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Choosing Between Helping Others and Helping Myself

Anyone who has been keeping up to date with my story knows that within the past two years I have worked incredibly hard to overcome my struggles with depression. In 2019, I went from wanting to die to feeling like my best self, and I established goals that would allow me to continue on a path of personal growth. I felt so proud of my accomplishments and level of motivation, and I felt inspired to continue working toward feeling mentally and physically healthy.

Fast forward to now, and I have to admit that I have reached a small speed bump in the road. In December 2019, I excitedly accepted a promotion from outpatient therapist to crisis intervention specialist at the agency that I am employed. I chose to continue seeing several outpatient clients part time, because I experienced some difficulty letting go and thought I could handle the workload. This means that I am currently working about 12 hours per day, 5 days per week. While I love what I do and often feel inspired through helping others, I am also ready to admit that I am finding myself increasingly frustrated.

I have always excelled at time management and have taken my professional responsibilities seriously. Throughout the past few years, I have been passionate about balancing my professional responsibilities with my personal needs, and I actually got to a place where I was incredibly happy with myself. I felt mentally health, focused, and determined to continue working toward becoming my best self.

Let us first acknowledge that progress is not always a forward motion and that we are almost guaranteed to experience back slides (after all, we are all human….. I think). The Wellness Warrior is a space in which I want to share my growth and be transparent with my struggles, and I wouldn’t be doing this site or myself any justice if I didn’t express my own frustrations.

I think within the past several months, I have slightly lost track of my main goal: To feel wholly healthy. I have been so focused in being there for my clients that I haven’t been present in my own life. Lately, I am mentally exhausted to the point where I’m having trouble focusing on personal relationships and interests. I’ve done minimal work toward my previously established goals and have not indulged in many of my preferred activities (as some may notice from my minimal updates to this blog).

Yesterday, I found myself calling out of work just so I could go outside for a hike and enjoy beautiful weather, and that is when I truly realized the severity of the issue. If I am working so much that I’m feeling I can’t enjoy my life without calling out of work, that is a huge issue.

I haven’t been taking the time to practice as much meditation, and I’ve noticed how my own thought patterns have reverted. My mind has been spinning out with my first reaction to events, which often times is irrational. I am less patient with others and with myself.

With all of this being said, I am struggling between choosing to help others and help myself. I love the work that I do, but I also have to acknowledge and consider when I am giving too much of myself to others and not enough to myself. I am finally ready to admit that I need to take a step back from my professional endeavors in order to better focus on caring for myself and being an active participant in my own life.

And this is where my Wellness Warriors coming in, because I have always struggled to say no when it comes to my career. What tips do you have with establishing professional boundaries? How can I empower myself to advocate for my own needs? How can I remind myself that, where my clients want to work with me, they don’t need to work me to achieve their goals?

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Training for a Half Marathon: What NOT To Do

Completing the 2019 Philadelphia Half Marathon is one of my greatest accomplishments. The race took place on a chilly November morning, but the bike ride from my apartment to the event site filled my body with warmth. At the starting line, I observed the nervous, excited energy of myself and the other runners as we absorbed the crowd’s encouragements. When the horns went off and the movement began, I felt unstoppable.

I had spent two days perfecting a playlist full of songs that would help propel me to the finish line, but I soon found that I didn’t need music to keep me focused. The cheers from the crowd fueled me, and there was a motivating sense of community among the runners as we moved together toward the finish line. There were countless spectators lining the course with hilarious signs showcasing pun-filled motivational phrases like, “Run like Kanye is gonna give your medal to Beyonce,” and “Always give 100% …. Except when giving blood.”

The unstoppable feeling lasted until around mile 7. At that point, I had already ripped off several layers of warmer clothing and flung them into the sea of onlookers, never to be seen again (luckily large clothing donation boxes were scattered along the race route). The finish line grew closer, but my miles eventually grew slower. Each mile brought a new set of aches, and I’m sure my hips, knees, and feet were plotting ways to detach themselves from the rest of my body. As I struggled through next few miles, a harsh realization came over me: I had not adequately prepared for this.

Don’t get me wrong, I had been preparing to run the Philadelphia Half Marathon for about 8 months. I had researched methods of building endurance and how to avoid injury and created a weekly training schedule. As I progressed in training, I even posted weekly training updates to share how I trained for the race that you can read here. However, my adherence to my pre-determined schedule lasted about 4 weeks before I began to run off the tracks and train to the beat of my own drum.

