Learning to Silence Your Inner Critic

I ran my first 5K of the season this weekend, and shortly after I passed the first mile marker, I found myself falling victim to one of my old behavior patterns: negative self-talk. Or, in my case, mentally bashing myself.

I started the race strong: I shot out in front of most of the racers, and found myself keeping pace with some of the fastest runners for the first half mile. I finished the first mile at a perfectly respectable time of 8:30.

But, of course, my over-eager start ultimately cost me the rest of the race — by the second mile I was too winded to recover, and ended up crossing the finish line at one of my absolute slowest 5K times ever: 29:30.

Now, I’d really like to blame taking off too fast at the start of the race for my less-than-satisfactory time at the finish line. But as I tried to ignore my shortness of breath and the shooting pain from a side stitch, I was forced to tune in to my mental monologue. And what I heard really wasn’t pretty.

For the first time, I realized just how cruel I am to myself. And just how often I allow my inner critic to sabotage my success.

I’m fully aware that I’ve always been my own worst enemy. A perfectionist by nature, nothing I do is ever quite good enough, and I’ve always tended to shy away from any activity where I couldn’t be the best. So, naturally, when it comes to running — an activity that is so completely out of my comfort zone, and one in which I am nowhere near the top of the pack — I find that I can be especially self-degrading.

Meanwhile, I haven’t been training five times a week like many serious runners (I’ve been too busy with kickboxing, as of late), I definitely don’t have the body of a runner (the friction caused by large thighs doesn’t exactly bode well for your speed), and it’s an activity I’ve been doing seriously for less than a year, so I’m still very much a newbie in comparison to many of the other participants in the local races I’ve completed thus far.

But as I was sluggishly making my way through the second half of the race this weekend, I realized just how brutal my inner thoughts can be. After I realized that I blew my chances of setting a new PR, and that I wasn’t at all prepared to recover the way I could have if I had trained properly, I launched into a mental tirade of insults that I would never, ever say to someone else. Things like:

“See? You are too fat to run.”

“This is what you get for being lazy and not training enough.”

“You have no right to be out here with all the real runners.”

“Running is clearly not your thing.”

“Give it up already.”

Granted, I walked away with the second place medal for my age group (25-29), but it was only because each racer is only entitled to one award, and the first and second place finishers overall happened to be in their late twenties. I actually came in fourth…and don’t think it was lost on me that there were only a handful of runners in my age group participating in the race.

It’s always discouraging to fall short of your own expectations. Believe me, I should know. But I’m genuinely saddened that a matter of seconds tacked onto my finish time can make me feel like such a failure. I couldn’t manage to give myself credit just for participating in the race, or even for taking home a medal. I couldn’t see the situation logically, and realize that this was the first 5K I’ve run since last November, and yeah, maybe I’m a little rusty.

And maybe, just maybe, I let my negative mindset get the best of me this time.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I’ll admit that I’ve thought of quitting running more than once. It’s hard. It doesn’t come naturally to me. There’s lingo to learn, from pronation to fartlek to cadence. There are intense, structured training programs to follow for everything from improving your per-mile time to building the stamina to complete a longer race, like a 10K or half-marathon.

I know I have a long road ahead if I’m going to work on getting faster and improving my performance on race day. There are plenty of other activities that I love, from kickboxing to biking, and I could easily just go back to jogging recreationally from time to time and never register for another 5K again.

But I just can’t bring myself to quit. That’s always been my MO. When the going got tough, I got the hell out of there. When I couldn’t be number one, I decided it wasn’t worth doing.

I may not be “at goal,” but after nearly five years, I still haven’t quit on my new healthy lifestyle…and I will not give up on running.

There’s part of me that’s still overwhelmed with pride when I cross that finish line…even if my per-mile time isn’t worth celebrating. I often wonder if I’m drawn to running simply because it was never something I was physically capable of doing. There’s still that little second grader somewhere inside me who always came in dead last on the mile in gym class, or that high school kid who used to scoff at the athletes and wonder why anyone would choose to put their body through the discomfort of physical activity when they could be relaxing at home in front of the television.

