Wow, weeks can fly by! I had started the first two parts of my movement repertoire series with the intention of getting parts 3 and 4 out the following week. That obviously didn’t happen. And this isn’t yet part 3 because I want to share something with you all. It’s related to everything I’ll talk about in those posts but in a bit of a different way, it’s about fear (that again? it’s a different kind of fear this time! the fear of no longer being good at something) and my ego and some breakthroughs I’ve had in changing my own pain in the last month.

I can do way more than I thought I could. And I bet you can, too.

Even though I write about this chronic pain stuff on a regular basis, and research it even more, I still don’t always live what I’ve learned.  I try to, boy do I try to, but sometimes I still have hangups holding me back, hangups I’m not always aware of.

These hangups typically come in the form of my thoughts on a specific issue, such as a certain movement or activity, like running, or a specific sensation I feel or hear in the course of certain movements, like the popping and clicking that I have all the time in my low back and hip, clicks and pops my surgeon says not to worry about but that worry the daylights out of me when I’m doing something new, even when they don’t change and are the same as they ever were (it’s all about context!).

My mindset when it came to running was one of ‘I can’t’ or ‘I shouldn’t’. It held me back. It kept me in a ‘I have chronic pain and so have these limitations’ mindset, a defined by pain mindset. But I didn’t realize it. In fact, I thought it was the opposite. I have been telling myself that it was a part of acceptance, that acceptance meant I had to accept these limitations, too, that acceptance meant that I needed to be ok with never running again, never doing what I loved so much before I got hurt again.

It was so big of me, this being ok with never being able to run again. So noble. So strong of mind.

It was such bullshit.

Fooling myself

It wasn’t noble, it wasn’t strong, it wasn’t acceptance. It was just me being a victim of my pain in another way, putting a prettier face on it so I wouldn’t have to face it.

It wasn’t acceptance, it was fear. And not just the kind of fear you may be thinking of.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have vastly improved my pain through acceptance, I’m not discounting that at all. By accepting my pain, by making space it for so that there’s room for the things that matter to me, I have been able to engage in the world much more fully, much more meaningfully, and much more actively. I’ve been able to live.

Acceptance has been a pain changer for me.

But this other thing, this not running thing, that was something else, that wasn’t acceptance. How can you accept that you can’t do a thing if you don’t even try to do it? I chalked up the failure without ever taking the test.

Why? Because I was scared. Not just of hurting myself or pain, but also of looking like a fool. Probably more the latter, if I’m really honest with myself. I have been doing all kinds of other active things but they didn’t come with a prior history of being good at them, they didn’t come with that hangup.

Getting real

There is a pretty good chance that I won’t ever be able to run like I used to, especially my former pace and weekly mileage, that I can accept. And if it turns out that I’m not able to run at all, that’s ok, too, but it will be because I physically can’t do it, not because I think I can’t do it.

Do you see the difference here? I hate to belabor the point but this was a major ‘Aha!’ moment for me this past month.

Because I can do way more than I thought I could. Only my thoughts were holding me back. My doubts, my fears. My ego.

Just over a month ago, I went for a run. Well, a wog. My pace wasn’t that much faster than my walking pace, if it was faster at all. And my pace was almost twice as slow as it was before my injury sidelined me, not quite, but close.

It was hard. It was hard to be slow. It was hard that it was hard, that I was struggling, that I wasn’t good at it. But I wanted to face those fears, I wanted to test my limits, find my edge, see where I was at so I could work at getting better at it. And I wanted to get over myself, really. This ‘poor me, I can’t run anymore because of pain’ thing I kept holding on to.

I knew it, I didn’t live it

I’ve been writing about this stuff for months, years even, but I didn’t apply what I’ve learned, about pain and about myself, to this area of my life. The one thing I kept saying I missed most about my former life, the one thing I still felt sad about not being able to do, no matter how hard I tried not to, was running. And it was the one thing I never actually tried to do because I thought I couldn’t, or shouldn’t.

I thought that I’d fail.

But this is my life, you know? Just like it’s your life and that guy’s life and that gal’s life. We’re the only ones living it. What matters to us? What do we want to do? Can we take some steps toward doing them? Yes, we most definitely can. Might we suck at them at first? Of course! But who cares? Who are we competing with?

Might we not be able to do them?

Yes, that’s possible. But knowing a thing and fearing a thing are two different things. And challenging ourselves, pushing past our fears, our doubts, getting out to the edge of our comfort zone and seeing if we can push it out a little further, make our world a little bigger, that’s going to do way more for us than never trying because we’re afraid of what we might find out about ourselves if we do.

Even if we fail, we succeed. Jordan didn’t make every shot. FloJo didn’t win every race. (I’m aware I’m dating myself here.) It’s the effort that matters. The doing. The challenging ourselves. The changing ourselves, and our pain, for the better.

My fears, and my ego, held me back

For a long time, I was afraid to try. Yea, I was afraid that trying to run would cause me pain, that I would mess up my surgically repaired hip (see what I mean about knowing a thing but not living a thing? I know that if I eased into running, I would be doing no damage to myself. I know that hurt doesn’t equal harm. Even though I had started living what I know in so many areas, I put running in it’s own little box off to the side), that I would hurt something else because I was all out of whack.

