“When you are at a party, how can you tell who among the crowd is a runner?
Don’t worry, they will tell you.”
This is my favorite joke about runners. We like to talk about it, ask about it, share notes about routes, shoes, etc.; and maybe try to impress people. But, even more important than that we use the topic of running in attempt to connect with people. Humans are social creatures, and we all have a need to connect with others. Emotions are another way to connection, maybe a ‘faster’ way than running. See what I did there? Emotions are universal across time and cultures. Emotions are some of the rare things that do not vary much among people. We can all connect with one another by sharing our own emotional experiences and listening to those of others (more on this later).
As I run along Western or 19th in Stillwater, I am usually thinking about my feelings. The parts of my life that are not going so well or maybe a difficult situation I need to learn how to handle. A problem I am trying to solve, usually social in nature because human connection is important to me (dog connection is also very important). How to transition and re-invent myself. Ways I can continue to help the people that I serve when I, myself, am in pain. When to be and when not to be vulnerable. Or, more precisely, with whom to be vulnerable and whom to not trust. So, the work I do while I’m running is not just physical. It is mental and emotional, too.
While I have been doing emotional work for decades and running for about 12 years, I have noticed some similarities. Both involve pain, at times in unexpected areas. Sometimes I would rather avoid both because they take work and effort. There are obstacles that are either internal or external, and timing is critical. When I stick with either one, my stamina builds and I learn valuable lessons about being stronger than I thought I was. Both have supportive people (and unsupportive people) or things (like music), and both require plenty of rest and self-care. The rewards are countless! This blog is an attempt to draw some parallels between running and emotional work as I have noticed them.
There have been many times when I have every intention of getting up early for a run, either because that works better for my schedule (if I have evening activities planned) or because the weather forecast is more run-friendly, especially in the summers (i.e., I hate running in hot weather). But, I can be lazy. It is so tempting to hit that snooze button and sleep in, especially as I have aged and feel more soreness in the mornings than I used to. It’s not too different with my emotional work. Sometimes I get tired of it or just don’t have the energy. Because it does take energy, maybe even more energy to do emotional work than it takes to run. Emotional work can be down-right draining! For these and other reasons, I (and others) can put off my emotional work. And, culture has provided so many ‘escapes’ to help us procrastinate or outright avoid our feelings. Reading, music (more on this later), television, movies, alcohol/drugs, among many others. It can be healthy to put off emotional work or running for valid reasons like the need to function at work or resting a sore ankle, but used long-term and this becomes unproductive. The work is still there needing to be done whether you acknowledge it or not. Just like laundry-always there.
Timing is everything
Timing a run is so important! Fellow runners are nodding their heads like, ‘yeah’.
There are so many factors that I pay attention to including my schedule, the weather, my energy level that day, how long it has been since I last ate, how much protein I have consumed, etc. I am very aware of the conditions that make it better and easier for me to have a good run like the temperature in the 40’s with no rain, enough free time so that I am not ‘rushing’ a run or feeling pressured to cut it short, and having consumed protein and/or carbs a few hours before but not having too much on my stomach. Caffeine! (I felt that caffeine is so important it deserved it’s own sentence). I am not always in control of these factors (especially Oklahoma weather which can be unpredictable and uncooperative), and I can make adjustments in some areas if needed (e.g., an unexpected cancelation in my schedule). Timing of emotional work is vital as well! I try to make sure I have the energy to do the emotional work as well as ensure that anyone else I am relying on for support is in a space to provide that support. It is hard to do emotional work when overly stressed, but that is when it is needed the most. Sometimes, I remind myself to slow down and engage in self-care prior to doing the emotional work so that it will be more effective. Kind of like having protein or caffeine for a run. It is also important to not put off emotional work too long. Like a container in our mind, if we have too many unprocessed feelings, we start experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. The kinds of problems that bring someone to my office. Emotional expression is like a pressure relief valve on that ‘container’ to prevent too much build-up. That’s why emotional work leads to feelings of relief. I feel the same way if it has been too long since I have done some emotional work or since my last run, an overwhelming (almost physical) need to do the work. Once I do the work for either, I feel instant relief.
