Suffering for a Purpose

Another fight.  Not with anyone really, with myself, or should I say my fear.  I am at the tail-end of yet another weekend consisting of a 50k ‘training run’ (just feels weird to say that, I’ve raced this distance before and there’s really nothing ‘just a training run’ about it), and a 10 mile ‘easy’ run (that’s the spirit).  I can feel my crankiness starting to set in.  Somehow this is causing embarrassment for me.  I find myself ‘glazing’ when I get home with my family (a term I use to describe when I’m actually uncomfortable acknowledging my emotions to myself, or showing them to others, and instead just ‘paste’ on a smile).  Why?  Simple. Because I don’t want to admit to myself and my family that I’m actually tired.  I  may need a little bit of understanding if I seem off.  I’m afraid of the pain this would cause.  Not for them, if I’m honest, but the pain it would cause me. 

The emotional exposure.  How about if they’re not receptive to what I needed?  How about if they use my honest expression of how I’m feeling against me later during a disagreement and tell me, “You’re just exhausted and making a thing of it!”  There’s also a smidge of unfounded self-shaming involved because I’m tired and self-questioning, does that mean I’m doing something wrong? (Fairly sure that, when I’m not exhausted, I believe running 42 miles in a weekend is a real reason to be tired). 

All of the things my emotions are signalling to me that I need (rest, letting others know where I’m at emotionally, letting go of the self-judgment, and acknowledging the merits of my fatigue) feels very painful at the moment. Actually a bit too painful to do.  But the truth of the matter is, I’m suffering anyway by not doing it.

All life is suffering.  Yet we try to avoid it in all its forms.  Emotional exposure to ourselves and others.  Situations that require trusting people, or allowing potentially difficult situations to naturally unfold and trusting that we are capable of handling our own vulnerability.  Yet, even when we are at our ‘glazing best’–when we are trying to be intellectual and emotional ‘jedis’, plotting, navigating, and scripting all of our answers to the best of our abilities…we still suffer.

We suffer with self-disappointment. We suffer with that nagging, achy pain in our gut that wrenches on us about something we wanted to try but we’re afraid of failure, so never went ahead.  But at least the pain of that fear is private, so we think it’s better than a public display of pain: physical, mental, or emotional.  We suffer through apathy.  The “woulda’, shoulda’, coulda’s” that pile up in the trenches of our minds and erode our self confidence.  As a result, we try to numb that shame through substance use or abuse in its many forms, or we just act out on others: our friends, our loved ones, anything to vent that disappointment and anger within us which of course…causes us more shame. To put it plainly, when we try to avoid our suffering we still feel pain.  Instead of feeling the confidence and self affirmation, even in a complete ‘belly flop’ of a public set back, we choose the silence and privacy of growing fearful and smaller by ourselves.

If we must suffer, we should choose our suffering.  We could exert our will over that which we can.  Those things that only we have control over, that live within us, that cause us discomfort.  Only then do we truly live a life that’s ours.  A life where we’re not wasting our intellect and emotional savvy to ‘read’ all of the situations before they come up, ducking and weaving all of the uncomfortable people, places, and things that occur in our lives and then patting ourselves on our back for being clever.  

Being vulnerable, feeling all of our emotions, and meeting situations and people where they are is truly living.  We have a choice. We can accept the pain that comes with conformity and fear of emotional vulnerability, or we can choose to think, feel and act in ways in our life that may have us uncomfortable, but then we’re in the driver’s seat.  It is only when we stretch and strive, only when we grow do we truly live.  

So I choose to continue to pursue difficult endeavors that challenge me physically, mentally, and emotionally.  These are the choices that will provide me with the opportunity to grow, as long as I honor my effort…and my fatigue.  So, I’m going to let my family know where I’m at and go take a much-needed nap… I hope they’ll join me.

Harnessing Your Passion

It’s 15, maybe 20 degrees this morning.  There’s a nice light snow falling with a good amount more on the way.  A thick layer of icy snow already covers the trails. I just finished a good training run.  I had an eye-opening 50-mile race just a few months back where I used a much less aggressive form of training than I had in the past.  I plan to use that same training method for a one-hundred mile race I hope to accomplish this fall. I’m a little tired after the effort today, but I’m not exhausted.  To be honest, I still feel a bit of anxiety that I didn’t go hard enough today. I am worrying that maybe I’m less passionate about my goals for training.  

You see, mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion had been the staples that let me know I put in a good run. I found a great amount of success for at least a decade and a half of training for Ultra distance races this way.  It took many years for me to realize that I could be even more successful, and burn a hell of a lot less energy, if I could distinguish between an incredibly hard training day and an incredibly effective training day.

For years I believed that if I wasn’t physically and emotionally spent after every single run I questioned my commitment. A half-effort meant that I had lost all of my passion for whatever sport I was training for, whether it be Ironman events, Ultras, whatever.  Truth be told, going all-out and allowing my emotions to just have at it and burn high during training felt amazing. I felt accomplished. Allowing my aggression, desire, and uncertainty off the leash as I crushed huge elevation on a run, or swam longer and harder at the lake filled my ego, even if it wasn’t best for me.  I would come back from a run so fatigued that I could barely show up for my patients. I found myself wanting to take a nap rather than playing with my kids. I would actually be so tired that I would feel burnt out (exhaustion from training that leads you to well..not want to train). My training for was LITERALLY causing me to lose my desire to actually do the race.

