Lesson 4: The Power of Reflection

It has been several weeks since the half-marathon.  Like anything else, as my life moves forward the experience gets pushed into the background as other things crop up and take its place.  It is so easy to let day to day life consume our thoughts and actions and not take time to reflect upon what was.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Søren Kierkegaard

I am guilty of always thinking towards the future, always trying to be two to three steps ahead.  I have trouble focusing on the present and hardly ever taking the time to reflect on the past.  Being future-focused has a lot of positives.  I tend not to dwell on past.  Research shows that living in the past is associated with greater feelings of pessimism and can be a trigger for depression.   Being focused on the future also means that I am a planner and I am rarely unprepared.  However, this obsession with always staying ahead of the game robs me of one of the most valuable tools for happiness and personal growth – reflection.

Transforming Pain into Gain

No one can argue that physical activity is awesome.  Study after study validates the myriad of benefits of physical activity, including improved as physical health, mental health, and social connections.  However, if we do not take the time to look back and reflect upon the experience, we will miss valuable lessons.

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey

When I finished the half-marathon, I was physically exhausted.  My anxiety level was through the roof.  I was disappointed with my performance and was just relieved it was over.  Now, my default state was to push the experience aside (essentially checking it off my mental to-do list) and move on to the next thing.

I mentioned in my previous posts that this was my 5th half-marathon.  However, it was the first that that I took the time to stop to reflect upon the experience as a whole.  I forced myself to look back and evaluate every aspect of the experience. I won’t lie, it has been a difficult process.  However, it was only by taking the time to look back and reflect that I was able see the power of discomfort, gratitude, and acceptance.

When we take the time to stop and reflect upon our experiences with consciousness and intent, the process can be transformative.  In my case, by stepping back and reflecting upon the race, I took an experience that I associated with frustration, anxiety, pain, and disappointment and transformed it into one that I now look upon with fondness and appreciation.

Benefits of Reflection

Reflection is an incredibly powerful tool that is available to each and every of us.  The only thing we need to do is allow ourselves to slow down and take the time to actually do it.  The next time that life is moving fast and you are tempted to just push forward, I invite you consider the following ways that reflection can help you live a better life.

Reflection can help you…

  1. identify negative thoughts and feelings.
  2. understand your strengths and weaknesses.
  3. view life with more gratitude.
  4. stay focused on the bigger picture.
  5. acknowledge and accept things that are out of your control.
  6. reduce anxiety, allowing you to overcome your fears.
  7. become a more capable, confident, and caring person.

The Final Word

Sometimes the most challenging events in our lives can provide the best opportunities for self-discovery and personal growth.  For me it took a very long 13.1 miles to teach me the power of discomfort, gratitude, acceptance, and reflection.  I hope that the next time you face a challenge, you will remember the power of these tools, use them, and emerge a stronger, happier, and healthier person.

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Lesson 3: The Power of Acceptance

I am my own worst critic.  I set my expectations and berate myself if things don’t work out the way I wanted.  If I don’t meet my goals, my automatic response is to blame myself for the failure.  If I had only (fill in the blank) tried harder, prepared better, etc.… things would’ve worked out.

I have always viewed failure as a personal weakness.  I never stop to consider that there may be forces in play that I cannot control and overcome.  The missing piece is acceptance.

Acceptance – The Missing Piece

Failure can be a very powerful tool.  We can learn a lot from our failures, gaining valuable insights and learning lessons that we can use to become better, stronger, more effective.  However, when you look at failure from the single perspective of being solely controlled by the self, you miss the valuable lessons it can teach.  Instead of logically analyzing the failure and gaining constructive feedback, you spiral into a pattern of negative self-talk and blame.

Acceptance in human psychology is a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it or protest it. – Wikipedia

You must look at failure with both responsibility and acceptance.  It is a two-pronged approach – taking responsibility for the things within your control and accepting the things that are not in your control.   Let’s look at some examples from the half-marathon, examining each first from the perspective of blame and next from the perspective of acceptance.

Example #1:  I set a goal time for finishing the race and missed it by several minutes.

Blame:  I was weak and didn’t try hard enough.  I could’ve pulled through if I was mentally and physically stronger.

Acceptance:  My body has limits.  I had the stomach flu a week before and I had cracked the top of my foot on a bookshelf.  Both contributed to my body not being in peak condition for the race.