But even more than that, I think I was afraid to try to run because it would hurt my pride. My ego would take a hit. Another one. A big one for me. I would have to alter my identity a bit. Again. And I didn’t want to.

Don't let your ego prevent you from getting out there

Buster! He’s not 3 -legged but I love him.

You see, I knew that if I tried running again that I wasn’t going to be at the level I was before, and that’s hard for me. Really hard. I’m competitive by nature. I was a runner who would pick up the pace if anyone was within eyesight of me, I’d try to catch a runner in front of me or not let a runner behind me pass me.

Hell, I’d even pick up the pace if I just saw people walking along the same route, you know, to show them just how fast I was. Even if it was an elderly couple walking their 3-legged dog.

I have always been competitive, that’s part of what made me a good firefighter. But always being out to prove yourself is different than just being competitive, it can be harmful.

And a part of me knew that getting back out and trying to run again would ignite some of that desire to prove myself, to compete with others (even though they don’t know they’re in a competition), to prove that I could still do this…to do too much too soon.

The hard truth

So it was easier for me to continue to say that I couldn’t run because of my pain than to swallow the pill of getting out there and doing it and sucking at it. And to have other people see me sucking at it.

It was a rude-awakening for me as well as an Aha! moment. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

It’s not just fear of pain that prevents us from trying to get back to some of the things we enjoyed before our pain set in, or trying to start something new, it’s also fear of failure. Fear of incompetency and not being good at it. Fear of sucking. Fear of being judged and compared unfavorably, to others and to our former selves.

But we’re different people now, we’re all different people today than we were yesterday or last year or a decade ago, even when we don’t have pain. That’s ok. That’s awesome, in fact. We should all be changing, growing, learning, developing. That whole getting better with age thing, you know? Changing perspectives, reprioritizing, becoming more humble, grateful, and wise.

Hopefully I’m getting there, to that place of true contentment with where I’m at while still striving to be better. Part of getting there (at least closer to there) was realizing that it’s ok to go back to these things I used to be good at as the current me, or to start something new altogether, and be ok with not being good at it, to suck, to struggle, to get frustrated.

So part of acceptance for me is also making space for my bruised ego, in addition to making space for the pain. I have to get over myself so that I can get on with the rest of it. I can’t let the fact that I’m not going to be as good as something now as I was before prevent me from doing something I love, have always loved, and have missed every day for over 5 1/2 years.

Being ok with sucking at it

I did suck on my first wog (my word for the walkish jog, or maybe joggish walk?, thing I’m currently doing), just over a month ago now. I was slow as molasses, I would’ve been passed by that elderly couple and their 3-legged dog. I didn’t go far; even though I wanted to push it to the limit, I didn’t want to do too much too soon so that I would be able do it again.

And that first wog lead to a few more wogs.

And now, a month later, I’m a wogger. I’m still slow as molasses. But maybe someday I’ll be a jogger. And maybe someday further down the line, I’ll be a runner again. But I’m not so worried about the semantics anymore, I’m more into the doing. I may not be able to run as fast and far as I used to, but who cares? I was never going to win any races, even as my former self.

It’s about the doing. And the doing is wonderful. I’m getting better each time I go out; getting stronger, getting a wee bit faster, going a wee bit farther.

Going out for a trail wog, getting over my ego

One of the things I missed most about the old days was trail running. Being out on the trail running and not thinking about anything used to be my bliss, my me time, my zen. I get some of that while hiking, but running was different, it was a different kind of bliss.

Aha!

So this week, I hit the trails by my house for a wog. There’s lots of hills, so I was worried, of course, I always worry (about everything, not just my pain or sucking at things, just ask my husband who says to me quite a bit: ‘I wish you wouldn’t worry so much’…). But that worry went away as soon as my feet started moving.

I was even slower than my slow pace of the month leading up to it and I avoided the big hills and stuck to the levelest ground I could find, but I went the farthest I’ve gone yet; a full 3 miles without stopping. 3 flippin’ miles! I never thought I would get back to this place again. I didn’t think this was possible for so very long.

I thought wrong.

I am capable. I am able. I am strong.

It felt amazing, being out there on the trail again. So amazing that I truly wasn’t worried about what other people on the trail were thinking about my pace or my jiggly legs. I wasn’t worried about hurting myself or the pain. I was monitoring, but not worrying.

Toward the end of the wog I realized I was at about 3.04 miles and I really wanted to get to 3.2 so I could say I did a 5k. But I had just hit the last section of the trail, heading back up to my car, and it is a steep, steep hill (a hill I used to call ‘my bitch’ in my running days and I’d say the mantra ‘you’re my bitch’ over and over again as I sprinted up it).

At 3.1 miles, my left hip flexor screamed at me – pain! – a message, a warning sign. I know pain is an alarm system that I must pay attention to so I heeded the alarm, I stopped wogging and started walking, even though there was only a tenth of a mile to go to hit 3.2.

