"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
In a few months time, I plan to get in my car and roam. I’ll be on the road for several weeks, beginning in mid-June. I want to discover odd places, reconnect with friends and family, seek out running races all over the country and practice resilience amid constant change and challenge. I also want to revisit an important place from my past, a place where I struggled to find myself in my early 20s.
I let a lot of people down as I was trying to figure myself out. And even though I think it’s important to recognize a tragic beauty in our failures, and to highlight the growth they made possible, confronting my past mistakes makes me feel deeply vulnerable.
Honestly, I fear that people will still define me by my past mistakes. I fear that, in the same environment that used to bring about bad behavior, I might repeat those mistakes. I especially fear having to answer questions about myself, who I am now and what I’ve done with my life, even what I want to do with my life. I’m afraid I’ll give in to a desperate desire to protect my ego from their judgment. I’m afraid I’ll brag, or give an answer that will box me in, seal my edges, suffocate me with labels.
In Mindfulness Made Simple, Charles Francis highlights painful memories and worry: two key sources of agitation and hindrances to a peaceful abiding in the present. Painful memories and worry are two manifestations of the same phenomenon; they are thoughts out of time. Memories drag us from the present and into our past. Worries drag us from the present and into our future. Mindfulness is the practice of detached awareness of our thoughts and feelings; we ground ourselves in the present (often by focusing on the breath) and observe what comes up like a therapist or an anthropologist might. We can see that our thoughts and feelings tend to be temporary, or tend to shrink when scrutinized. Either way, we learn to assuage those doubts and fears and find peace and tranquility in the current moment.
Mindfulness training is a great practice for achieving mental health. You can harness it to reduce stress and negativity. However, I think you need something more to achieve the positive aspects of mental health: self-esteem and healthy relationships.
Early this year, I committed myself to running my first marathon. I put aside a short list of disparate goals and focused intensely on just the one. Everything fed into it. I read books only about running. I watched running documentaries and films. I joined running clubs, visited a chiropractor and physical therapist and worked out a sleep hygiene and diet routine, all to support my running.
I wasn’t completely strict; I’m not sure I have that in me. But I did get a taste of what it’s like to devote yourself to achieving something difficult. On April 27, 2019 I ran the Nashville Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon.
And so it’s with some positive momentum that I can confront my fears about losing myself on this summer roadtrip. My experience achieving a goal I’ve had since high school taught me that in the face of flux, transience, uncertainty and setbacks, it helps to have that one drive, one grounding ambition, to organize your thoughts, your feelings, your time, and how you relate to other people.
Now for the nitty gritty. Ultimately what I’m saying is that change, transitions, upheavals, new experiences and the like can test our identity to its limits. They can leave us feeling vulnerable and sensitive to judgment. Especially for people leaning toward the introversion side of the spectrum, any overstimulation can leave us feeling depleted, unmoored and fragile. I think an antidote to this is a good foundation of mental health practices, including but not limited to mindfulness training.
Continuing my running curriculum, I got my hands on a book by two-time Olympian Kara Goucher, Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You. Goucher outlines some “confidence techniques” to specifically help with those positive aspects of mental health (self-esteem and relationships). My new plan to prepare for a summer of scintillating chaos and challenge is to practice these techniques regularly. Make them part of my daily regimen, and prepare to answer any question or circumstance from a foundation of confidence in who I am now.
In part, Goucher recommends practicing positive self-talk and mantras. While I was running 26.2 miles, I started repeating to myself, “I can do this … Run the mile you’re in … slow and steady,” at nearly every suitable moment. With some awareness of the particular challenge you’ll be facing, you can craft a phrase to suit any situation. With persistent effort and earnestness, these repeated thoughts can ingrain themselves in your life as guiding principles:
Goucher also recommends some physical cues for self-confidence, especially maintaining a powerful posture and choosing clothes imbued with positive qualities (like a power suit or an outfit that makes you feel beautiful). Your outward appearance doesn’t have to feel either inert and unimportant or like an invitation for scrutiny. Rather, it can be a tool of self-expression and a conduit through which you assert your strength, your beauty, your power or your playfulness. Don’t confuse the external for the superficial.
The last confidence techniques I’ll mention are goal setting and visualization. In the same vein as my article Big Picture Time-Management for the Hopelessly Ambitious, I think it’s crucial to have a system to streamline your understanding of your life’s work, your mission, sense of purpose and meaning. If your career is not the chief source of these things, then you might consider answering those dreaded getting-to-know-you questions with a statement like, “Well, I have lots of goals, but right now I’m focused on X.”
I think this shows some humility, especially compared to statements like “Well, I’m planning to earn my PhD in sociology, and I’m also training for a marathon, perfecting my recipe for homemade sourdough bread, and I like to travel to a different country every year.” All this and twenty more things might be true and fascinating insights into your interests and character, but listing them out loud or even in your own mind has the effect of flattening your life into a series of checklists. The sheer variety of your ambition may seem incohesive and trivializing. Invariably, you will forget a few interests or achievements that leave your testimony incomplete and unsatisfying. What’s worse, you might evince an unflattering aspect of your ego and invite others to one-up you or dismiss you as a try-hard.
Focusing on one goal in your daily life and your communication style makes it much easier to find a grounding sense of self. It also makes it much easier to develop a vivid visualization of your ideal life, which helps orient you to achieve it.
Since I’ve completed the last goal I set out to accomplish, I’m in search of something new. What with new experiences and confronting past ghosts on my horizon, I’ve decided to prioritize my mental health and focus on designing a lifestyle that can withstand chaos and overstimulation.
So, what do I do?
“Well, I’ve got a lot of goals, but right now I’m focused on clarifying best practices for mental and physical health. I want to condense what I’m learning into an online course to share with others. What are you up to lately?”