Let me paint you a picture. Blue sky and sunshine. The buzz of insects in the ditch beside fields of grain and stubble, the crunch of gravel underfoot. Zero trees. Obscured by distance and the haze of heat you can see the movement of vehicles as they speed along the highway. They are exactly 5km away.
I’d recently transitioned from running for leisure to running competitively. On this day I needed to cover 10 km to maintain my training schedule. So I chose a 5km stretch of prairie grid road to do an out and back, yes I did.
I can’t think of a run that felt so long and depleting. I will describe it simply as gross. It was a gross run. In hindsight, this singular outing was probably a large contributing factor to my early retirement from my short and unfruitful competitive running career.
- very obvious and unacceptable; blatant.
- without deduction of tax or other contributions; total.
It was a little gross by both definitions. What a detestable way to task something incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, gross; and ends without calculating, factoring, or considering the means that reduce the total net value, gross.
At that point in my training, running 10 km wasn’t a massive physical feat for me anymore, I could do it quite casually. But something about this run, with focus specifically on the numbers, sucked all of the life out of it. It was onerous. I didn’t feel uplifted, I didn’t feel the runner’s high. I felt dusty, bored, and sunburnt after watching my goal slowly and predictably approach.
I had turned something that I really enjoyed (leisure running), into something that was a task which did not meet my real goals for that activity (relaxation and improved holistic health). When I became too focused on what I needed to achieve or gain from the task, too fixated on specific goals or reasons for doing it, I lost the ability to readily just be in that activity. Which is kind of a paradox, really. The more I set it as a task, the more I disliked it and the less I did it; the less I did it the less I benefited which made me feel that I should do it more, but I had to work harder to do it while gaining less when I did.
Don’t get me wrong, this training helped me achieve some of the best physical health of my life. It was a very happy consequence of pushing myself, overcoming challenges, and working really really hard. Is getting into top physical condition a good goal? Yes. For some people. Was that my goal for running at the time? I came to realize: no, not exactly.
My reluctance to do the task, it seems, was fueled by cognitive dissonance. I wanted to achieve something that my task was no longer serving in its current state. So when I say I felt that I was “gaining less,” I mean simply gaining less of what I wanted and needed to get out of the activity at the root level.
It’s really easy to do this, to plow forward towards a goal without assessing whether or not it serves us in the ways that we need, to become too focused on the ends that we lose sight of the process of getting there. And it’s easy to lose ourselves along the way, too. We tend to define our identities by the tasks that we perform, so when the tasks we perform are suiting goals that don’t serve us in the ways that we need, readjustment often feels like a break in identity (“I am a runner so I must compete or stop competing and claim the title of quitter”).
Since our self-worth is often directly informed by our perception of identity, and we (Homo sapiens) are rather susceptible to the delusion that self-worth is directly related to status, it can be easy to become entrenched in goals and identities that don’t serve our needs. In this state we can begin to fear or ignore change, leaving ourselves stuck and disconnected from ourselves and what we do. Assigning economic ends to everything we do only works to satisfy this unfortunate self-worth/status story that we tell ourselves.
Do we have an obsessive need to quantify, measure, and produce with all of our activities? We seem to need to justify things economically for them to feel worthwhile doing, and this often changes our goals just enough that they don’t meet the needs we had set out for, but not enough for us to realize it. Are we hardwired to do this? Or is it conditioning of the past two-hundred years of mass production focused labour?
It’s strange how we become unable to affectively achieve our goals when the stories we tell ourselves to justify them do not line up with or serve our base needs. Consider the following: “I am doing good work so that my boss will give me a promotion.” Somebody who is doing good work is likely to be considered for a promotion, but somebody who is trying to convince the boss that they should get a promotion may be spending too much time focusing on impressing the boss to do good work.
Did the medieval apprenticing smith do good work so that they could impress their master? Or did they do good work because they wanted to become a good smith? Consider the consequences for both scenarios.
Let’s look at this in the context of self-care:
“I’m cooking a meal from scratch to save money on groceries.” I say this sometimes. It tends to work itself into my story when I tell somebody about how I like to cook, as if I feel the need to sell it to them. Saving money is a consequence of cooking from scratch, but it’s not why I love to cook, frugality isn’t my passion.
But occasionally it becomes a justification that I use to feel valid in doing it. And when I let this narrative into my cooking story, it influences how I feel about it. For instance, on a day that I don’t feel that I have time or don’t feel inspired to cook from scratch, I may feel resentful and piece something together because “it saves me money,” and the whole process feels like a chore.
Accumulation of ‘chore’ memories for a task may tend to denude the value of the activity in our mind, making it less likely for us to choose to do it for its intrinsic, non-measurable value later when we are in the right state for it.
Instead of being okay with grabbing something quick and simple (perhaps because I am involved with serving the needs of different goals that day or at that moment), I label myself as “somebody who cooks from scratch to save money,” and begrudgingly fall into the routine. Whereas if I am somebody who likes to cook, and when I am cooking I am cooking, when I’m not I’m not, I don’t steal the magic away from the activity. Cooking then is something I like to do, it is not what I do or who I am.
Here’s another: “I am painting a picture so that someday I may be able to sell my work.” This is a great goal, but it is not everyone’s goal, and it often doesn’t meet the needs of somebody who just wants to paint to relax, explore, and express. But we are really quick to feel this need to justify art, something that brings us huge amounts of intrinsic value, by pressuring ourselves to produce something economically viable or status elevating with our efforts.
Somebody who wants to use art as self-care will find less magic in it once they’ve convinced themselves that they need to compete with it in some way to justify their time spent in the activity. The person who can paint just to paint will find that they may more easily become lost in the process and just be. This flow state of being, feeling fully immersed, that’s where the magic happens, that’s where we recuperate and care for ourselves (in the context of mental wellness), and sometimes as an unintended consequence, that’s where masterpieces actually come from.
I love going for a run or a walk with undefined goals and boundaries, on twisting roads through new neighbourhoods, with hills and obstacles and different smells and sounds and benches to sit on. I love getting lost in the journey. I eventually realized that I love running to explore, to be outside, to recuperate my mental energy. My goal was never to get into great shape and win races, and while the latter may not happen the former just so happens to be a happy side-effect. And funny enough, I often travel much further than expected when I don’t set a distance goal and instead commit to exploration and adventure.
Do you find yourself making relaxation a task? Have you ever tried to get to sleep so hard that it keeps you awake? Do you feel the need to justify your self-care? What goals have you/could be reassessed to better suit your needs? Let me know in the comments below.