The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Blankie ever after

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On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the third and final post about the experience and how it compares to my graduate school studies in clinical psychology.

You can check out the first and second instalment of the Tough Mudder Trilogy here and here.

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Blankie ever after

It was cold. After the Hold Your Wood and Dirty Ballerina, my hands were freezing so badly that Saturday Night Live’s Mary Katherine Gallagher could not have warmed them up. I ran with my arms tucked under my armpits, occasionally dropping a knee into a lunge and screaming “SUPERSTAR!”.

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Superstar!

Before the Trench War-fare obstacle, I asked a first aid volunteer if she had any towels that I could warm my hands with: she offered me a garbage bag. When I told her that all I wanted was to wrap my hands in cloth, she looked through her red box and offered me a triangular bandage.

Meet Blankie.

Safety behaviours are strategies, such a repetitive behaviours or objects that serve to cope with a threat or reduce anxiety. For instance, you might refuse to write an exam without your “special eraser” or feel safer giving a presentation while holding cue-cards just “in case” you forget something. I felt safer completing a ridiculous obstacle course with a triangular bandage.

Once my fingers were wrapped in the warmth and love of Blankie, there was no getting away from her. She became my race-mate. I wrapped Blankie around my neck to cut off the wind, used her to wipe mud off my face and keep the hair out of my eyes. My sole purpose was to keep Blankie dry (keeping her clean was impossible given the circumstances) and she would keep me warm and safe in return. Blankie was my security blanket, my safety behaviour.

You might think I was in a mud-induced delusional state. That is highly likely.

Blankie and I’s first separation occurred at the Walk the Plank challenge. I didn’t want to her to be drenched in muddy, cold, water as I jumped from a 15 foot cliff. I seriously considered bypassing the obstacle. However, water is my element: I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost 10 years; I could not allow myself to skip a water challenge. So I asked a spectator to hold Blankie. He gave me an odd look, similar to those I get when I ask for the time while holding my cell phone or when I tell people that finishing my graduate degree will take seven years in total. He did not further question the sanity of someone who was doing the Tough Mudder challenge and held my Blankie. I was grateful.  I got the same look over and over again when I asked spectators and participants to hold Blankie or to leave her on the ground at the other end of a challenge.

Blankie supported me through the “I’m not happy” portion of the race, which took place between the 5th and 12th kilometer of the 16 kilometer course. During this period, running did not warm me up and my vision was playing tricks on me. I think I had hypothermia. Megan, who seemed to have been injected with happy hormones (I obviously missed that station) tried her best to cheer me up. I saw mirages of a warm blanket and hot coco. I held onto Blankie until the sun made its first appearance of the day and I found hope again.

After the Wounded Warrior Carry, I realized two things.

First, having a security blanket (i.e., Safety Behaviour) is not as bad as one would think. According to some research, Blankie might have encouraged me to do more in the initial portion of the race! She helped me face challenges that I would otherwise skip. I tucked her into my shirt as we ran through the electroshock therapy challenge – one that I had promised myself I would bypass. Yes, I could have completed the race without Blankie, and if for some reason I had to leave her behind, I would have finished the race in her honour. Having her with me gave me a reason to finish – Blankie had to make it to the finish line as much as I did.

Meet Blankie after the race.

Blankie after the race.

Second, as cliché as it sounds: shit gets better. No matter how cold, muddy, or tired as I was, a water station and snack were always nearby, my teammates gave me a pat on the back, and I managed to complete an obstacle and run between different stations. Our bodies and mind can endure incredible circumstances. Just like in graduate school, when our supervisors are unhappy, our results are not significant, when participants and clients don’t show up or clients don’t get better…eventually, things turn up. We find a solution and a reason to keep going. Someone, or something, no matter how faint or muddy is cheering us on.

And if things don’t get better, they will eventually end.

After 16 kilometers, 14 obstacles, 8 challenges, and 4 hours, Blankie and I (and my teammates!) made it to the Finish Line. Someone put a headband on my head, a bracelet on my wrist; I grabbed a protein bar for someone and headed towards the person giving away shirts. I graduated. The next half hour is a blur. My teammates and I were so cold, injured (all of us hurt our knees on the Everest challenge). We cleaned up under the freezing cold showers. It was awful.

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When I ran into my other teammate Rob, who finished the race 2.5 hours earlier, he said “You did it! How did it go?!” I couldn’t think of anything positive to say…. “I don’t want to talk about it”.

