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The Existential Dilemma of Running

Running is one of my passions in life. I caught the running bug about five years ago when a friend challenged me to run a local 5k. I “trained” for about two weeks by running as far and fast as I could each time out, often running through pain from the previous day’s run. As an aside, do not train for your first race this way. Check out the internet (especially the Runner’s World website) for any number of better plans. But I digress. After the race was over, I overheard a couple of people talking about a  “half marathon” a few months away. Now, I’d heard of marathons – those endeavors undertaken by the fanatical and sometimes insane. No way would I ever do that (I’m currently training for my third marathon – shows what I knew). But a half marathon sounded like a nice compromise…challenging but not torture. So I decided to run the first one I could find (with appropriate training this time!). And this was my discovery of running, something that I can’t imagine not doing now.

Which brings me to today’s post. I went back to South Carolina for my brother’s wedding at the end of June and naturally packed my running shoes. As I prepped for my first run in the very hot, very humid climate (which reminded me why I like running in Colorado so much) I made sure to put on plenty of sunscreen. But there came a point during the run where I found myself feeling REALLY hot and started wondering if the sunscreen was actually protecting me at all. Which got me thinking about how often I just assume that things will “work.” In this case, it was the sunscreen. I followed that thought train for a while (it was a long run) and arrived at the frighteningly naïve assumption that my body would always just “work” when I wanted it to, namely when I wanted it to run. Then I thought of the time that I was injured and couldn’t run for a couple of months, and THEN I thought of the possibility of never running again due to some other injury.

Talk about existential dilemmas. In just a few short years, running had become many things to me: certainly a stress relief and a way to stay healthy, but it had also become part of my identity. I am a runner. People who know me know that it’s just what I do.

At this point I was thinking hard about sports psychologists/therapists and the crucial role that they play for athletes, particularly college athletes, as they work through the emotional pain of injuries. It breaks my heart to think about these young adults who become injured, sometimes permanently, and lose their primary identity in the process.

While I don’t advertise myself as a sports psychologist per se, I frequently work with clients on existential dilemmas and loss of purpose. And this is what we’re really talking about, right? It may be losing your identity as an athlete, or an engineer, or seeing your kids grow up and feeling lost now that you’re not a full-time parent. Whatever form it takes, loss of identity can send any of us into a state of depression over what we’ve lost or anxiety about a future without this identity. It can be easy to pull away from other activities or disengage from relationships that were previously meaningful. The challenge is to stay present to your experience and recognize that meaning and identity can be found in any number of places. Athletes may take up a different sport while rehabilitating the injury, newly unemployed individuals may volunteer or rediscover old passions, and older parents may find time to reconnect with their partners or themselves after dedicating so much time and energy to children.

Above all, I remind my clients (and myself, during times when I feel “lost”) that value as a person and self-worth don’t disappear with a loss of purpose or identity. You keep these things no matter what, through the searches for meaning that all of us go through.


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College Football as a Microcosm

I love college football. The energy and enthusiasm that these young players bring to the field is, for me, highly preferred to that of their professional counterparts. Something about knowing that they’re just in it because they want to be, independent of endorsements and before it becomes a true “job,” makes Saturdays much more enjoyable than Sundays. I was fortunate enough last Thursday night to watch my undergraduate alma mater, the as-yet-unranked South Carolina Gamecocks, defeat the #4 ranked Mississippi Rebels.

As I watched the game, I couldn’t help but notice the gender issues at play. While most sports are certainly chock full of gendered behavior, football might embody traditional masculine norms more than any of the others. The acceptance and encouragement of aggression, anger, one-upmanship, and competition is a hallmark of football. Everything about it is un-feminine.

Including the bearing of pain for the greater good of the team. I watched as South Carolina’s quarterback, Stephen Garcia, took a couple of hard hits early in the game and was soon showing clear signs of being in pain on the field. Between offensive series’, cameras panned to coaches “patching him up” on the sidelines, no doubt encouraging him to play through the pain for the sake of the team. The announcers noted, after identifying his injury as a lower rib cage contusion, that “he has to keep going” because the backup quarterback was also injured and the third string quarterback had never played in a real game before. He seemingly had no choice – bear the pain and play well enough to beat a top-five team, or let down your team.  And he did.

