Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Organismic Self

I've had lots of thinking time this week. After Sunday's race, my arm and shoulder blew up again. No need to bother the hospital this time, despite the intense pain and complete lack of joint mobility for 48 hours, I knew all I needed to do was wait and it would get better. It is, slowly, but I haven't been able to drive or work or walk the dogs or do anything useful, so I retreated into the quiet and stillness, and read and slept while I waited for it to heal.

My reading matter of choice was two books on ultra running. One by Vassos Alexander who reads the Sport on Chris Evan's radio two breakfast show, and who runs 100 mile races, and the other by Ira Rainey, a runner from Bristol whose ultra running career began when he realised his overweight, unhealthy and unfit lifestyle in his forties was going nowhere and he decided to get fit and run 45 miles round the Green Man path, and who also turned to 100 mile races after that experience. Both touch on the mental side of running, particularly over long distances, and on our approach to and experience of pain and injury.

In that light, I've decided to view this shoulder pain as a challenge, something to be understood and overcome. I've been turning over in my head what might have caused the sudden break-down in the integrity and strength of the joint. It's the same side as my achy hip so the two are connected. My sports therapist will doubtless focus on science (a large muscle, known as the latissimus dorsi, connects our lower back, hips, arm and shoulder, and it kicks in and over-works when the glute muscles are weak, which I know mine are on that side), but I think there is a more metaphysical thing going on.

I recently read an interesting article on our perception of pain. The crux of the research was that pain isn't always proportionate to injury. In Vassos' book he describes a moment, mid-race, where his ankle is becoming so painful he thinks he may have to stop. Most runners consider a DNF (did not finish) an absolute last resort, so he tries something a fellow ultra runner told him- instead of trying to ignore the pain, you focus everything you've got on it until it fades. It works: after growing to an unbearable crescendo, the pain simply fades away and he's able to complete the race. 

This kind of psychological stuff fascinates me, because so much of running, especially over long distances, is about what's in your head. I spent a chunk of last year doing a counselling course which provided an insight into how individuals function psychologically. One of the things that stuck with me is that only an individual can really know what is good for them. Carl Rogers (founder of Humanistic Psychology) called this the Organismic Self, but we can just as easily think of it as instinct, or a sense of being drawn to one thing and away from another. 

Sometimes, having confidence in knowing what's right for you gets shaken by the reaction of others who disagree. Humans learn from birth to fall in line with the wishes of other people because it makes survival when you're vulnerable more certain. As a trait, it can be carried through into adult life and cause problems when the wishes of others begin to run counter to what is good for us. Rogers called this Conditions of Worth- obeying other people's conditions of worth in order to receive their good opinion leads to the formation of the Self Concept. If the Self Concept it markedly different from the Organismic Self, the strain of trying to answer to both can lead to unhappiness and ill health. 

A few weeks ago, someone made a throw-away negative comment about my running regular long distances, along the lines of it wouldn't last. It got under my skin, although I suspect the person concerned had no idea that it would. I have noticed a trait in people to assume that, if you undertake and complete significant physical or mental challenges, you must be tough and impregnable and therefore immune to criticism. The absolute opposite is true: it takes huge amounts of determination and self-belief to enter, train for and complete something like a marathon, and it is never easy. Anyway, the remark got into my subconscious and, without me realising it, it worked away, eroding the self-belief which is such an integral part of long distance running (80% in the head, right?). Subconsciously, I altered my direction so subtly that I didn't even notice it. And then the shoulder crashed with such complete and utter violence, delivering such a tremendous shock that I've been knocked out of my normal life this past fortnight, that it forced me to stop and think, really think, about what's really going on here.

The question I've been asking myself is this: is this shoulder pain, which has come out of nowhere and been too excruciating and debilitating to ignore, my Organismic Self trying to make itself heard because I have come subtly off a path that is good for me? And if it is, what is it trying to say?

Over the last three days, because I have not had the distractions of normal life to obscure that inner voice, the answer has been forming, growing louder and clearer.