People asked me the same question for days after the race. “How was it???” I wish I said that it was a fantastic experience where I pushed my body and mind to its limits, where I discovered how strong I can be, where I met interesting people, and faced my fears. What typically came out was some variation of “It was painfully cold, awful really…but I’m glad I did it”. As our minds like to do, I had to justify the agony I put my body and mind through, so I elaborated “If it wasn’t for the cold, it would have been better….it was hard….we had a great time…the team was awesome…check out my bruises and battle wounds!” and typically ended withyeah….I would do it again”.

That is strangely similar to the answer I give when someone asks “how is that PhD coming along?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

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The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Obstacles and Challenges

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Second instalment

Obstacles and Challenges

On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the second of three posts about the experience.

It’s race day.

We make it to the off-site parking lot, where contestants are piled onto yellow school buses. With an apprehensive cheer, someone passes along yellow and black face paint that we smother across our cheeks without thinking twice about the bacteria we are sharing. The camaraderie has begun.

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Registration – check.

Meet up with the rest of our team, “99 problems and Tough Mudder ain’t one” – check.

The area between registration/bag check and the start line is a unique sight. Muscular men wearing tutus or suspenders – or both – are gulping down sports drinks; women in brightly coloured tights and wigs are hugging each other as if its last call on prom night. Nervous smiles and arrogant rants are plenty. It was a tornado of excitement and anxiety, mostly the latter.

The main topic of conversations I eavesdropped on was the cold weather. At approximately 8 degrees  (46 degrees for you Americans), no one could imagine running through icy cold waters, running up a mountain, or climbing mud piles. Having hoped for a sunny day, I wore short and a tank top but the sun was being lazy, and my rain coat felt very cozy in the misty weather. My teammates’ hugs and attempts to convince me that “I’ll warm up anyway” simply did not register.

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At the start line the four of us were kneeling in mud along with 60 other “mudders” while an obnoxious MC reminded us of the 78-page waiver we signed and made us repeat the mudder pledge. I scream “BOYAAAH” while the rest of the crowd screams “HORAAAY” because for some reason I am racing in 1995.  We remind Rachel and Brooke to be silent during the National Anthem….eye and tactile contact only remember?

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I am excited and I fearless; I can do this.

After the first few obstacles that included the Glory Blades, where 10 foot wooden walls are tilted to a 20 degree angle, the infamous Arctic Enema, which left us invigorated instead of as walking popsicles, I realized that Tough Mudder is composed of obstacles and challenges.

Obstacles are occupational hazards we subjectively agree to when accepting a contract. They may be time-consuming, annoying, and mildly painful, but in the end obstacles are “check marks” before the Finish Line. In Tough Mudder, I considered the Dirty Ballerina and the Boa Constrictor as obstacles because jumping over mud piles or squirming through watery tubes is uncomfortable and tiring, but not life threatening.

Obstacles in Tough Mudder are comparable to the research ethics application in graduate school, where I had to explain that a treatment group for parents of anxious children will not have a detrimental impact on any fetuses. For many, the weekly lab meeting, where articles are discussed and the annual Easter egg hunt is organized, is an occupation hazard. A dark spot in the weekly schedule that is inherent in the graduate school curriculum.

You know you’ve hit a challenge when your brain freezes, heart sinks into your stomach, and your diaphragm forgets to expand and allow air to flow from my lungs. A challenge is a sudden, not-so-subtle reminder of your mortality and the fact that you did not send your mother flowers on Mother’s day. From an evolutionary perspective, your body’s response to a challenge is a reminder that you should not be doing this.

I should not crawl in water while being electrocuted.

I should not jump over a mountain of burning logs.

A challenge is the possibility of failing my comprehensive exams and being kicked out of the program (or gently asked not to return). A challenge is having my dissertation committee tell me that I have to rework my project (i.e., two years of work) and submit a new proposal in two weeks.

The tricky thing about obstacles and challenges is that when you skip one, it becomes easier to skip another. Avoiding fear gives you a free pass to continuously sidestep other uncomfortable situations. For instance, delegating a public speaking opportunity or continuously communicating over email as opposed to setting up a meeting with your supervisor. Avoidance yields more anxiety, it increases the threat. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided to skip the Firewalker challenge, where contestants jump over a pile of burning logs into cold water. After skipping one challenge, the “by pass challenge line” became more tempting every time. I had to push myself not to skip subsequent events – take a deep breath and remind myself of the commitment I made by accepting the Tough Mudder challenge. On a less philosophical and more coercive note, Megan regularly reminded us that “if you skip a challenge you didn’t do Tough Mudder”.