Doing the Work
While I am running, I pay very close attention to my body to help me determine my distance. With experience, this has become easier over the years and I am usually, though not always, good at predicting my stamina. At times, I will push myself to go further than I normally go to test my ‘limits’ or to work towards some over-arching goal. Other times, I know that I just do not have the stuff that day and shorten the distance by turning around early to head home. In my emotional work, I have to pay particular attention to my stamina as well. Working in my profession can quickly lead to burnout. The work is emotionally demanding and involves helping others through excruciating pain. I have heard some horrific life stories from my clients and have been continually impressed with the resiliency of the human spirit. But, nonetheless, the work is tough. If I did not pay close enough attention to my emotional stamina, I could risk over-booking myself, being less than effective with clients, or worse: harmful to clients. It is vital to pay attention to my emotional limits in helping people and refresh my own emotional needs to be effective in my work. Often, I notice that I have more emotional stamina than I predicted, as I get support requests from friends at the end of a long week. Other times, I have to protect myself by engaging in my self-care and own emotional work (e.g., going for a run) while saying ‘no’ to helping others. People don’t always understand this, and it can be cumbersome to explain in a moment of crisis to someone. But, it is important because one cannot serve from an empty vessel.
This applies to my own emotional work, too. I try to not go beyond my stamina emotionally and will sometimes put self-care ahead of emotional work to assist. Other times, I will put off emotional work for a more appropriate time when the above mentioned factors are more aligned.
I have had several runs where I did not see a single other person either in or outside of a vehicle. I used to run super early in the mornings before sunrise and will occasionally run in a secluded spot in the woods. These are usually more peaceful runs as I don’t have the burden of considering what others think of me or whether I might get hit by a car crossing a busy intersection, which happens more than one would expect. Usually, I run in broad daylight on sidewalks near busy roads where a good part of southwest Stillwater sees me. I often hear from people I know that they saw me running, and I encourage people to honk so that I can see them and wave back. It won’t scare me nor throw me off no matter how serious my facial expression appears. I promise. I have even been known to run shirtless or wear crazy socks which get more attention from people. Emotional work, too, can be either private or exposed. Private emotional work tends to be more peaceful without the burden of others and their needs (e.g., journaling), while emotional work that is out in the open can be a powerful experience. Sharing my pain with someone else and feeling supported is one of the most amazing experiences ever. Knowing that the world does not fall apart and that I am not judged for my feelings and experiences is a valuable lesson that can only come with shared emotional work. That doesn’t mean that I am going to fall apart in the middle of Boone Pickens Stadium on an autumn Saturday, but I have become more familiar with finding those people I can share my emotions with and not get hurt. These people have been hard to find, but they are there. And, they are awesome!
At times, I have run with a partner or with a group. This is a tremendous help with motivation as I am accountable to someone else meeting me and, therefore, I do not want to let them down by flaking on them. Running with others can be inspiring as I try to keep pace or run the same distance as others. It also helps with my sense of safety. If, on the off chance, I get hit by one of those vehicles not stopping for me at intersections, I could have some friendly assistance to get help. Or, I am less likely to be attacked by a wild animal if there are two (or more) of us. Also, it is just good to have someone to share the experience with. Someone who knows what you’re going through and with whom you can talk during a run. Even with solo runs, I might encounter a friend or a stranger on my path. Exchanges may be brief or more drawn out. Some can even be hostile or at the very least: unfriendly (although Stillwater is pretty friendly). My emotional work can be similar. It is great to have an understanding and non-judgmental friend or support along the journey. Some friends will challenge me emotionally, which does not always feel great in the moment, but is probably what I need for long-term progress. It keeps me accountable to do my emotional work. It increases my sense of emotional safety. And, it feels better to have someone other than me to know what my experience is and to talk about it with. But, the other side of this is possible. Some people are hostile and not supportive. Some people are just not adept at helping with emotional work, maybe they were never taught empathy. Some people are too self-focused to be able to support someone else. These less than supportive people can include those you expected to be in your corner, either based on past experiences or because of their role in your life. I have found that it is best to move on when this happens without getting too caught up in the lack of support. Their lack of support or empathy is probably more about them than it is about you. So, I focus on the ones who are available to support rather than the ones not available.
Music is so very important to my soul. I listen to music every chance I get. Live music is the best! While running, I have tried audio-books and podcasts, but nothing helps as much as music. I have a running playlist with more upbeat music usually with a tempo that matches my running pace. Some songs seem to come up a lot while others are rare. Music helps me get going and provides a little comfort along the way. Similarly, with emotional work, comfort (sometimes in the form of music) is helpful. There are other ways of comforting myself while I do my emotional work. These can include comfort clothing or blankets, a relaxed body posture, or the snuggles of a dog. Music can also be a catalyst for letting me access my emotions. There are certain songs that I can play that I know will definitely lead to tears just as my running playlist helps get me going. Certain songs remind me of particular people in my life (some from the past) or experiences I have had. When working with clients I often ask questions to distinguish whether they are using music for comfort (e.g., to change their mood) or to assist with doing the emotional work (i.e., allowing them to access their feelings).