I don't enjoy running fast, but my response to what I perceived as a negative comment about running long distances was to slip back into chasing PBs (personal bests) at shorter races. I shifted focus away from what I love about running, which is primarily the experience of running for hours on my own with Pop, quietly through the landscape, testing what I'm capable of. I felt the hovering judgement of that person's statement, just waiting to pounce if something went wrong on a long run (which it can do, that's part of the territory and not a reason not to do it, you just learn from it and overcome it), with a smug I told you so, and I allowed that to manipulate me. It happened so subtly I didn't notice. Usually, I can resist the judgement of others and the mass focus on ability being proved by speed that exists in this sport, preferring to submerge myself in a place where time doesn't matter (long distance running), but those conditions of worth are tenacious buggers and this one got hold of me.

I looked back over my training log for this year and during the first half of the year I did twelve long runs of 18-20 miles and two marathons (26.2) along with a handful of 10 - 13 milers, and not once did I suffer anything like what I've experienced this past fortnight. By contrast, in the past four weeks I've done four fast, short distance races and now I can't move my arm and my lower back has seized up too. I don't think it's a coincidence. When I run at home - quietly, slowly, walking bits when I want to - nothing bad happens: no pain, no immobility, just simple enjoyment of movement and of passing through a landscape, and afterwards a happy, hungry, satisfied glow of tiredness and a fulsome sense of wellbeing, as well as looking forward to the next one. After a speedy run I get an acute elation that fades and leaves behind a sense of dissatisfaction and dislocation once the adrenaline has subsided. If your focus is always on running faster how can you ever derive lasting pleasure and satisfaction that isn't fleeting? It evaporates before the next race which you then have to run faster and so the pressure in your mind and body builds. For me, that way madness lies, it's a hiding to nothing. And while long runs can take it out of you and leave you exhausted and sore and challenged, I've never felt dissatisfied after one.

The shoulder is certainly highlighting some muscle weakness which I need to work on correcting. But on a deeper level, it is reminding me that what I love doing more than anything is long distance running, and I should trust that feeling regardless of what other people have to say about something that has got nothing to do with them whatsoever (and moreover, something they have no direct experience of themselves).

As with last year when I was in the throws of despair over knee problems, I've put my trust in that sense of knowing myself and have booked my first ultra run, a beginners distance of a little over 30 miles. It matters because it is physical evidence of my promise to myself to remember that only I know what is good for me, and what anyone else says or thinks is irrelevant, and to put my trust in that. 

I'm talking here about running, but really these things apply to life as a whole. People are very keen to tell other people what they can and can't/ should or shouldn't do, instead of trusting them to make the right decisions for themselves and offering unconditional support for those decisions. People love the satisfaction of saying I told you so when something they disagreed with hasn't worked. But really, what right do we have to do that? To impose our will and judgement on another person. No one can really know where something will take someone else, or that trying and failing at something isn't a necessary process for them that will lead them somewhere new and wonderful. I think we could all do with remembering that from time to time, both as advice givers and receivers. After this experience I'm going to renew my efforts to listen more and advise less.

Food for thought?

Hope all are well?



  1. It has been my experience that people who don't run quite often can be very negative about people who do run. People don't always understand things others enjoy if they have never learned to love them. :)

  2. Keep listening to your body. If it likes running-walking-jogging those slower and longer distances, in the tradition of our running ancestors, then that's obviously your way forward. We are not all made of fast twitch muscles.

    1. I was running for almost 4 hours today as it's the last day of good weather and noticed that I alternated the hand holding water bottle. Just a thought.

  3. Very much food for thought. Yes it is important to listen to your inner thoughts; what works, what doesn’t. Sound like the distance running on your terms is the way to go. Fascinating how a weak glute can link to hip and then shoulder pain. Makes sense. Hope you get back to kilter and I look forward to hearing about your first ultra run. No PB’s please 😺 B x

  4. I imagine that doing races for speed will inevitably result in frustration - there will eventually come a point where you reach your absolute limit and then, with time, your body will start to slow. Enjoyment of the run, however, will never get old. Don't let anyone judge or try to tell you what is best for you; only you know that. Hope your shoulder mends soon so you can get back to enjoying training with your adorable Pops. xx

  5. So true what you say. Since I became sick (depression, anxiety, PTSD etc), I can't stand to be around people who don't support me nor understand me. Life is hard enough without having to deal with other people's opinions. Probably one of the reasons I stuggle with social phobia too...