In retrospect, sticking to my intended schedule would have been more of a priority. Training properly is necessary in allowing the body to adjust to performing at a greater intensity. A good training routine should include long rungs, rest days, cross training, and tapering miles. Although, I adhered to an appropriate regimen in the beginning, I royally failed at overall time management during my training. I made excuses and let things interfere of my training time. Instead of running several times per week, I performed just one long run once weekly. I didn’t adequately stretch, I failed to cross train effectively, and I didn’t pay attention to my diet. Needless to say, my training was lackluster.

Not properly training for my half marathon caused many challenges when it finally came to race day. During my long trek, the biggest problem was a pulled muscle in my groin area that had been taking a while to heal. It was the first thing that started to ache as I pounded the pavement. Eventually, my knees and my feet joined in the hurting. Although I gave my body a few brief rests at the hydration stations, eventually pausing to rest was no longer worth it to me. I couldn’t prolong finishing the race for longer than necessary. I forced myself to run, even at a snail’s pace. I no longer cared about my time or my form- I just knew that the sooner I crossed the finish line, the sooner I could sit down.

I was moving at a pace similar to a 104-year-old woman’s shuffle by the time the finish line entered my site. I bee-lined for the tiny woman dangling the slew of finisher medals from her arm. My gait resembling Frankenstein, I reached my claws forward to claim my shiny prize. I hobbled along and exited through a tent lined with mountains of snacks that I dove into gleefully. I ravenously gorged on bananas and granola bars as I basked in the glory of my achievement.

Despite the challenges I faced, I felt proud that I didn’t give up. I pushed myself, and it taught me that I am capable of so much more than I think I am. My adrenaline had me floating on Cloud Seventy while I navigated through the other exhausted runners. When I collected my bike from the lot, I realized that it was a miserable idea to use biking as my mode of transportation to a half marathon. After running over 13 miles, I now needed to ride another two miles back home. I gathered up the adrenaline I had left and pedaled like my life depended on it. That evening I celebrated my success with my family, but it didn’t take long for the physical and mental exertion to catch up with me.

My experience post-race can be likened to the “Lucky Penny” episode of How I met Your Mother. In the episode, Marshall is upset when a broken toe prevents him from running the New York Marathon, and his friend Barney mocks him by stating that running a marathon is easy even without training. When Marshall bets that Barney cannot finish the marathon, the gambling addict accepts. To everyone’s surprise, Barney finishes the race, adamant that it took little energy. Barney boasts confidently as he dons his medal, and then leaves after learning that marathon runners get to ride the subway for free that day. The scene flashes forward to Barney seemingly enjoying his free subway ride, but the audience quickly sees that Barney is unable to move his legs and, therefore, is stuck on the train.

Similarly, that evening my legs functioned so sorely that going down the stairs in my sister’s home was only bearable if I did it in slow motion, one step at a time. It seemed like each and every single muscle in my body ached, and the arches of my feet were so tight that it hurt to walk. I felt like I could have slept for a million years, which was an absolute outrage to my two-year-old nephew, who fully expected me to have enough energy to perform my auntly duties.

After putting my nephew to bed, I finally seized the opportunity to care for my body. My sister had given me epsom salt and bath bombs as a congratulatory gift, and her deep bath tub with high pressure jets was calling my name. As I prepared to sink in, I reflected on my journey.

There are many things I would have done differently. My body was counting on me to have its best interest, and in some ways I let it down. I had challenges focusing on my training, and I struggled to truly listen to my body. I think those held me back from performing to the fullest potential. Nevertheless, I learned so much about the sport of running and about myself. I learned that running is not easy, and it takes hard work and special care of the body to do it successfully. I also learned be confident and to trust that I can achieve my goals.

As the bathtub filled, my body vibrated with excitement like my muscles knew they were in for a treat. My body had worked hard, probably a little harder than it would have needed if I had trained properly. I made a promise to myself that if I wanted to continue running, I had to put honest work into training so I didn’t inadvertently kill myself in the process. I was already picturing google search phrases that might lead me to the rabbit holes of running how-to articles. I closed my eyes, stepped into the bath, and felt the heat of the water soothe my muscles. I sank down into the warm bath, and my body began to recover.

TLDR; train properly.

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Conquering Your Inner Critic: 7 Ways to Overcome Negative Thinking

I’m not worth it. There’s no use. I can’t do it. I’ll never follow through. People won’t like me. Others are better than I am. I am not enough. I must be perfect. I am a failure. The world is evil. All people are bad.