Example #2:  I wanted to get through without having a panic attack.

Blame:  I had practiced managing my anxiety during my training runs.  I was confident that it would not be an issue in the race, but it was.  Again, I was weak.  If I was stronger, I could’ve pushed the feelings aside and kept going.

Acceptance:  I can’t control everything.  Sometimes my anxiety and panic disorder gets the best of me.  I can do my best to prepare, strategize, and cope but sometimes it is not enough.  The best I can do is deal with it when it happens and move on.

When I reevaluated the race from the perspective of acceptance not blame, it completely reframed the experience.  It led me away from my destructive thinking and down a path of   opportunity for personal growth.

Acceptance vs. Excuses – What’s the Difference?

Now you might ask, “Aren’t you just making an excuse and rationalizing the failure?”.  I too, struggle with the same question.

I hate excuses.  I am 100% for personal responsibility.  I firmly believe that we are responsible for our own actions – right or wrong, good or bad.  For the longest time, I viewed acceptance as an excuse. However, there is a distinct difference between making and excuse for an action or outcome and accepting it and moving on.

He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else. – Benjamin Franklin

Excuses are based on short-term thinking.  Excuses are all about instant gratification without concern for bigger goal.  Acceptance, on the other hand, is based in self-caring and nurturing.  It is focused on long-term.

For example, let’s say I have a 5-mile training run planned for today.  My body feels good, I feel healthy, but I’m just not motivated to get up and get out the door.  So, I decide to I skip my run today and stay home and watch TV.  Now, I classify this as a big ‘ol excuse.  I am choosing the path of least resistance.  This is the option that leads to instant gratification but does not help me achieve my long-term goal.

Now let’s look at the same scenario under a different set of circumstances.  I have a 5-mile training run planned for today but my foot is very painful and running is exacerbating the injury.  So, I decide to skip my run today and take a day off to rest and ice my foot.  In this scenario, I am practicing acceptance.  I am consciously deciding to accept the reality of something I can’t control (my injury) and choosing the option that is best for my current well-being and for my long-term goal (being healthy to run the race).

Finding the Balance

When you experience failure, finding a balance between taking responsibility for the failure and choosing acceptance can be extremely difficult.  When things don’t turn out the way you planned, it so is easy to fall into the trap of self-blame and guilt. When I start to slide down that slippery slope, I ask myself the following questions

  • Were my expectations too high?
  • Were there external forces beyond my control?
  • Does the outcome really make a difference in the long run?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, it is a trigger that I need to stop and reevaluate my feelings.  My guilt and blame is probably misplaced and destructive.  The healthy choice is to acknowledge the failure, accept the outcome, and move on.

Although it’s not easy, pushing aside the blame and choosing acceptance truly is the path to becoming a better, stronger, and happier person.  I think the following words from actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 25 years ago, sums it up perfectly.

My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations. – Michael J. Fox

Next time you face failure, I challenge you to take a step back.  Look upon the failure with a new lens – one of responsibility and acceptance.  Then sit back and watch your happiness grow.

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Up next…

Lesson  4:  The Power of Reflection


Lesson 2: The Power of Gratitude

I always try to run with thoughts of gratitude, but I choose to run the half marathon as my “race of gratitude”.   Pondering all of the things that I have to be thankful for carries me forward and I ride the wave of gratitude to the finish line.

Anyone that runs knows that breathing plays a big role.  As I run, I try to imagine inhaling a thought of gratitude and exhaling the word “thank you”.  It probably sounds silly, but it works!  It takes my focus off the external mechanics of running and refocuses my energy internally, creating a more profound mind-body connection.  I enjoy my run more and it becomes a more fulfilling experience.

So during the half marathon, I chose to run with gratitude.  I ran with gratitude for…

The opportunity to participate in the race.  I am blessed to have the time, support, and resources to train and race.

My health.  Although I am not perfect, I am strong and healthy.  I am thankful for this body that carries me through 13.1 miles.

The world around me.  I drink in the fresh air, embrace the wind on my face, and admire in awe the beauty of fall in the Northeast.

My community.  All around me are examples of my community coming together for common cause.  From the race personnel and course volunteers working hard to keep me safe and hydrated, to the thousands of spectators on route cheering and waving signs, I am grateful for each and every one.