There’s a big difference between being passionate about your training and allowing yourself to be emotional about it.  When you’re emotional, you allow your emotions to have the wheel. To make your decisions for you about what you will or will not do.  This takes your life choices away from you. And although strong emotions can give you a lot of energy when they burn hot, the initial heat and energy of unharnessed emotions burn out relatively quickly.  

Passion is a completely different animal.  When you use your emotions to fuel your actions for a long time, keeping them in check while continuing to stoke the hot embers that fuel your actions and ambitions, that’s your passion. Passion enables you to keep slowly and steadily striving, maintaining a consistent effort over a long period of time. To accomplish anything of importance in your life, you will need consistent effort over the long haul. Without passion, it’s going to be a very long, cold road to get what you need done.  

So what does passion require?  The courage for us to get to know our emotions.  Understand them. Listen to the information our emotions provide, even if it’s uncomfortable, so we can use them to fuel our passion. To kindle our motivation.  To move us through just pure desire and into our passionate action so we can consistently show up again and again. 

A simple emotional energetic outburst is nothing more than a shooting star across our mind’s sky.  It’s gorgeous and beautiful and fades quickly. Our passion is all of the light from the night sky consistently present and available to us.  Even on a cloudy night, that blocks our ability to see the light of a singular star or the moon, our passion is able to light up the clouds from behind.  When we are fatigued, or lack inspiration, and the big picture of what we would like to get done seems fuzzy, it is this passion that keeps us moving towards our goals.  We are still able to harness the power of all of our emotions through passionate action. It is this kind of action that allows us to make real progress in all aspects of our life.

Emotional Anesthesia: Not all Emotional Information is Useful

I am sitting in my dentist’s chair and I am exceptionally grateful.  No one is grateful, let alone exceptionally grateful, in a dentist’s chair, I know this.  But I also know that my dentist is going to be gentle.

Now when I say gentle, I don’t just mean with her words or her ways.  It’s not that she is going to be all politeness or has very tiny hands.  What I mean is that she is going to shoot me up with enough Novocain to probably put down a small horse and I’m not going to have to feel pain.  I realize this is a weird thing for someone to say who does endurance races and is an emotional resilience coach, speaker, and author. You might think I’d be chomping at the bit to sink my teeth into some good old resilience-building pain.

But this isn’t the type of thing that would build my resilience.  The anxiety and fear, let alone the actual physical pain I would feel, are not helpful emotions at this moment.  The dental work has to be done. These emotions are not something to listen to, something that can help me. Instead, the pain would be telling me straight out, “GET OUT OF THIS CHAIR!  SHE IS DRILLING INTO YOUR TEETH AND IT HURTS!” The information that my severe discomfort would give me would be spot on and send me into flight mode. But, since I need to be here getting a cavity filled, I am grateful to silence that physical pain signal by way of the Novocain. 

There are times in our lives when pain is just pain.  When there’s no different action to take, or a different perspective falls short.  There are times when the only thing that helps is being able to put aside the information that our emotions provide for a while.  Some people put their emotions in a ‘box,’ while others minimize emotional information by willing all their focus on their thoughts, allowing reason and a logical approach to have a greater say in how they develop their perspective to a situation. 

It is a fine practice in many situations to use your tools to ‘sidestep’ emotions for the time being, especially when difficult or immediate pain is imminent…as long as you go back to your emotions.  My dentist may numb me to the max while drilling my mouth, making sure I don’t feel a pin prick. But the very first thing she says after the procedure, before she lets me out of the chair: “Don’t forget to avoid eating or drinking anything hot or really cold!”  Why? Because she doesn’t want me to burn myself or have a slurpy stuck to the side of my face. She doesn’t want food to get stuck in places it shouldn’t and cause me pain later. Because she knows that I will not be able to feel those things. Just like applying Novocain, when we cannot get the information our emotions provide over a long period of time we are at a severe disadvantage.

How many of us go through our lives not feeling at all, sticking our heads in the sand?  How many of us don’t allow our feelings to tell us what they need to tell us? Like physical pain, emotions such as fear, self-doubt, anxiety, or whatever you’re feeling that you’d rather not, all have information to give you that is necessary and important.  It could be telling you that something is going on that’s wrong, may harm you, or is harming you!  So, while with my dental situation the physical pain would cause me to flee as fast I could from the dentist’s office, my cavity wouldn’t get fixed, my tooth would continue to be excruciating, and it would do serious damage to my health.  The temporary physical and emotional ‘numbing’ allows for the important work to be done. But it is the feelings coming back that allow me to eat again, monitor hot and cold in my mouth so I don’t burn myself, enjoy and savor the taste my food, and have the sensitivity NOT to chew the side of my cheek off.

So, when you are questioning whether it would be easier just to live the rest of your life in that Novocain-numb place, keeping a lid on your emotions so that all physical and emotional pain is kept at bay, consider this: if you used Novocain every day you might avoid ever having to experience tooth pain again, but you would also miss the joy from the taste of the food you ate that caused the cavity.  If you similarly numbed your emotions, you’d miss the love you felt for the person you were with while you ate, and any curiosity and uncertainty to try different restaurants or food in the future would disappear as well. All emotions ultimately serve a purpose, even the painful ones.