Anyone who has ever undertaken something difficult will know that there often comes a time when you really feel like you can’t go on. You’ve given it your best. You’ve done all the right things.
And you’ve got nothing left.
You hope you’ve reached the brow of the hill (one that has been one hell of a slog to get up), and can coast for a while – perhaps even race down to the finish line, euphoric at your accomplishment. But then, looming before you, is another summit, another hurdle, another bloody hoop to jump through. Obstacles bar your way, obstructing your line of desire – that wished-for completion — or maybe it’s just the realization of the sheer distance left to go, the gulf between your vision and the reality.
These reality checks, if they’ve been brought to your attention by allies (those with critical, constructive perspective, but ultimately rooting for you — rather than envious threshold guardians acting out their own issues) can be an essential part of the process.
Yet they’re still a pain in the arse.
Sometimes these critical slam-downs can even be devastating – completely knocking the wind from your sails, your confidence; your belief in your vision or craft; even your whole identity. If you’re feeling low anyway then the effect can be irredeemably crushing with sometimes catastrophic consequences. As this scenario is all too common in academe, there is major student support in place at universities these days – Wellbeing Services offering counselling and advice. Safety nets, tea and sympathy. I can sympathise as this week I experienced just this level of ‘knockback’ – I don’t want to go into the gory details, but suffice to say it was gutting. I was down and seriously considering some extreme options (in terms of my current PhD project). Things looked pretty bleak at the beginning of the week.
But a couple of things really helped me.
The first was running. Any physical exercise would be good – especially the cardio-vascular kind, as raising a sweat releases endorphins and blasts out any negativity. I found this to be exactly the case when I did a long training run – afterwards I felt in a far better place. More resilient, more able to cope with the ‘bad news’. Able to roll with the punch and come out fighting. Time and time again I’ve experienced the well-being effects of running, cycling or a good hike. And within these, if you’re undertaking a physical challenge like a half-marathon – then sooner or later you encounter ‘the wall’, as it’s referred to, familiar with marathon-runners all over the world. This is the moment when your body starts to shut down – you’re exhausted – and you really have to dig deep to keep going, sometimes running, cycling, hiking, etc, through the pain. I had to do just this mid-week, on my 13.5 mile training run. Those last 5 miles were tough, but I paused, refuelled, and girded my loins. It really all comes down to attitude, to mental stamina. Getting your head around what it is you’re facing, and soldiering on.
At the beginning of the week I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead of me and I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Then I stepped back from it – went for the run – and looked at it all again.
What really helped me to ‘reframe’ the seemingly insurmountable challenge was talking about it – with my partner and with my supervisor.
After a thorough session at the end of the week with my supervisor I was willing to accept that I just have to knuckle down and get it finished. That the project wasn’t dead in the water – in fact, it is on track, and this ‘big push’ is merely the expected final stage, one that makes the difference between something being good and being excellent. I could accept the way my craft is now, or, keep going, and attempt to raise it to the next level.
To work through ‘the wall’. This is where the long-distance running has really helped me in facing this test of stamina and will. I will dig deep and I will keep going, and I will finish this thing.
Anything worth achieving is down to the difficulty involved. If it was easy, then accomplishing it would mean little (although of course we all have our own mountains to climb, and what is a minor hurdle for one person is a massive achievement for someone else). I have set myself a tough challenge – a creative and intellectual one – and I only have myself to blame! But while my heart and mind is set on this quest, then I shall endeavour to see it through properly to the end.
Whether I succeed or fail I shall at least I know that I gave it my very best shot, and didn’t give up at this critical stage.
Adjust your mental furniture and it’s amazing what you can achieve: you can even walk through walls.