I may never be the fastest runner. But there’s a part of me who wants to continue running simply because I can. Ever since that first time I hesitantly and awkwardly picked up my pace on the treadmill from a steady walk to a slow jog, running has always symbolized the end of the old me.

I just feel as though my key to becoming a better runner will have less to do with tempo runs and more to do with finally silencing my inner critic. I have got to stop berating and insulting myself. I have to stop tearing myself apart for failing to meet my own impossible demands — I mean, did I really expect to magically have the ability to run an eight-minute mile?

I have to find the strength to accept my best efforts.

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5 thoughts on “Learning to Silence Your Inner Critic

  1. Congrats! You should be SO proud of yourself. Many would quit…DO quit. Yaay for you:)

    • Hi there!

      Thanks so much for reading, and for your kind words!

      You’re absolutely right. Even though I still battle the same mental struggles when it comes to accepting the “new” me, deep down, I am proud of where I am today. I just wish I could be a little bit kinder to myself sometimes!

      Please do feel free to follow me on Twitter @jenniferlnelson for blog updates! 🙂

      Thanks again,

      Jen

  2. Kelly H

    Hey there! I haven’t replied to your posts in some time but had to chime on this one (remember me, Kelly H from the WW boards??)…. I too am “new” to running. Having been overweight my whole life, running was always something other people did. When I started on the weight watchers journey a few short years ago, I needed something else to prod me along and provide attainable goals to work towards, other than just the WW scale. Running is it for me. I think running is also something to do along with getting to your weight loss goal or staying at goal (I hit goal in March and lifetime in April this past year – booyah! See ya 93 lbs!). But weight loss and running are so tied together for me. The mental stuff that is. Running is hard. And you have to keep at it to be good at it. To make it pay off the way you want. Some days you do everything right (well rested, well hydrated, proper attire) and STILL have a horrible run. Isn’t that sometimes how the scale is too? But if you keep at it, keep practicing it, you’ll find you just feel better doing it. You look forward to it. You see what the real payoffs are (sleeping better, feeling happier)- not just the time you finished. Just like getting to goal and staying at goal isn’t only about that number on the scale. It’s about staying with it because it feels good and you’re worth it. And you CAN do it. You DID do it! You’re a determined young lady Jen and I am sure you’ll eventually get the PR you want. Something to continue to work towards! But look at you now girl?! You’re living a life a younger you would have never imagined!! Keep at it!

    FYI, your worst race is still a full 8 minutes faster than my best 5k! 🙂

    • Hi Kelly!

      Are you kidding? Of course I remember you! It’s so great to hear from you, and congrats on making goal! That’s AMAZING! I’m so happy for you.

      You probably don’t know just how much your encouragement to sign up for my first 5K really did affect me. It sounds crazy, but those first couple of comments you made on my posts when I first started running really did stick with me, and helped me gather the courage to compete in my first race. Seriously.

      Posting here was the first time I ever really received positive feedback and encouragement when it came to anything athletic — after all, I never in my wildest, craziest dreams could have imagined that someday I’d be a runner! — and hearing (or reading!) that vote of confidence helped me to realize that I COULD do it. So in a way, I kind of have you to blame for all of this. ;-P

      But all joking aside: as much as running still kicks my butt, and as frustrating as it is to do everything right and still have a crappy run or race — just as you said! — there’s absolutely no better feeling in the world to me than crossing that finish line. You couldn’t be more right: it’s the feeling AFTER my run, no matter how fast or slow I happen to be that day, that’s the most satisfying. And for that, I will keep on lacing on up my sneakers.

      Congratulations again on your continued success, and thanks so much for posting again! 😀

      Jen

      • Kelly H

        Aww, you’re so sweet! Well I’m glad it gave you the running bug. There’s just nothing like it!

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