One of my greatest weaknesses is also one of my greatest strengths: I am very hard on myself.
I say it is a strength because I think holding myself to a high standard has helped me to achieve more than I would otherwise. But I also say that it is a weakness because being hard on oneself means lots of negative thinking, which causes stress and anxiety.
I think this blessing and curse comes from my upbringing. I remember the first thing I was very good at was soccer. I was always the fastest player on the field, and in a much simpler game of soccer, the fastest player on the field was usually the best player. I would often score several goals in my games and was hailed as the hero on the team. I liked being the best at something and all the things that came with it.
As I got older though, it was everyone around me who seemed to be growing, becoming more skilled, and gaining speed. In high school, I was an average soccer player on my varsity team. It was difficult for me to wonder what had happened. I didn’t like that so much.
My competitive nature might also come from going to a small, competitive all boys school, where 9 of the 50 boys in my class were accepted early to Harvard, and roughly 40% total attended Ivy League schools. I felt a lot of pressure to succeed – especially in the shadow of an older brother who went to Yale and seemed to be winning every award possible. I learned from my journey with soccer (and my eventual journey with wrestling) that I did not like losing.
Fast forward to today. I recently decided to try to get into running for a few reasons. First, running has always been challenging for me. No better way to callous the mind than to overcome one of its greatest fears. And as an extension to that, I feel that running is one of the truest mental battles one can have with oneself and can help to build discipline and character. There is a real sense of accomplishment when overcoming one’s own doubts and fears.
In March, I completed my first ever half-marathon. I had never run that distance before and I never thought it would have been possible for me to do it. But not only did I do it – I did it in what I considered to be a pleasantly surprising time for myself, and with relative ease. I was surprised when it was over about my own performance, probably because I had filled my mind with so much doubt and reservations beforehand. Why should I have ever had doubt? I had prepared in every way possible, from my training all the way to my diet. Inspired by the performance, I decided to do the Brooklyn Half Marathon in mid-May.
Although I trained for the race, I was much less deliberate in my preparation. I did not adhere to a diet plan the way I had previously, especially in the week leading up to the race, during which I ate rather unhealthily and caved on my “no-drinking” policy. I made a poor decision in the days leading up to the race to move a work flight into a red-eye; the result was that I got very sick in the days leading up to the race.
In those moments leading up to the race, I was in a foul mood. In part, I was in a bad mood because I was sick, but mostly I was mad at myself. Why had I wasted so much time during a vacation training for a race that I was now not going to do well in? Why had I not been more disciplined? How come I drank alcohol in the week leading up to the race? I had already written off my own performance without having even performed yet, all because I was too busy being mad at myself. I wouldn’t even say I felt sorry for myself because to do so would have been to give me too much credit – I was purely feeling unworthy and angry that I was the person I was. All because of a race in which I wanted to beat my previous time…to prove what exactly?
My poor mood was reflected in every way possible. I had low spirits around my coworkers. I had low spirits around my girlfriend. My parents were in town for the weekend, and I acted terribly to them. I had allowed myself to become so upset with myself that I was becoming upset with others simply for being there.
The next day, I got up early and headed to Brooklyn for the race, trying to rally myself mentally. I had a new pair of headphones, and when the race began, I realized the headphones didn’t work. Just my luck, I thought to myself, but I forged ahead. I wasn’t feeling great, so while it was much more of a struggle than the first time around, I carried a great pace through the first 15k and was on track to beat my old time in spite of all the alleged failings I had wrought upon myself. However, I fell apart in the last 5k. I became very dehydrated and got terrible cramps, slowing my pace to a crawl. At times, I was unsure if I might finish. And in those moments where I languished, I again cast negative energy and self-doubt upon myself. It was a real slog to the finish line, but I got there, 3 minutes slower than my race in March.
This time, there was no joy as I crossed the finish line. I immediately sought the exit as most runners walked towards the after party and made my way home. And when I got home an hour later, I nearly cried. I was so disappointed, not just in my time, but also in how difficult the race was this time as compared to the first time around. Why had I rested on my laurels?
The thing about negative thinking like this is that it is not solutions-oriented. More simply put, it accomplishes nothing. As I sat there feeling bad about myself, I realized that the bad thoughts I was having were not actually helping me to become the person I thought I was supposed to be. In fact, they were making me worse – they were keeping me down and holding me back from any sort of self-worth. At least a critical mind might use the past to inform the future; but the negative mind just picks on you with no resolutions for any sort of better future.
In that moment, a beautiful thing happened. I remembered that not long ago, I did not think it was possible to even do the race. I remembered that my time – albeit slower than my first time – was still much faster than I had ever imagined it could be. I realized that I had set a new 15k personal record for myself as part of this race. I had done all of that while being sick and dehydrated in the hot and humid weather. I hadn’t let the lack of music (which carries me during all of my runs) deter me. And in my many moments of weakness where I was down on myself and wanted to give up, I kept going. These were all things to be proud of but that the negative mind was blocking me from realizing.
My mood changed. I was happy to spend time with my family, even if none of them could possibly understand the magnitude of this moment in my overly active mind. I did not let my negative thoughts about myself fester into negative energy towards others.
I told my girlfriend that evening that I had initially thought it was very doable for me to run a full marathon after the relatively easy time I had had with the half marathon back in March, but that I no longer felt it was possible after how much I had struggled this time around. She made a good point – that even my slowest splits were still good times – and therefore, “You could do it today if you wanted to, if you decided not to compete with yourself.”
I sat back to reflect upon that. If I was capable of pacing myself, and not pushing myself against some arbitrary measure of success, then I could really accomplish whatever I wanted to accomplish. That was true all along.