An exercise in self-compassion

Yesterday I completed a Parkrun double header for New Years Day (that is, two nearby Parkrun events that have been timed so you can complete both, one after the other, totalling 10km of running and/or walking).

I ran and walked about equal amounts of the first course and completely walked the second. This was a far cry from the half marathon I was training for months earlier, with the intention of completing one early this year*. Despite this, I am really proud of the effort I put in, even if I literally slept for half the day afterwards.

The start point of my favourite local Parkrun, minutes before I started my first ever event.

I have been too fatigued to run for months. It crept up on me. Slowly my solo runs tapered down, my times were lengthening, and I was starting to skip Saturday morning Parkrun, where I run with a group of friends and have coffee after (this was also the social highlight of my week).

Despite being physically unable to run, I initially thought I was just becoming lazy, making excuses, and in need of a large dose of motivation. I soon stopped trying and was embarrassed to even walk Parkrun while my friends ran. I gained weight after I stopped exercising and this did not exactly help my confidence either.

When depressed, I avoid many things in my life, including those that I enjoy. I wondered if this were the onset of depression, despite being otherwise asymptomatic.

However, a couple of weeks ago I discovered I have a tumour in my neck (at this stage it is assumed to be benign) that specifically causes severe fatigue and bone and muscle soreness due to its location; the perfect combination to make running nearly impossible. I am seeing a surgeon soon and hopefully it will be surgically removed and the symptoms will abate.

This new evidence that my inability to run is not due to laziness has motivated me to tolerate the fatigue (and fear of others judging me) more than I was and to motivate me to do small amounts of running and more walking again. Compared to my previous ability, my current efforts are minuscule, but based on my current abilities, I think it is a good effort.

Yet when I thought I was being lazy I struggled to motivate myself to exercise despite there only being a motivational barrier.

It is interesting how easy it is to ascribe unwanted personality states and traits to ourselves when we do not have a specific “desirable” or “reasonable” explanation for how we feel, to believe that other’s must feel the same way about us, and for this to send our motivation into a rapid downward spiral.

When I received the tumour diagnosis I think I was able to see the running struggles from a more compassionate lens. I was able to acknowledge that it is okay to struggle to exercise because I am unwell. I will receive treatment and when cured I can resume training. I realised that it was okay to try and do small amounts of exercise, within my current abilities, and it is okay that it is not to the level I was previously capable of, or to simply rest if that is what I need.

I was unable to be this compassionate when I thought there was more of a cognitive/psychological cause. It is frustrating that I would never have these same thoughts towards someone else and would have suggested a more compassionate approach to them, yet could not accept this for myself.

Integrating self-compassion into my life is still somewhat of a work in progress. I had some initial help from an amazing mental health nurse and have been working since with my psychologist. They initially had a difficult job as I was very reluctant and it felt incredibly foreign and uncomfortable for some time. I am much more comfortable with the idea now, and actively working to add more of it to my life. Hopefully I will soon be applying it during motivational slumps too…

If anyone has some resources they have found helpful on self-compassion I would love if you would kindly share. I am starting to find my niche but am always open to learning new techniques and theories.

*I worry this may make me sound like I am a seasoned runner – I am far from that. I tried to make it a habit for around a year but was unable to stick to it regularly. Consistent running became a form of therapy after my suicide attempt and started while I was in hospital last March (why it is so important to me). I am incredibly slow by almost every possible standard. I have a love/hate relationship with running – I hate it most of the time I am running, but love the runners high afterwards, achieving things I never thought I could, as well as the improved fitness and the beautiful locations I am now fit enough to hike or run through that I was not previously able to do.