If these phrases sound similar to your thoughts, you may struggle with unhelpful thinking patterns. Often unhelpful thoughts stem from negative perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Negative perceptions can directly influence our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and reactions to life events. It is unrealistic to expect that we can think happy thoughts all the time. However, we can train our brain to adopt a more realistic and healthy mindset. After all, spiraling into unhelpful thought patterns may increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

For more detailed explanation of unhelpful thought patterns, check out this psychoeducational worksheet that describes commonly used thinking errors.

After learning more about common thinking errors, keep scrolling to check out some useful tips for conquering your inner critic and decreasing negative thinking habits.

Catch Your Thoughts

Our thought patterns can eventually become habitual. This means that we can experience unhelpful thought styles without being aware of it. The first step in gaining control over our thoughts is to notice them. I encourage my Wellness Warriors out there to pay attention to your thoughts and attempt to label them. Learning about your negative thought patterns (triggers, related emotions, etc.) can give you the power to overcome them.

As a therapist, I love teaching clients to utilize an automatic thought record. This simple worksheet begins by allowing one to identify negative thoughts while encouraging further exploration and processing. To take catching your thoughts a step further, you can practice categorizing your thoughts using labels from the commonly used thinking errors worksheet.

Play out the Narrative

Often times, unhelpful thoughts can present in the form of chronic worries and “what if” statements. What if I fail? What if I get sick? What if my partner gets angry with me? Chronic worrying can send us into a negative thought spiral.

To combat this, consider what would happen if your worry came true. Ask yourself what you would do to address the situation. Developing a plan of action can be incredibly useful; if we have a plan, we naturally tend to stress less.

Practice Thought Stopping

If I tell you to think of a pink elephant, what do you think of? Most often, it is, indeed, a pink elephant.

After you catch your unhelpful thought, utilizing thought stopping techniques can help you break the cycle of negative thinking.

Common thought stopping techniques include finding a replacement thought or visual image, such as counting to ten or visualizing a scene from your favorite movie. One can also simply yell or think “Stop!” and find an alternate activity for a distraction.

Check the Evidence

There is no better way to challenge an unhelpful thought than to examine it. Remember, we are not attempting to exclude all negative thoughts. Instead, we are training our brains to think more realistically. We can achieve this by putting our thoughts on trial and exploring the evidence.

I often use this example: Imagine you are about to take a test. Your thought is, “I am going to fail.” Naturally, we may identify this thought as negative and engage in thought challenging and ask, “What evidence do I have that supports the thought that I am going to fail?” List all of the reasons why that thought might come true. Did you prepare for the test? Did you study for an adequate amount of time? Did you pay attention in class? Did you take notes? Did you study in a way that is effective for you? Do you feel focused?

If the evidence we identify supports the negative thought, it may just be that the thought is realistic. If the evidence contradicts our thought, consider that this thought is likely unrealistic and untrue.

Reframe Negative Thoughts

After we identify negative thoughts, we can reframe them to appear more balanced and realistic. Reframing simply means creating alternative, more helpful thoughts. By doing this, we begin to change our perceptions of events, experiences, or emotions.

In the earlier example, we established that the thought, “I am going to fail,” is likely true. It is important to recognize that we can still reframe negative thoughts if they appear to be true. Instead of thinking, “I am going to fail,” we might consider the reframe, “I will do the best I can.”

Take your own advice

It is so much easier to give advice than it is to take our own. Taking our own advice is challenging, but it is a critical step to overcoming unhelpful thinking habits. A helpful practice is pretending you are giving advice to your best friend. Consider the following: Would you try to get more information about what happened? Are you considering other’s perspectives? What are the different ways the situation might unfold? Finally, what advice would you give him or her?

Allowing yourself to step away from the experience and explore it objectively is amazingly simple, yet incredibly effective.

Find Gratitude

Gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness and contentment. Practicing gratitude increases our ability to see that there is good in the world. Check out this previous post where I practice gratitude after a series of hard events and negative thought spirals.

To incorporate gratitude into our daily routines, we can keep a gratitude journal, write gratitude letters, or use visual reminders (like sticky notes on your mirror).

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness can help relieve stress, regulate emotions, and remain nonjudgmental. Mindfulness involves simply observing, not judging, our thoughts. Imagine your thoughts are like cars passing at a busy intersection. When cars arrive at the intersection, sometimes they just pass by and sometimes they stop for a while. If we get stuck on a negative thought, we can simply engage in deep breathing while focusing on the breath, not the thought. In time, just like the cars, our thoughts pass by.

Okay, Warriors, it’s your turn: What negative thoughts have you been struggling with? How have negative thinking patterns impacted your life? What have you done to overcome your inner critic?