I’m 12 years old and it’s cross-country day at school. Some distance behind everybody else, I struggle to breathe, perhaps because of my undiagnosed asthma. My PE teacher yells at me unsympathetically and I struggle to blink the tears out of my eyes. As I finally cross the finish line my sole focus is on hiding my shame as demeaning comments by my classmates go unchallenged.
It’s fair to say PE was never my favourite lesson. Throughout my school career I frequently felt humiliated and shamed for somehow being worse than everybody else. I did my best to be invisible and breathed a massive sigh of relief when I reached 6th form and no longer had to participate.
It seemed that exercise was just something that I was no good at. I moved on and forgot about it, grateful to no longer have to go through the indignities of PE. I dismissed the idea of exercise as a necessary activity and in doing so no longer had to face the shame of being ridiculed and ostracised by others or in my own mind. I found other ways of feeling included – drinking, eating, smoking and partying with friends.
Years later, required by one of my children’s nursery school teachers to take part in a parents’ race for the annual sports day it all came flooding back. While a ripple of competitiveness moved through those around me, I had only one ambition, the same one I always had – for there not to be an embarrassingly large gap between me and the second to last person to finish.
Fast forward a few more years and I’m training in Mindfulness, learning more than I bargained for. Regular practice and teaching retreats are putting me in touch with a whole range of emotions and physical sensations that I’ve unknowingly suppressed for years and giving me the skills to process them too. During one retreat, we are advised to seek out and do things that we don’t believe we can do. It takes me a while, and it’s not the first thing I choose. But when a friend asks for people to do Couch to 5k with her I decide to bite the bullet and give it a go – knowing that, although there is certainly a lot of room for improvement in terms of fitness, for me the emotional aspect is likely to be the bigger barrier.
The nature of the task means that lots of previously dormant emotions are stirred up by what I’m doing. This is expected and I’m confident that I have the skills to deal with them. It helps that I’m surrounded by supportive friends. Nevertheless, the impact of past experience runs surprisingly deep. Worries that I might be holding my friends back and annoying them are just the start. We use a Couch to 5k app and I choose to listen to the voice of Michael Johnson. As I listen to him tell me when to start and stop running I’m almost convinced that he’s going to start shouting, criticising and making fun of me. Later I have the same feeling about the marshals at our local Park run and it takes months before I dare to make eye contact with anyone I pass and see that they, also, are not criticising or making fun of me.
We follow the programme religiously and it works. After 5 weeks we are running, very slowly for 20 minutes without a break. A couple of months later we break our first 5k. It’s frankly a miracle. I reflect how different things might have been if anybody had ever told me that it was possible to start at your own pace and learn to run by gradually building it up. Although still very slow I’m delighted and amazed at what I’ve achieved.
Over the following weeks, I notice something interesting. I continue to start each run convinced and scared that I can’t do it and will be holding my friends back. My friends disagree. They are quite happy with our running pace, and haven’t we shown that we can do it now, twice, five, ten times? The facts are clear, yet if I leave more than a day or two between runs the conviction that this might be the time that everything falls apart and I can’t do it returns stronger than ever. My friends are amused and I’m perplexed.
There’s something about these beliefs that defies logic. Clearly I knew that Michael Johnson’s voice on the Couch to 5k app was not going to criticise or shame me. Increasingly experience tells me that a slow 5k is no longer beyond my ability. I’m doing what I was told to do; challenging limiting beliefs by learning through experience that I don’t need to hold myself back in the way my mind tells me to. Yet I can’t really say that my limiting beliefs are shifting. I keep doing what I’m doing.
Then, one day, it dawns on me. The reason that my limiting beliefs are not shifting, despite overwhelming evidence against them is that they are more than just beliefs. They are patterns which were present within the experience of 12-year old me, which I have maintained over the years by suppressing my feelings and avoiding situations that could lead to me re-experiencing the sense of shame and total worthlessness that was so familiar to me at the time. Another realisation dawns. I experience similar patterns in many aspects of my life. Some of my relationships at work come immediately to mind, as does my tendency always to revert to the comforting foods of my childhood against my better intentions. Something has been stirred up which, now that I see it, I can continue to approach at my own pace, gently and with compassion.
I’m a psychologist. Everything that I have just seen was already familiar to me, in a theoretical sense. The power of mindfulness is that it is not theoretical. Understanding what is happening is one thing, but understanding at a conceptual level only is not enough. My mindfulness training has helped me to connect with these truths on a deeper and more personal level.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I hope that my new found understanding will be a catalyst for change and growth. I hope it will help me to approach new and challenging situations with an increased willingness and capacity to touch into parts of my experience that I’ve been avoiding. I think that this is what it will take to shift some of these strong beliefs which at one point in my life served to keep me safe from further humiliation and shame through avoidance.
I’ll have to let you know.