Overcoming a challenge brings about an anticlimactic sense of exhilaration. After allowing myself to drop through the Smoke Chute, a 15 foot “slide” similar to an air conduct, I emerged from the muddy waters thinking “that’s it?” Similar to when I walked out of (successfully!) completing my oral comprehensive exam. I was happy but could not ignore how lack luster the achievement was.

Perhaps writing about my Tough Mudder experience, or graduate school in general, is a way to stretch my “achievement” as much as possible. Milking as much satisfaction I can from events in order to justify the effort.

What are your graduate school obstacles? Challenges?

Did you manage to skip any?

Where any achievements anticlimactic?

Averagely yours,

the candidate

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Burst my Bubble

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Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth – Ludwig Borne

For about a month now I have been volunteering as an assistant at a local yoga studio. In a class for 40 yogis, it’s helpful for the teacher to have someone walking around, making manual adjustments.

The first day I stepped in the crowded yoga studio, the feeling was strangely similar to the first time I walked into a therapy session alone. Four years ago, I sat across a girl who hadn’t attended school in three months because of delibetating anxiety. With trepidation and excitement, I was prepared to follow the procedure for treatment of separation anxiety, expecting that the little girl would jump right on board and together we could conquer her anxiety! I imagined a shrink-client relationship from the movies: she would open up to me, I would make her laugh, we would hit a bump in the road, she would cry, followed by an “ah ha” moment, and bam! – she would return to school.  We would prance down a scenic road with a single bump (necessary for drama).

The illusion I had when watching the yoga students on their mats, chatting, meditating, or stretching in preparation for the class was similar to my experience before that first therapy session. In my imagination’s movie, the slender lululemon mannequins would breathe and move in unison to the teacher’s voice, they would all touch their toes without bending their knees in a standing forward bend, and I would simply have to brush their necks with my fingertips to release tension.

In both situations, I lived in a shiny bubble that would inevitably burst. Most novice researchers, clinicians, writers, and yogis have flawless illusions and expectations of simplicity.

Illusion is the first of all pleasures” – Voltaire

My therapy illusion bubble burst when the anxious six-year old refused to speak during the first session.  She dropped her forehead on her forearms and gazed at her feet. I offered her crayons and paper to colour, juices and crackers – anything that would make her look at me. I stared at her curly hair wondering what to do.

In the first yoga class, the first “inhale” was enough to snap me out of the yoga clothing commercial. My expectation of coordinated movements was met with jerky contortions and wobbly stances. My imaginary models had forgot to shave and were wearing pajama pants. The room quickly became sweaty and smelly. Despite the presence of a single teacher, there seemed to be 40 individual yoga classes happening at the same time.

I had to think on my feet, leaving the therapy room was not an option – I wanted to connect with the anxious little girl. I looked around the therapy room, picked up a book about emotions from a shelf, and started reading. I first read without asking any questions (including asking for her permission!). Next, I handed the little girl one green crayon and one red crayon. She snapped the red crayon in half while keeping her forehead on her arm. Refusing to be defeated, I read the book a second time, and after every page (i.e., every emotion) I asked “I wonder if you’re feeling like that….show me the green crayon if you are feeling like that and show me the red crayon if you’re not feeling like that”.  Are you feeling sad? Half a red crayon came up. Are you feeling angry? [green], happy? [half a red], scared? [green], lonely? [half a red]…and so on. Without exchanging any words, I learned how this anxious little girl experienced our first therapy session. After the third reading, we were colouring together in silence.

Leaving the yoga class was also not an option. Taken aback, confused, and a little scared, I started walking around the room. I zig-zaged between wobbly arms and legs, watched breath enter and exit the students’ lungs. I did not touch anyone for a first ten minutes, until I noticed the calm and serenity on the yogis faces. Something switched as I reached to touch the first student. I gently drew their hips back, assisted in harm extensions, and applied gentle pressure on necks. While the yogis rested in the final relaxation pose, I glanced around the room, and I saw beauty in the silence.

