear fashion.  Unfortunately it’s not the case. Bringing yourself back to center after uncomfortable emotions is assuming that you were in your center in the first place. Your center, your true authentic self requires you to be able to process not just joy, happiness, confidence, and feelings of connection. It is the place that you must come from when you’re interacting with others, or trying to accomplish any task.  Basically when you’re dealing with the world.  It’s not something to aspire to get back to. It’s worth saying this again… It’s the place we aspire to come from.  

So, how do you come from your center?  You need to be comfortable with all of your emotions, because there is nothing so strong and so powerful as fear, doubt, shame, or uncertainty to knock you out of alignment with yourself.  When this happens, we may use filters which cause us to respond to a question in a way that doesn’t sound like us. We take actions that we never thought we would. We don’t have the kind of relationships that we want.

When we are not acting or coming from our center, we find ourselves reacting rather than responding.  We are posing rather than truly showing up in our lives.  But, when we truly come from our center, that sacred place within ourselves, we can truly be authentic.  When something brings us joy, we can feel that joy fully.  And when something is sad, we are able to feel that sadness.  However, we do not become the joy or the sadness.  We don’t become angry, or happy.  We are ourselves, authentic and true.  The joy comes and it goes.  We are able to truly appreciate what is going on that we are finding joy in.  And when it passes, we are able to remember how wonderful it was to have had the experience.  

Similarly, when something occurs that brings about sadness within us, we are able to recognize that we are sad and appreciate what is happening and why we are feeling sad.  And, when the sadness passes, we have greater insight into ourselves as a result of having felt that sadness. 

Let’s consider our amateur poker player.  They are feeling elated because they have been winning big all night, really raking it in.  They feel confident.  Here they are really showing their skills at high stakes poker.  The lights and cameras all around.  Taking hands from these more seasoned players.  It’s heady stuff.  They have been working towards this for several years, now here they are with a pile of chips to validate their credibility as the next big poker star.

Then the ‘tables turn’ and they lose a hand.  They feel a bit stunned, but shake if off and sternly remind themselves that it is the long game.  They can afford to lose a hand or two.  They lose another hand.  They feel a bit flustered.  That one cost them.  Each loss erodes their confidence even more.  Self-doubt creeps in.  They feel panic and anxiety.  Before they know it, other players are calling their bluffs and they are dealt right out of the game.  Why?  Because they let the moment – the loss of a hand – throw them off center.  

Meanwhile, the more seasoned players used the losses to study and learn the other player’s styles and ‘tells.’  They didn’t let the losses throw them off center, they used the information they provided to learn more about themselves and those around them.  And then they leveraged that information and were able to use it to bring themselves success.  

Now, I know that life isn’t exactly like poker.  But, think about it.  How many times have you become ruled by an emotion–joy or anger.  You hear it all the time, “He was overjoyed!”  How can you be ‘over’ any emotion.  That would suggest that the person was pulled from their sacred center by their joy, which means, once that joy leaves them, they will feel let down by its lack.  Instead, consider this: you bump into a friend you haven’t seen in years.  You both talk excitedly, catching each other up on what has been happening since you last saw one another.  Eventually, that person has to continue on their way.  As you walk away, do you find yourself smiling, remembering your past friendship with that person, and smiling over the interaction?  That is acting from your center.  

Conversely, if you find yourself suddenly feeling sad and beating yourself up for not having gotten their contact information or for having lost contact with them in the first place, you are being driven by your emotions.  Now, you might wish you had gotten their number, or not lost touch in the first place.  But, if you are centered, you feel that more wistfully, because you are also able to hold the pleasure you felt at having had the interaction.  When you are centered, you can hold all your emotions in equal measure–they don’t cancel one another out or rule you, causing you to spend the rest of the day searching Facebook or Google to try to track them down!

When we are able to stay centered, we are able to stay true to ourselves.  We don’t feel the need to stalk unsuspecting old acquaintances, or lose our shirts at the poker table.  We don’t feel elated one moment, and spiral to the depths of despair in the next.  We are able to acknowledge all of the feelings that arise within us, acknowledge the root of why we may be feeling them, take in the information they provide, and then decide if we need (or want) to take action or not for ourselves.