This may not sound like a big deal, but it is for me. I quieted that voice that always wants me to prove something (to who, I don’t know). I changed my mindset. It wasn’t about ‘I can’t do a 5k’ or ‘I can’t do this hill I used to do’ or ‘I’m so slow’ or ‘man, I suck’ and became one of: holy shit, I just wogged 3 miles on the trail without stopping! I’m in my zone. I’m freakin’ ecstatic. I’m zen. And I’m still able to walk up this bitch of a hill. Even after 3 miles! Something I couldn’t do on fresh legs just a few short years ago without excruciating, debilitating pain.

I went out for a run, and it was awesome.

I faced my fears, I nudged my limits, I set aside my ego, and I discovered that I can do much more than I thought I could do. I’m much more capable than I’ve given myself credit for. I’m much stronger than I thought I was, in body and mind. I hadn’t realized how much my ego played a role in this, how much I was comparing myself now to myself then, how much I was comparing myself to others.

It’s hard, this pain thing. Working through pain and trying to change it, it’s not easy. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome, the pain itself is only one of them. It’s so complex, so fascinating. And we can learn and do so much.

The more I learn about pain and about myself, the more I can change my pain and change myself, my life. We are in the driver’s seat, we are in control of changing our pain, no one can do it for us. They can guide us, but we are ultimately responsible, we’re the only ones living our lives, the only ones living in these bodies.

So now I’m really working hard at changing my overall mindset. I am working at removing pain from the equation all together, even when pain is still present. I no longer want to think of myself as ‘a person with chronic pain so I have these limitations’. I’m just a person. And I’m going to get out there and try and do some stuff. And I’m ok if I suck at it, at least I’m doing it without excuses.

Sometimes our ego holds us back out of fear of failure

My bliss :)

As always, thanks for reading my post, folks! I’ve still got the movement repertoire posts in the queue, as well as some other ways of expanding our world, so keep on the lookout for those. I’m also going to revisit the running/wogging thing in future posts to let you know how it goes. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below, send me an email via the contact page, or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter. And if you liked what you read, please share with your friends! Or sign up for the monthlyish newsletter that always has an essay I don’t post here as well as links to interesting articles and blogs. And I promise not to try and sell you stuff. 

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4 Responses to "Getting real, changing pain: how my ego held me back"

  1. Wow, A really open and honest post. Coupled with some beautiful pics again. We all have the fear of something we used to do but don’t think we can any more.

    One thought about running. I think you have kids but I forget. Running, particularly the modern approach to it is very much an all or nothing thing. I’m using my little one as part of my home and mobile gym and basically playing with him so often involves all sorts of movement including spurts of running. Yet there’s no actual pressure to run and my attention isn’t on my it’s on play and fun with my little one.

    I see you have a dog so you can do the same thing there even if you chase your dog a little. Mine loved it.

    These are just thoughts about how to have lots of small wogs and juns without the pressure using what’s already in front of you.

    I still struggle not to be competitive with myself but knowing I can do this any day I like and even in the garden so I can do it at the drop of a hat makes it easier to pace myself.

    hth

    • Thank you for your wonderful reply, Colin. And for the comment on the beautiful pics! Photography is something I’ve really gotten into in the past two years and I love it. It’s one of the creative outlets, writing being the other, that have helped me change my pain the most. Getting lost in something is wonderful! And being outside in nature has always been my best therapy, even before my pain issues settled in.

      I appreciate the advice, too. I don’t have kids but do have Buster and, as you said, he was my first entry into little short bursts of running when we’d ‘play chase’. For a number of years I couldn’t chase him at all so even our little forays around our small house are cherished moments now! And there’s no thought about posture or form or worry, either.

      I am working on those things with my wogs, too. I feel like I’m pacing and doing well. I am truly as slow as molasses and know that my pace is slower than my walking pace, but I’m ok with that! And I’m focusing on staying relaxed, if that makes sense. When I start to feel excess tension in my quad, I know I’m doing too much, it’s my first indicator that my pain levels will rise and that I’m heading for flare-ville. So I don’t mess around with it. I walk or stop altogether and stretch, breathe, and relax.

      Breathing is another thing I’m focusing on. Being able to take deep, diaphragmatic breaths while I’m wogging tells me I’m not overdoing it. For now I’ll only get breathless in those short bursts in the house with Buster! Being on the trail is just that, about being on the trail, not about proving myself anymore. (I have to keep telling myself that so it sticks!)

      Thank you again for the kind words and the advice. I need the reminders and I love hearing what other people do, it adds to my own repertoire. And helps me to remember that I’m not alone out here!

      Hope you have a wonderful day full of movement and things you love :)

      Jo

  2. What a thoughtful article about creating a rich life regardless of the pain in your path. I will share your blog with my patients to enjoy during their treatment. It’s uplifting and inspiring–from one who know about living life well with chronic pain. Wishing you many low pain days on the road ahead.

    • Thank you so much, Dr. Cooney, I greatly appreciate your kind words and I’m humbled you will be sharing my blog with your patients. I can’t tell you how much that means to me! You’ve made my day :)

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