  6. Very much food for thought CT, thanks for such an insightful and thought provoking reflection. I hope that your shoulder will soon heal so you can get back to running how you like it most, with Pops as your companion.

    I am much more immune to "well meant comments" than I used to be but it is an active process of talking myself through my feelings and move on. I am a work in progress and not always successful. I am really harsh critic of myself, which is something I want to address because it holds me back. Wishing you a lovely Friday. x

  7. I'm always intrigued by the psychology behind things as well. What motivates us, makes us tick, affects us without us realising. I like to know what causes things too, when things hurt or don't work or I'm feeling a certain way. There's always a 'why', and I like to know it. I am hoping that you're back to the running that you love, pain-free, very shortly. Your gut and your heart will guide you, and I will be cheering you on. CJ xx

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you from this non-runner. So many things are now clicking into place for me. All my life I have been trying to meet other people's expectations and ignoring that which I know to be right for me. I hope you feel better soon. x

  9. Intended to comment when you blogged about first shoulder problem, but been having trouble logging in to comment . . . anyhow, this will be difficult to keep my words brief but do you possibly recall on my own blog I've mentioned about 4 years of "shoulder problems" which ended up so bad my life was completely derailed and taken over by the pain and immobility?

    Horrendously long story short - there was no (or very little) problem with my shoulder. Everything stemmed from Latissimus dorsi muscle and others in that area and how they inserted onto the pelvis, problem initially possibly caused by a dislocated sacreo-iliac joint that was not diagnosed for over a year. Chuck in a psychological element as well, and I was crippled for months and life was seriously compromised. Sorry to be so wordy, hope this helps, please feel free to get in touch (email link on blog) if I can help :)

  10. Oh CT, what a fascinating post and so very true. I think we all do so much better at things if we enjoy them. I've pretty much given up parkrun as I found I wasn't enjoying pushing myself so hard all the time. Like you, I much prefer a long slow run in our beautiful countryside where it's all about the enjoyment. We do this for fun after all!! xxx

  11. I have enjoyed reading about your understanding of your running body.
    We need to listen to our bodies. I keep telling the doctors about my head, brain and lungs and the fact I can feel them and the shape of them. I think it is because I have been sick since I was 14 with autoimmune disease that just keep growing. I have even been told by doctors that I am "just" a stay at home mum. Oh Lord ! So a very long way around way of saying I do not run or even walk but I understand what you are saying I could see where long runs are very joyful and meditative. Keep It Up Running Lady !

    cheers, parsnip and badger

  12. Hi CT, a very thought provoking post. My take on people who criticise anyone for exercising, dieting, going to the gym, doing yoga, meditating etc - is usually that they are jealous because they are too lazy, too uncomfortable, too judgemental and too outspoken, to actually do it themselves. Therefore it's the old habits of some people to bring people back to a level where the other person, the complainer, feels comfortable and 'off the hook.'
    My view is that you do what you are comfortable, happy, can manage and when the body argues with knee or shoulder problems, you then reflect. Am I doing too much, do I enjoy long distance racing, am I doing it too frequently and the answer will come and you will do and manage what you body and your mind allow and enjoy.
    What other people think is not important. As long as you are happy and managing, then you who cares what others think. Being your authentic self (true to yourself) is key. The rest will follow and those that judge are jealous and want what you have. Hope the shoulders improves. Love xxx

  13. Very interesting- I do think people forget how a throwaway comment can be perceived- and once something is in your mind it's hard to get it away.

  14. Hi CT, I read this last week but didn't have time to comment. Such a thought-provoking post and much of it resonated with me (even though I am not a runner). I hope your shoulder is easing and you're pain-free – it sounds awful. From doing yoga I've been amazed at how one part of the body affects another so it makes sense that your glutes could have exacerbated this. But I think you're right – there's a huge psychological aspect to the way our bodies work, too. I am guilty of bending my nature to please others. Sometimes it's necessary to compromise and just get on but at other times it does feel as though I am not being true to myself. The things people say often have the power to affect us negatively but you strike me as someone who is very much their own person so hang in there and carry on with what you love. Hope you're soon back out there with Pops in your beloved countryside. Sam xx


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them. CT.