With a certain distance (usually during the third or fourth mile for me) of running, my body creates a euphoria sensation that is quite energizing. If you have never experienced a runner’s high, you are missing out on one of the prizes of living. Before a runner’s high, I feel like every step is an effort. I am sore. I am hurting. Sometimes I question why I am doing this. But, when I get to the runner’s high part, the energy flows through me. It takes very little effort to keep going, and it feels like it would take more effort to stop the flow. It becomes easy, and it feels really good. It is similar with feelings. We tend to label our feelings as good or bad. Happy is good. Anger, fear, sadness, and shame are bad. It’s logical to avoid the bad ones, but if you can have a wider perspective on this and accept feelings as they are without judgment, then you can achieve a certain sense of peace and energy when you allow your feelings to be there and to express them. Feelings can be very informative. Anger alerts us to unmet needs. Sadness enlists support from other people or tells us what we want to change. Fear protects us and keeps us safe. Shame helps us align our values with our behaviors and vice versa. Once you accept the ‘flow’ of feelings rather than resisting or denying them, life becomes easier. Often, it is the struggle to avoid feelings that becomes problematic rather than the feelings themselves. Emotions are going to be there whether you like them or not. You might as well lean in, be productive with that work, and learn from their messages. It may take a “mile” or two to get comfortable, but the peace and energy will be there.
Both emotional work and running have obstacles. Some of these are internal (i.e., within my control) while others are external (i.e., outside of my control). Either way, barriers can be used as excuses to not do the work or they can be confidence boosters when overcome.
Some days, I have to run through some joint pain for about half of a mile right at the beginning of my run. I wonder if anyone is watching as my gait is usually abnormal at these times. The pain is sometimes caused by volleyball play or some other physical activity the day before and so is expected. Along the way I focus on the decision ahead of me. Should I stop and rest? Turn around and head home early? Or, run through it with hope and faith that it will improve. Sometimes, it is the right decision to choose one of the former two options, but I most often choose the latter, and it usually works out. As my muscles loosen up and my blood gets flowing, the soreness recedes a bit. The pain is often still there, but becomes bearable and my gait returns to normal. I almost always feel more emotional relief in knowing that I get to continue my run (and, thus my emotional work that day) than the physical relief, but it also teaches me a valuable lesson in overcoming internal barriers. Now, I do not always turn back or stop to rest when I encounter an emotional ‘soreness’ or pain. Sometimes I do, but usually I try to ‘run’ through it by experiencing it. Expressing it. Not distancing from it. This leads to a lot of emotional relief and becomes much more productive for my emotional work. Plus, it boosts my confidence in dealing with emotions and increases my overall emotional stamina.
As previously mentioned, there are external barriers to running. Weather being a big one that it outside of my control. 2019 has been an especially wet and stormy spring for Stillwater which has prevented me from running at times that fit my schedule. We have even had some significant flooding that led me to alter my route at times. Schedule is another external obstacle. Some things in my schedule are within my control, but some things are not. I may have to be flexible and adjust the timing of my run depending on schedules or weather. Traffic is interesting. Despite having a crosswalk signal, some drivers in Stillwater think they still have the right of way ahead of me or they tend to ignore crosswalks all together. Not exactly reassuring of my safety, but I try to not get killed while communicating with drivers. This includes a ‘thank you’ to those who respect my safety and the law. But, I also get some people who like to yell things at me. I am always listening to my music with earbuds blasting, so I usually don’t hear what it being yelled. I choose to believe that they are words of encouragement. Volumes have been written about the external barriers to emotional work. There are so many and they are so very powerful. Culture is a big one. This culture gives some mixed messages about emotional expression. For boys/men it is often okay to express anger or happiness, but not okay to express more vulnerable feelings underlying anger like sadness, fear, or shame/guilt.