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We tend to have a whimsical image of what our lives as researchers, clinicians, writers, or yogis will be like. More often than not, these illusions mimic what media has presented to us. However, when reality bursts our bubble, one natural response is to look for an escape.  When our bubble of hope and expectations bursts, it leaves us with wet socks and shivering shoulders in an unknown environment. It’s surprising what a deep breath, patience, and a little imagination can do. There is a world, far more beautiful beyond our bubbles; it’s up to us to discover it.

Did your bubble burst? What did that look like?

How did you cope with it?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

Strong Spine, Humble Chin

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Strong Spine, Humble Chin

Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self – Charles Spurgeon

A large part of my work as a (future) clinical psychologist is interviewing. Interviewing clients for the first few years of my clinical psychology degree was like entering a large crowded mall. There is information zipping from every direction and too many paths I could take to get to my destination. Although I had a road map with the basic information I should collect (confidentiality agreement, informed consent, medical history, academic background, family history, presenting problem…), I was easily distracted by minor off-topic comments (read: a sale at Banana Republic when I’m shopping for eyeliner). The result was a stilted interaction filled with “okay let’s go back to when you told me about…” and “we’ll come back to this in a minute”. I would step out of the interview confused, exhausted, and missing information.

In other words, my initial interviews were like making half a dozen detours on the way to the makeup counter.

Over time, I have less of what sports psychologists refer to as “cognitive anxiety”, or negatives beliefs and expectations about myself and my performance. For instance, I’m less likely to have thoughts like “I am going to screw this up”. This confidence comes with practice, preparation, and supervision. Over time, I’ve learned to flag items of interest without breaking the flow of the conversation. I learned that a nod or tilting my head to the side with eye contact can be as effective as a follow up question. I have more practice, more skills, and I am more confident.

In short, I know that Banana Republic will still be there once I pick up my eyeliner. Or that the eyeliner will still be there even if I stop by BR.

At least in sports psychology, anxiety and self-confidence independently impact performance: they are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. Self-confidence is the personal belief that one has the ability to complete a task (i.e. “I can do this!”). Intuitively, self-confidence has a positive impact on performance. Meaning that the more I believe I can do it, the better my performance will be (Many American Idol participants will relate to this finding). Cognitive anxiety on the other hand, has a negative relationship with performance.

Therefore, the better I feel about myself and my skills, the better my interview should be. The fewer negative beliefs I have about myself, then I the better I should perform.

Got it.

Not quite.

The incremental sense of assurance about my interviewing skills bit me in the ass when I chose to enter a feedback sessions (a concluding session with a client where the results of an assessment are discussed) without reviewing the history and main findings. I figured I would “wing it” since I had given feedback for a similar disorder before. Unfortunately, during the appointment I struggled to find my words, shuffled through the file and papers, and looked back at my supervisor one too many times to fill the awkward silences. I felt lost. As we left the interview room, he smiled and said “trouble finding your words today?”

No, my words weren’t lost; they were not prepared to begin with.

I once again struggled between confidence and complacency when I tried a new yoga studio. The typical yoga studio etiquette is that more advanced students set up at the front of room, to provide a visual cue for more novice students. Being a recently certified yoga teacher, I confidently unrolled my mat at the front of room thinking “I got this”. I stood tall, with my chin a little too high in confidence. Within 20 minutes of the class, I lost half of my body weight in sweat and wobbled on my feet between poses. My ego dripped from my forehead every time I turned in to a downward facing dog.

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Confidence (just like curiosity) can kill the cat*.

And the ego.

Confidence comes with practice, but maintaining humility as we develop our skills can be as challenging as the skill itself. Confidence can actually result in a weaker performance. When confidence increases, we are more likely to develop complacency, or self-contentment while being oblivious to limitations or dangers. Confident individuals are more likely to use short-cuts, put less effort in the task, and subsequently make mistakes.

In the interviewing situation, I felt confident because I had performed well in a similar task in the past, so I did not prepare as much. The result was a stilted, embarrassing, and confusing session for all parties involved. At the new yoga studio, I felt that my experience and new “status” would result in a better performance. I did not take into account the new challenges that each situation could present, and fell smack on the face – literally.

As some psychologists are discovering, a little bit of self-doubt can actually improve performance, shedding doubt on the previously held belief that confidence is key. Doubt keeps us alert and open to the possibility of failure and ensures that we monitor our actions.

I think the key lies in knowing that I have ability, while accepting that I do not know what can be thrown at me. Maybe confidence and humility are on a spectrum?