There’s Power in Pain

What is this season even going to look like, I wondered?  I knew how this cross country program had gone for the past 9 years, but this?  This wasn’t the program I knew at all.  It was some sort of mutation, and the thought of my runners missing ‘Last Runner Standing’ runs, a whole season of races, and barely getting in regular practices felt futile. The fear of losing well-established traditions, connections, real effort, and just plain fun was real for me.  I honestly wondered why bother if there wasn’t going to be anything I could really salvage for these kids.  The challenges of trying to establish a meaningful cross country program with all the limitations presented by the pandemic felt completely overwhelming,  

I love coaching and I am passionate about the program I have coached for the past 10 years.  It has given the kids who have run for me real connection and fun.  I’ve been honored watching them stretch and grow to achieve the goals they set for themselves.  Trying to think of ways to put together a season that would give this year’s runners those same things felt overwhelming, and filled me with sadness for my runners and even for myself. 

It is not easy to ease into emotional pain.  In fact, most of the time it doesn’t feel like we ease into it at all.  It’s more like jumping into a tub of ice water, except this is filled with cold fear and anxiety that causes us to lose our breath.  

It’s true the fastest solution to avoid the pain is to jump out of the tub, but are there benefits to the icy cold water?  I know for me, when I run hard, an ice bath, albeit shocking, helps my swelling, reduces the pain in my legs, and promotes healthy blood flow, so I can recover faster.  But there IS that initial pain.  That discomfort.  There’s no denying it.  Being suddenly submersed in shame, fear, anxiousness…all feel terribly uncomfortable.  But is there information useful?  Are there benefits to allowing ourselves to sit with these emotions for a bit when they come up for us?  Can becoming familiar with these emotions ultimately enable us to build our resilience over time?

These questions feel easily answerable…when we aren’t feeling fear, what I call being in “the arena.”  When we find ourselves in the area (braving something new), struggling and don’t come out on top, instead finding ourselves lying there with our face in the dirt, the icy chill of fear or shame washing over us, we need to be brave enough to allow ourselves to feel those emotions.

But, we don’t just brave these emotions to reach an external goal.  We brave them so we don’t fear feeling them.  This doesn’t mean we seek out our uncomfortable emotions.  But becoming familiar with them helps us learn that they don’t last in our bodies, and that 

they can’t truly cause us harm.  Like a martial artist, we don’t train to fight, but rather to keep peace (or, stay centered).  

But we don’t run from a fight either.  When it comes right down to it, I don’t want to be uncomfortable.  Failing would be fine if it wasn’t served with a big helping of anxiety and self persecution, washed down with a big old cup of shame.  Think about it.  If we’re always comfortable, then how can we ever know that we are actually trying.  Our discomfort provides us with important information, letting us know that we are stretching or growing, telling us we are doing something that goes against our values or best interest, or even that we have just plain messed up.  

When you boil all of the uncomfortable emotions down like fear, grief, anxiety, anger, or shame, it comes down to this:  

We want to avoid emotional pain.

Nobody wants pain, I get it.  I don’t want it more than the next person myself.  But avoiding pain and not liking it’s sensation but listening to what it’s telling you anyway are two TOTALLY different things.  Emotional pain in all of its forms is there to tell you something.  It’s there to give you information.

It is this willingness and learned discipline of ‘staying’ with our uncomfortable emotions, listening to them, getting the information they provide and moving forward that allows us to become familiar with them.  We need to release our emotional judgement of anxiety, fear, and self doubt, becoming familiar with them to such a degree that we realize they are mere advisors.  Like any advisor, the information they provide may or may not be taken, but that decision is always left to us, and it will leave us that ability to choose, no matter what emotion rises within us — that is resilience.  

After giving myself some time to acknowledge the emotions of overwhelm and sadness, I mentally stepped back and wondered what information they were providing to me.  I realized that the sense of overwhelm was tied to my desire to give the kids a meaningful season, which would mean having to create something completely new!  Of course that would feel overwhelming.  My sadness informed me how important it was to me to try, in spite of how overwhelming it might seem, because it was important to me for these kids to have as much connection, fun, and growth as could be had!  

I told myself, “Though it’s not gonna be like last year, what is it that I can control to give these kids the chance to have the experience I want them to have?”  The fear began to subside.  Curiosity took its place (and a bit of anxiety too of course). There’s no guarantee that anything new that I make will work out.  But there is a guarantee that if I don’t try and instead just stick with the old way of doing things, then, rather than being guides, the disappointment and sadness will just stick around and hold me up.  I think I’m gonna follow my team’s motto this year. “Change is inevitable, growth is optional.”  I feel a bit of excitement creeping in as I contemplate a structure for our first week of practices… 🙂