Mood Follows Action
I've already written at length about my experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. No need to rehash that here.
September's book of the month, You Are Not a Rock, covers much of what I learned in my recovery, and does so in a clear and practical way. It's also a helpful book for those who aren't struggling with acute mental illness. The most important lesson is contained in the book's title: Never set intentions that a rock would be better than you at.
If these are your intentions it's almost certain you'll end up with the opposite result. You'll feel more pain, think more frequently, and experience more distress. I went through all this in the thick of my shit. My mind went haywire and I devoted every once of energy toward trying to get it to stop. But every time I pushed against my mind the storm only grew stronger.
What I learned, and continue to learn, how to do—and what is much better—is to not give so much weight to thoughts and feelings and instead set intentions like being a good friend, getting to the gym each day, continuing to do the work you care about, meditating every morning, etc., etc. These are things you can do better than a rock.
It doesn't mean you'll immediately feel good before, during, or even after. But if you keep acting in alignment with your values, eventually your thoughts and feelings will follow.
While I learned this lesson under what at the time were pretty dire circumstances, it's a lesson that I now use all the time. Don't let your feelings dictate what you do. Don't let your thoughts dictate what you do. Let your values dictate what you do. Values lie much deeper than superficial thoughts and feelings. And values, unlike thoughts and feelings, are something you can control. (If you think you can control your thoughts and feelings try sitting still with your eyes closed focusing only on your breath for 40-minutes and let me know if you still believe that.)
There's a powerful inertia to things. Once you get going and stay going, odds are you'll start to feel and think positively. We make the mistake of thinking it's the other way around, especially when we're down and feeling like shit. Western ideals tell us to "think positive" and "trust your feelings." But what I've learned from my own experience—not to mention all the psychological research—is most of that is bullshit.
If what you're feeling and thinking isn't in alignment with your values don't try to change what your thinking and feeling. Remember: you can't think or feel less than a rock. What you can do, that a rock cannot, is act in the direction of your values. Show up. Get support if you need it; but show up for the things you want to show up for. And have some compassion for yourself. Because when it feels hardest to show up, when you least want to—well, those are probably the times it's most important to do it.
Feeling shitty sucks. Being in negative thought loops suck. The way out isn't trying to repress these feelings or thoughts. It's not pretending they don't exist. And it's not trying to change them. It's acknowledging they are there, honoring them and how you're feeling, and then proceeding to do what's important to you anyways.
Winning the Inner Battle
“Win the battle.”
Show up to any of our cross-country practices, and you’ll hear this phrase. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a motto of my women’s team. No, they aren’t talking about beating opponents or running the next repeat a second faster than before, they’re talking about the inner battle. The one inside their head.
The battle refers to the inner struggle of having a desire to continue to push onwards through pain and fatigue, while a voice urging you to stop, slow down, that you’ll never make it, screams inside your head. As one of my athletes put it, racing is as if you have an angel and devil on your shoulder. As the race progresses, the devil's voice gets louder and louder. The angel is whispering. You have to learn to hear her, while at the same time learning what to do with the strong shouting of the devil.
While I think Mark Freeman’s book You are Not a Rock is fabulous for mental health issues, I’ll leave that discussion for Brad. Instead, I want to talk about how a book on mental health might be the best book for understanding the inner struggle of racing or competing that has been written.
In Freeman’s book, he discusses how to deal with the urge, or in his words, compulsions. It could be to stop in racing or to scroll through Twitter, or the strong urge experienced by those of us who suffer from OCD. They all have remarkable commonalities and are more similar than different.
According to Freeman, they follow a very simple pattern:
Internal and External Experiences --> Judgments --> Uncertainty, anxiety, and other feelings you don’t like --> Desire/Urge --> Compulsions
This simple pattern of thinking and behaving can be applied to just about any act, and when we apply it to the inner battle, it’s incredibly useful. In this short article, we’ll focus on the uncertainty -> urge -> compulsion phase.
When we are in the middle of a race, our sensations of fatigue and pain are ever-growing and yet we are still far away from the finish line. There is often immense doubt on whether or not we can make it at our current pace. These feelings might lead to fear (“What if I run out of gas? What if I hit the wall?) and that strong urge to slow down or step in a hole might surface. Our mind pushes us towards these urges, to give up or to not care. (“It doesn’t matter if you run 5 minutes for the mile. 5:10 is fine.”)
How do we deal with such urges?
Contrary to popular sporting culture, we don’t tough our way through them, resisting with all of our might. We don’t ignore the feelings, trying to distract ourselves or put them off until later. No, both of these just feed the urge's power. Sending a clear message that if I’m trying so hard to resist or ignore, this urge must be really important. Instead, Freeman suggests a several step process that involves not feeling less, but feeling more and teaching your brain how to accept and understand the urge. Train your mind that it has the power to direct attention in whatever way it desires and to resist assigning value or judgment to every thought or sensation that crosses our mind.
While I could write for a long time on the topic, some helpful takeaways include:
Recognizing that an urge does not equal a need for action. It can just be.
Understanding that emotions and feelings are symptoms. They aren’t the problem.
Anxiety and other emotions drive you towards short-term relief. (I.e., the desire to stop during a race.)
Awareness Allocation: you are in charge of what you are attuned to and we can train our ability to pay attention (and direct it!).
We teach our brain what to value.
Your brain (thoughts) trying to get you to stop is coming from a place of fear. It’s a fear based protective mechanism. Instead of being driven by fear, be driven by what you value.
You sense your thoughts and emotions. They are not you. You experience them.
Trying to avoid difficult things makes difficult things more difficult.
It seems strange that a book largely dedicated to mental health issues like OCD could be so clearly tied to the niche issue of how to deal with the pain of racing, but as Freeman’s book pragmatically points out, we’re all dealing with human issues. We can label them in different ways, rank them by severity, but dealing with anxiety, fear, urges, compulsions, and the thoughts that go with them is a human problem.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with two of my favorite quotes from the book:
“If my response to feeling bad is always to make myself feel good, what am I teaching my brain about how to make me feel good? That I need to feel bad first.”
“You can’t blame the internet or smartphones for being distracting. You have a brain. And your brain is a very good learner. It’s doing exactly what you trained it to do.”
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