I now try to walk into every interview, therapy session, or yoga class with a strong spine – acknowledging the work I have done and things I know – and a humble chin: accepting that I have so much to learn.

Averagely yours,

the candidate

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*no cats were harmed in the writing of this post

2.5 years in 3 minutes

A month ago, I signed up for the “3 Minute Thesis” competition at my university. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT® ) is an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia for research students. The concept is simple: graduate students describe their Master’s or Doctoral research to a non-specialized but intelligent audience in 3 minutes. The presentation can be accompanied by a single static slide. No animations, no props, no songs, no dance.

Being one of the few people who doesn’t dread public speaking I signed up without hesitation. My enjoyment of giving presentations is probably one of the few areas where I am not on top of the average curve.

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At first, I thought that summarizing my research in 3 minutes would be a breeze. I know my project inside out, and am still at a stage where I enjoy talking about it. It’s my intellectual baby.

I was wrong.

The version was 8 minutes long and my first slide draft looked something like this:

3mt slide

This presentation forced me to squeeze 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours in 3 minutes. Not exactly straightforward. Or simple. It forced to pin point the most important aspects of my research, simplify it without dumb-ing it down, and conveying its importance to an audience that was there to support someone else.

I challenge you to do that about anything you are passionate about.

I wasn’t as anxious as I expected on qualification day. I stayed quiet as I sat with the other participants. Others chatted, discussing their study, explaining how difficult it was to squeeze everything into 3 minutes. The man next me introduced himself. I wasn’t in the mood the talk. I wanted to breathe and change my shoes. Thankfully, he didn’t really give me the opportunity to speak. He engaged in a monologue about his plans to invite the entire department to the finals if he made it, and since he is the president it shouldn’t be too hard. He took a short intermission to greet members of his fan club and turned back to me. I nodded while I vaguely gazed in his direction and took deep breaths. He was not rude, not even arrogant, simply too talkative…about himself. To me, his expression of confidence was a reflection of his insecurity.

It is sad how poorly attended departmental events when there is no free food. Looking around the old auditorium, I noticed that there were as many audience members as there were contestants – everyone managed to bring at least one person. Having posted a Facebook event, I was expected a handful of people. I reluctantly turned around every time the auditorium door clicked open. Finally, two friends walked in and smiled in my direction. My shoulders dropped from my ears – where they like to hang out when I’m anxious – and I was ready to start. It was comforting to know they took the time out of their busy schedule to watch me (and 10 others).

The next 20 minutes were a blur. Students stepped up one by one, described their work elegantly, concisely, and clearly. No mumbles, no “ums”, no trips, or falls. Even the man next to me presented. He had a reason to be confident.

My name appeared on the projector and I jumped up – I didn’t think it was my turn yet. Despite the clear instructions we were given about staying on the X marked on the ground, I wondered back and forth in front of my slide. I was in a trance while I told the story of my mother asking me if the stove was turned off when we left the house.

Let’s fast forward 3 minutes. Let’s imagine my friends giving me thumbs up as I step off the stage. Let’s fast forward through the fact that I finished second place in my qualification heat and made it to the finals!

The chatty guy? He didn’t make it, neither did all the members of his department.

Let’s fast forward to my final presentation, where again, I knew 3.5 people in the audience of about 100.

The .5 is a prof in our department that I don’t know at all, but saw his face on our website. So we he counts as half. I hope he doesn’t take offence. 

I didn’t win, the winner deserved to win though.

I could write about how hard it was to condense 2.5 years of my life in 3 minutes. I could also write about the sadness and loneliness I felt when very few people I knew showed up at the qualification rounds or the finals. I know that many people would have been there physically but instead sent positive vibes. This is not mean to be a criticism of who wasn’t there, it is meant to be a focus and appreciation for those who were.

The idea of support, like I wrote in a previous post, is like layers in the same cake. Layers support and complement each other, and that means showing up at a silly (read nerdy) event during a busy week, reading over each other’s work, or helping out through peer supervision. Thank you to all those who did. Thank you to those who asked about it and supported me through it from close or far. 

A dissertation, like anything else in life (read: graduate school), is not not a solo project. Sometimes supports means being critical of each other, other times it’s about shutting up and listening. Either way, it is critical to success.Support is also about saying (and meaning it!) when you say “good luck!” or “that’s sound so interesting”. Its about congratulating each other for our efforts, achievements, and successes and most importantly it’s about giving each other a little push when we need a little help.

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Averagely yours,

the candidate