My running partners.  As I run, I acknowledge that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my running partners (both human and canine).  They were with me through months of training.  From early morning runs before the sun came up, to finishing the last few miles of a long run in the dark, they were with me every step of the way.  They pushed me forward, encouraged me onward, and kept me laughing the whole time.

My family and friends.  Most of all I am profoundly grateful for my family and friends.  Their support means the world to me.

“Gratitude also opens your eyes to the limitless potential of the universe, while dissatisfaction closes your eyes to it.” 

– Stephen Richards

This attitude of gratitude powered me through the first 9 miles, but when I hit “the wall” and the overwhelming fatigue set in, it became harder and harder to focus on being grateful. By mile 10, all I could think about was the pain in my foot, the leaden sensation in my legs, and my escalating anxiety and self-doubt.  My physical and emotional discomfort distracted me until the only thing that I was grateful for was that it would be over soon.

When finally crossed the finish line, my feelings of gratitude had evaporated.  I was exhausted, frustrated, and disappointed.

This race taught me that I had more to be grateful for than I imagined.  I made it.  I struggled through the pain, the fatigue, and the panic.  It was awful, but I made it.  I finished safely and at the finish line, despite my feelings of failure, I was rewarded with nothing but love and support.

Finally finished, surrounded by family and friends, I took a long, deep breath.  I inhaled in the power of gratitude.

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Up next…

Lesson  3:  The Power of Acceptance

4 Powerful Lessons I Learned From Running 13.1 Miles – Introduction

A few weeks ago I ran my 5th half-marathon.  The race was tough.  Tougher than I expected, and I thought I knew what to expect.  I had run this race three times before once in the rain, several times in freezing temperatures, and once with a nasty head cold.  Each time it was a challenge, but I always finished stronger and faster than I had anticipated.  This year the weather was perfect and I was feeling good. I had been running strong all summer, posting personal bests in a 5k and a 10k this season.  I had every reason to believe that the trend would continue and I would be crossing the finish line with another personal best to add to my record. Well, as they say, the best laid plans… 

Girl on Fire Hits the “Wall”

For the first 9 miles I was on fire.  My legs seemed to move effortlessly as I flew past my fellow runners.  I was imagining myself crossing the finish line, executing an epic fist pump as I looked up at the timer and saw my time.   And then something happened that had never happened to me before, I hit the “wall”.  For those of you that are not familiar with this bit of runner’s terminology, hitting the “wall” is a sudden loss of energy and overwhelming sense of fatigue.  I have heard people describe the sensation like letting the air out of a balloon. For me, I was more like the balloon popped and the remnants plummeted to the earth.  At one moment I was soaring, the next all I wanted to do was pull over to the side and curl up into a ball.   I didn’t just hit the “wall”, I full-on faceplanted into it.

The Final 4 Miles of Agony

Although every fiber of my being was telling me otherwise, I didn’t curl up in a ball.  I did have to pull over several times to slow down and breathe, but in the end I made it.  The final 4 miles were excruciating but I kept going and I crossed the finish line.  When I did, there was no epic fist pump as I looked up at the timer.  I posted my slowest time ever.  As I crossed the line, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief but also of disappointment.  I failed.  I had set a goal, come so close to achieving it, and I failed.

What a Difference a Day Makes

The next day I was sore and tired.  More sore and tired than ever before.  But now, I embrace the aches and pains.  They are a reminder that I just ran my best race ever.

As I sat in bed the afternoon after the race, nursing my beaten body and bruised ego, I replayed each of those 13.1 miles in my head.  As I mentally relived the experience, my perception of the race changed.  I didn’t fail, I succeeded.  I may not have run as fast as I had hoped, but I ran a great race.  It is true that it is not about the destination, but the journey that matters.

“Sometimes we become so focused on the finish line, that we fail to find joy in the journey.”

― Dieter F. Uchtdorf

I realized that those 13.1 miles were truly a journey of discovery.  I learned 4 very important lessons and in the process, discovered the power of 

  • Discomfort
  • Gratitude
  • Acceptance
  • Reflection

Over the next few weeks, I will explore each of these areas and share my experiences with you.  I hope you join me on this enlightening 13.1 mile journey!

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