It tends to be the opposite for girls/women who are often brought up to believe that expressing vulnerable feelings is fine as long as one does not express anger. There are some nasty and harmful labels out there for women who express anger, so this cultural barrier gets reinforced. Another barrier involves individual comfort with someone else’s emotional expression. In a culture that does little to promote emotional expression and understanding, is it any wonder that many of us are never formally nor informally taught how to support someone expressing some feelings? I would need more than two hands to count the number of times I have heard someone express discomfort because someone else was crying, so they must be ‘in crisis’ right? Crying ≠ crisis. I am actually much more worried about people who never cry than ones that do cry. And, sometimes even against culture and with an empathic, supportive person, the ‘weather’ conditions are just not right for emotional work. Either there is a more pressing concern, or the individual needs to be able to function because of setting or roles (e.g., at work, as a parent, etc.), or some other external obstacle that prevents emotional work. Some people don’t understand why I run. Some people don’t understand why I do emotional work. But, there are probably more people in the latter category than the former. Overcoming external barriers to emotional work can be difficult, especially with the aspects of the obstacles outside of your control. So, what can you do? Be aware of the barriers (e.g., culture), and make different decisions. Focus on what you can control (e.g., the timing of your emotional work), which may involve adjusting your route (i.e., which methods you use). Find the people that are more supportive and reinforce their help (e.g., maybe pay them back with mutual support or tacos-everyone loves tacos, right?) rather than those that might run you over.
There is so much that is important after a run which sometimes gets overlooked. For example, walking at the end of a run is a great way to ‘cool’ down my body (I tend to ‘run’ hot) and transition between running and not running.
Also, if I do not stretch my leg muscles immediately afterward, I will feel the soreness (or worse: charley horses, ouch!) later. At my age, ice packs are important to minimize sore joints. I especially have trouble with my right knee (well, both knees actually but more problems with the right one) and left ankle. My right ankle is a champ! Last, but not least, is rest. This includes less physical activity after a run (caveat: I don’t always follow this advice and have been known to play tennis or do yardwork after a run and one day I did all three!), sitting or laying down, and getting enough sleep before the next run. With emotional work, it is vital to have some comfort behaviors and items for afterwards. Working with clients, I will often start with an exploration of their sources of comfort before getting into the tough, emotional work because I want to be assured that they can adequately comfort themselves. Otherwise, therapy would be like surgery without any pain medications. A good shortcut to get at a person’s comfort strategies is to ask them what they do for themselves when they have a head cold. Some common answers I get nowadays include resting, comfort blanket or clothing, binge-watching Netflix (is there any other way to watch Netflix?), hot beverage (e.g., tea, coffee, or soup), etc. But, other things like a walk, exercise (like running-see what I did there?), talking with a friend, reading, movies, art, hobbies, etc. could qualify. Some people need social support while others don’t. Doing emotional work too much or too fast could result in an ‘emotional hangover’ if one goes beyond their emotional stamina limits. This can be dangerous in making the person reticent to do further emotional work. It is important to not avoid difficult tasks because of going beyond one’s limits though. Extra comfort, soothing, self-care, and/or social support are needed in these cases.
This is a meme I see frequently on social media and says a lot about the perceptions of some people about running. For those who are not running, have not run in the past, or who run but only inconsistently; it can be hard to explain the rewards of running. Coincidentally, most of my rewards from running are emotional. After having gone on a run, whether I have focused on a problem area or not, I feel emotionally better. I am not as reactive to stress (probably because my resting heart rate is lower than it would be if I did not run), and I seem to function much better. There are other physical rewards like weight loss, toned muscles, increased energy, improved heart health, the list goes on. Similarly, with emotional work, the list of rewards can be endless and overlap with running rewards. After doing emotional work, I feel emotional relief. This includes being less reactive to stress and improved functioning. But, I am also in a better position to be a support to others, which helps with my connection with others. I have more awareness and insight about who I am as a person, where I come from, the influences on my patterns, and so much more. I can make better and healthier decisions in a more timely manner. My focus and memory are improved. So. Many. Rewards! This makes it definitely worth the work and overcoming those pesky barriers.
In summary, there are several parallels between running and emotional work. Both are easy to avoid. Timing and stamina are crucial considerations. Other factors of exposure, social support, and music can be helpful or unhelpful. There are so many rewards including the runner’s high and many others.
Is running hard work? Yes.
Is running worth it? Absolutely yes!
Is emotional work hard? Yes.
Is it worth it? Absolutely yes!
There will be obstacles. Some of these are internal and some will be external. Some obstacles are within your control while others are not. There will be excuses, and weather conditions, and unsupportive people with regards to either activity. But, does that mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater? Absolutely not!
Can you do this work? Of course, you can! Call me if you need help. You are not alone. And, sometimes running or emotional work involves social connection.