So many of my male clients describe a similar process of bearing emotional and physical pain, often silently and with the assumption that they can’t talk about it for fear of being perceived as weak or “un-masculine.” I know I’ve certainly felt that way before. It’s an unfortunate reality that most men in this United States culture were taught to hold it in, be a tough guy, be the rock for others, and never ask for help. Garcia knew this “guy code.” Many times men are rewarded for this behavior with praise or recognition. But I often talk with men about the potential costs as well. Of feeling like a pressure cooker about to explode, of using drugs and alcohol as emotional outlets, of feeling angry or bored most of the time but not knowing why. And of the toll that this eventually takes on their close relationships.

I’ve been lucky enough to have therapists (and a compassionate wife) who’ve helped me understand that holding in emotions and bearing various forms of pain ultimately puts distance between others and myself. “I’ve got this – don’t worry – I’ll take care of it. No need for you to help me. I’ll just do it on my own.” Much of the work that happens in therapy with men is normalizing and identifying emotional reactions and learning how to be fully in relationship with others, which means sharing these feelings and letting others in to help & support us. This is hard work. Scary work. Which is why any time a man makes his way to my office, I say, “Congratulations on having the strength to ask for help and for taking a risk to do something different.”

This is just an intro to masculinity and men’s issues in therapy. I’d like to do a series of posts on the topic at some point – there’s just so much to talk about. If you’re interested in reading more, Terry Real wrote a great book for men and their partners called I Don’t Want to Talk About It. For readers who are also clinicians, In the Room with Men by Englar-Carson & Stevens is an excellent place to start reading about therapy with men.

Thanks for reading,


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Stepping Out on a Limb

Welcome to Talk Therapy – a psychologist’s take on anything and everything. I’m hoping that the blog will serve as a place to voice thoughts and feelings related to therapy, growth, and real life events. Much of it will be “uncut” – coming straight from my mind to the keyboard. Some may be more structured or organized…but all of it will be genuine.

I almost just put up a standard “Under Construction” page until I got something “real” to write about. Then I started to listen to my thoughts and noticed that there’s plenty going on already! This project has been brewing for quite a while – ample time for expectations & hopes to develop. Some are helpful, some not so helpful. Right now I’m mostly aware of the pressure that I’ve put on myself to construct not only a readable blog, but also hopefully the most entertaining and brilliant blog in the field :) Not thirty minutes into the process, I’m already anticipating the reactions of unseen readers and asking myself a thousand questions. Will people read it? Will they like it? If not, what happens then? What if I say the wrong thing? And so on.

This process is familiar. I talk with my clients a lot about perfectionistic thoughts, inner critical voices, etc. Whatever you want to call them, these unhelpful expectations can put serious blinders on our brains, giving us tunnel vision for nothing but negative stuff. The trick is to pull off those blinders and be open to the full range of possibilities rather than just the negative ones. I had to bend my brain around to listen to the other stuff – the stuff that motivated me to start this in the first place. The idea that it’s okay to take a risk and try something new…to explore my creative side…to be excited by my work and share that somehow.

While I was co-leading a mindfulness-based stress reduction group at the University of Texas at Austin, one of my co-facilitators called this process “looking at the world through clear-colored glasses.” Rather than looking at things through rose-colored (overly positive) or gray-colored (overly negative) glasses, it’s being open to the full range of possibilities. Of not dwelling in the extremes that can easily lead to depression or anxiety. Of being okay with the idea that my blogging experience, like most experiences in life, will almost certainly bring feelings along the whole positive-negative continuum.

We’ll see where this goes – right now I’m aware of feeling excited to get started. I’ll be working to update the blog regularly over the next few weeks so that the content will grow. In the meantime, feel free to read the About section and check out a couple of links. Hope you come back soon!


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