A colleague proudly shared a newspaper article about her office manager. It was a story of adversity, commitment and eventual triumph over almost impossible circumstances. It had all the ingredients of a heroic story. My colleague encouraged me to congratulate her office manager.
I read the article.
I was horrified.
Taking out the effusive hyperbole of the journalist, the story was as follows. The office manager was an ultra marathon runner. He dedicated a huge amount of his time to training and competing. His wife often complained that he was not spending enough time with his family, but he continued to put his running first. Then he developed a degenerative knee injury. He was facing a complete knee replacement and his doctor told him he should stop running to preserve his knee for as long as possible. Instead he ignored the doctor’s advice, pushed through his wife’s pleas and the signals his body was giving him in the form of excruciating pain every time he trained. He ‘heroically’ forced himself to compete in one last ultra-marathon before having his knee replaced with a mechanical device wrought of metal and plastic.
The journalist and my colleague both saw this as a heroic triumph. I could only see it as a terrible act of self-inflicted wounding. Worse in intensity and impact than the self-cutting that some teenagers practice to numb the pain of their difficult emotional lives.
So what’s going on here?
Exercise as a Form of Avoidance
My undergraduate degree was mathematics at Oxford University. The entrance exam was grueling, the interview process lasted several days, and only a small fraction of applicants gained admission. Once I arrived at Oxford I quickly found that I’d gone from being one of the smartest kids in my high school to an absolutely ordinary student in an incredibly competitive environment. Worse still I discovered that most of my peers had leaned twice as much mathematics in the elite high schools they had attended and had stayed on for an additional year of study for the Oxford entrance exams. I knew about half as much mathematics as many of my peers.
On my first day of class I was humiliated in front of my entire year. The lecturer was rattling along at a million words a minute writing out formulae on the blackboard. At one point she said “So, you take the determinant of this 4×4 matrix…” then she paused for the first time in the lecture, turned to face the class for the first time in the lecture and said “Does anyone not know how to take the determinant of a 4×4 matrix?”
I raised my hand and continued to scribble notes, happy for the extra time to catch up with her. Then I noticed the deafening silence in the room. I looked up to see that the lecturer and the entire class were all staring at me – the sole person in the room with his hand up.
The lecturer sternly said “Well, young man, you have some work do to this weekend, don’t you!” and continued with her lecture.
To say I was freaked out would be an understatement. I was terrified. I knew I’d got myself in too deep and that I was going to have to work like crazy to survive.
This triggered my deepest and scariest fear at the time: That I was not smart and that I would never be successful. (An irrational fear, I know. After all, I had made it into Oxford University. But then our deepest fears almost are irrational.)
My body’s response was unrelenting stress.
And that unrelenting stress made it very hard for me to sit at a desk and concentrate on the work I needed to do in order to study and succeed. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster in the making.
To compensate, I exercised like crazy. I ran every single morning, regardless of whether I was sick or whether the worst blizzard of the century was blowing. I took up karate and practiced intensely at least ten hours week. I cycled everywhere and cycled like a maniac.
My quadriceps were always burning with pain, but my exercise regime burned off the stress hormones and allowed me to concentrate. Any time I lost the ability to focus I would do some form of intense exercise until I could get back to my desk.
I was the fittest I have ever been.
So what’s the problem?
Wake Up Call
The problem was that I was using exercise to avoid dealing with my real issue: my deep insecurity about my intellect and ability to succeed. And although I was super-fit, I was doing long-term damage to my body.
I continued running every day, come rain, shine, hail storms, a broken foot, a broken rib, a broken tooth (all from karate), the sub-zero temperatures of living in Ohio during the wintertime and anything else nature and personal circumstances could throw at me. I was proud of my commitment.
Until I developed a degenerative knee injury.
The more I ran, the worse the pain got. Eventually I relented and saw an orthopedic surgeon. Some time after that, I had knee surgery to repair a damaged ligament.
I was lucky. My surgery was fairly minor and I recovered quickly. And fortunately I listened to the message my body and my surgeon were giving me. My surgeon told me that I should stop running as continuing to run would re-injure my knee.
My knee was saved.
But without the crutch of constant cardio exercise to burn off stress hormones, I was confronted with one undeniable fact: Despite being very successful in the outside world by then, I still had my childhood terror about not being smart enough and not succeeding.
I had used exercise for years to avoid recognizing that reality. Now it was time to actually deal what was going on in my internal world and start my self-healing. That was my wakeup call.
That choice – the choice to pay attention to myself and deal with my own demons, rather than using exercise and other forms of avoidance to just get by – has made all the difference in the trajectory of my life. The process of self-healing is covered in many other articles on this blog, so I won’t get into that here. Rather, the purpose of this article is to offer you a wake up call if excessive exercise is a pattern of denial you’ve adopted as well.
Are there ways in which you are using exercise or other ‘healthy’ but compulsive behaviors to avoid dealing with your own demons; to avoid feeling your own feelings; to postpone self-healing and instead engage in ‘healthy’ but ultimately detrimental behaviors?
To give you a few things to consider, I’ve have clients who have used the following as a means of avoidance: meditation, dating, yoga, dieting, running, biking, walking, dancing, weight lifting and martial arts.
Signs that you might be using something ‘healthy’ as a form of avoidance are that you are compulsive about it, can’t live without it, feel like crap if you skip it, spend time on exercise rather than being with people, or have to get a set number of hours in a week just to feel OK or cope.
Another sure sign would be if you’re doing long-term damage to your body in the short-term pursuit of excellence (like the hero in the newspaper article at the start of this post).
The Proper Place of Fitness in Developing Wellness
I’m not saying that pursuing fitness is bad. I think it’s an essential component of maintaining wellbeing and long-term vitality.
For myself, getting healthy exercise after a long day sitting at a computer is an important part of my routine.
What I am saying is that exercise should not be used to avoid self-awareness and personal development. Also, exercise should always be done in a way that fosters short-term health without doing long-term damage to your body.
If you can’t live without your particular favorite form of exercise, or if you’re pushing through pain and ignoring medical warnings about long-term damage, then I’d invite you to reconsider your exercise regime and it’s role in your long-term wellbeing.
It may be time to pay more attention to what’s going on inside yourself, and so start on a path of self-healing.