Three weeks ago, I had an epiphany.
It was one of those simple epiphanies, you know? The ones that seem a little obvious or that may already be living in your intellectual awareness, but that happen in a way that etch themselves on your heart. They’re undeniable; compelling.
Let me tell you how it happened. Everything: the crisp fall air, the crunch of gravel underfoot, how trust feels in my body.
A few months ago, I started running again.
If you know me well, you’ll know that I quit running several years ago. My relationship to running had become deeply fraught. I had begun running in my early twenties as a way to lose weight. It was the best way, they said. And so. The kid who pretended she was sick on track and field days in elementary school became a runner. Then a marathoner. I did, in fact, lose a great deal of weight. My body moved beautifully; running felt delicious. And then it didn’t. But I kept running, pushing myself through the pain of multiple excruciating knee injuries. I was terrified to stop, you see. Because it wasn’t long before I was running from something. Which is to say, it wasn’t long before I was running from the threat of being fat, and with it, the threat of not being loved and accepted – or so I believed.
Quitting running was a powerful act in the acceptance of my body. Running had become painful, and its function as weight loss requirement had long since surpassed any joy I had once felt. I vowed I would never run again.
But over time, I came to realize that you don’t necessarily heal a thing by avoiding it altogether. Not always.
The healing happened magnificently. It went this way:
When I first started moving swiftly forward under the power of my own two feet again, as I would gently phrase it to my husband as I laced up my too-old sneakers, I decided it would be best to start with run / walk intervals. Timed. I began by running for one minute and walking for two minutes, cadenced out by the cheap digital watch I bought on Amazon for the purpose.
I found myself describing this experience to my husband a few weeks later:
“It’s like a fucking reckoning with all my demons, every step of the way.”
One minute of running was all I could muster. My feet hurt. Some dark part of me told me I would deserve the new sneakers that might alleviate that pain when I was actually able to run again. You know, like, for more than a minute.
I, who am almost always late for everything, would, with frustrating predictability, look at that little bitch of a stopwatch at 47 seconds exactly, hoping to God and all creation to see the magic 00:01:00 that meant I could stop.
And then there was this:
“You used to be able to run marathons. But now: one minute. One minute?”
Also this gem:
“You had two babies without pain medication and your feet hurt?”
Disappointment, anger, frustration and sadness all ran alongside me.
But also, because I’m a grown-ass woman who Does The Work like it’s her job (and it is), there was this:
“Honey, it’s okay. Hey, babe! You’re running! You’re out here, doing the thing. But if it’s too much, it’s okay to stop. Just stop. You don’t have to do this to yourself anymore.”
For weeks, my runs were like this, with a tiny little war playing out – almost comically; almost – between my inner asshole and this compassionate, sweet and forgiving voice that also lived inside me.
And then one day, I was out on a longer run / moving my body swiftly in a forward direction, and I started to get really tired. My legs really hurt – even though I had, indeed, mustered the self-worth to buy myself that new pair of sneakers. I glared at the 00:47:00 on my watch, and that’s when I had the epiphany.
What if I just ran until I didn’t want to anymore, and walked until I wanted to run again?
My inner asshole: Pish. You’ll walk the rest of the way home. You need Structure, and Accountability.
That loving, forgiving voice: It’s okay to walk, honey. Your feet are hurting. You’ve gone farther than you usually do.
And then: What if I could trust myself to know what’s Actually Best for myself, in the moment?
I realized that what was playing out for me was a version of a conversation I have with almost all of my clients, at some point or another in the course of working together. Because almost all of us have a version of this tiny war going on inside our heads, especially when we’re doing something new or maybe a bit scary or risky.
When I quit running years ago, it was because I listened to the warm, compassionate, permissive voice. I thought that meant that I had healed: finally, I could take my foot off the gas pedal, rest a little, be easy on myself.
One of my teachers, David Drake, a scholar of narrative coaching, talks about “wet dishrag compassion.” Pema Chodron calls it “idiot compassion.” It’s that warm, permissive voice, which sometimes, if we’re not mindful, cross-pollinates with our inner victim: This is hard, honey. I know. So, so hard. You don’t have to anymore. Just stop now. There there.”
It sounds lovely. But sometimes we have to, as Glennon says, do hard things. Sometimes, we need to call up a certain fierceness – the part of us that Knows What’s Actually Best.
It’s compassion, with a backbone.
I, being one to anthropomorphize various aspects of my psyche, call this part of myself that can be both fierce and compassionate my Benevolent Motherself.
It’s a deeply nurturing energy that feels like a motherself – an inner mother – and she’s Benevolent, as in: she knows and wants What’s Best for me. She doesn’t muscle through when rest is what’s actually required and she doesn’t let me spiral into stagnancy when momentum is needed.
As you can imagine, she is discerning as hell.
And so, on this crisp Fall day on a trail that winds through falling forest and pungent salt marsh, I decided to get to know my Benevolent Motherself.
I ran. I stopped when I needed to. (I don’t know how many seconds I ran for! It was okay!). I walked for a little way, and then I ran again.
At one point, I started skipping, dammit!
And of course, you know, running is just the playground for me and my Benevolent Motherself to get to know one another: it’s a metaphor. Because whether or not I run or walk doesn’t matter so much as this relationship I’m building in the process; this trust.
And I’ve realized that this is the healing. The idiot compassion that told me to never run again was healing for a while, because I had never experienced compassion for myself before, but ultimately, healing could only come in my capacity to be in conversation with myself and my needs.
Healing could only happen when I learned to live in the middle ground of fierce compassion, and to trust myself to discern what was needed, in the moment.
On the trail, my inner asshole and my inner (wet dishrag) compassion have dissolved. The rules about what a “good run” (and what “healthy” and “capable” and “worthy”) look like have dissolved: they were only keeping me out of conversation and moment-to-moment attunement with what I truly need.
My work, I know, is to take this awareness off the trail and into the rest of my life.
And so it is with you, too. When we’re navigating that edge between who we are and who we’re becoming, those inner voices, however they may manifest for us, will swoop in to protect us from the discomfort of it all. Because ultimately, all those voices are protectors; they’re just not always particularly adaptive.
And so it is also that this work of transformation is, often before it’s anything else, the beginning of a conversation with ourselves and that Benevolent Motherself within us – that fiercely compassionate, truth-telling, discerning part of us that Knows.
No matter what transformation you’re navigating, your journey begins with becoming a trustworthy guardian of your own wellbeing. It begins with knowing what truth feels like – your truth – and stewarding that truth well, even when it’s hard.