But What If You Can? — Countering the Negative in Public Safety
A few weeks ago, I ran my first marathon of the year, the Mesa Marathon. According to LiveStrong, less than 1% of Americans have completed a marathon, though about a million runners worldwide run the distance every year. No matter who you are or how fast you run, covering 26.2 miles all at once is both a difficult challenge and a bragworthy accomplishment.
Marathons Are Tough
There’s no sugar-coating it; running a marathon is hard. In the famous story from Greek legend, a foot messenger named Pheidippides sprinted from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a Greek military victory over the Persians. As the story goes, he ran the whole way without stopping, delivered his message (“We won!”), then collapsed and died of exhaustion. In 1896, during preparations for the first modern Olympic Games, organizers came up with the idea of recreating Pheidippides’ epic 25-mile run as an athletic event. At the 1908 Olympics in London, the distance was lengthened to 26.2 miles to allow the royal family to watch the finish line from their Royal Box in White City Stadium.
For those of you who have never experienced a marathon, here’s a quick taste of what it’s like to run one:
Miles 1 to 2: With the sun still below the horizon, you start your Garmin as you cross the starting line. Many runners tend to go way too fast, so you spend much of this distance telling yourself, “Stay calm, don’t push too hard, you’ve got a long way to go.” Two miles in, you might be thinking, “That was easy — now I just have to do it 12 more times to get my free banana!”
Miles 3 to 8: You’re still feeling great. Your legs are fresh, and the runners around you all have that “Eye of the Tiger” look. There’s very little conversation as everyone stays focused on knocking out the first third of the race. You settle in and concentrate on the rhythm of your feet, the counterpoint of your breathing.
Miles 9 to 12: You’re a rock star! Thanks to your training and taper, you’re feeling jaunty enough to high-five the kids along the course. You wave at the doggos and their humans. You keep fueling and hydrating, trusting your plan to carry you to the finish.
Mile 13: Conventional wisdom says a marathon really begins at 13.1 — the halfway point. This is when you stop counting up and start counting down. You do your midpoint systems check: feet, legs, hips, core, arms, lungs, shoulders, neck. “Any pain anywhere? Is everything still working?” It’s also when the serious doubts start creeping in: “Why am I doing this? Who thought this was a good idea?”
Miles 14 to 17: These miles are long and tedious; it’s like they’re barely crawling past. To distract yourself, you focus on “runner’s math,” calculating and recalculating exactly how far you’ve come and how far you still have to run. “With X miles to go, at Y pace, I’ll get my banana in roughly Z minutes.” You pick out faces in the crowd, fixate on the runners ahead of you. Your thoughts become more random and fragmented. “Whoa — that was a huge pothole! Do I smell pizza? Look at the doggos!” (You really want to stop and pet all the doggos, but instead, you push yourself to keep going.)
Miles 18 to 23: This is the hardest section of the race, and you spend the entire time fighting the urge to stop. It’s 99% mind over matter, an interminable battle to keep the spirit willing even as the flesh becomes weaker and weaker. Your self-doubt keeps up a steady drumbeat of, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” At the same time, what’s left of your sanity turns into Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep running, running, running … Just keep running, running, running….” Up ahead, one runner hobbles to the side of the course. Didn’t he pass you just a few miles back? Another stops to stretch her hamstrings on the curb. You envy them, almost wishing your own legs would cramp up so you could stop running, too. Meanwhile: “Just keep running, running, running….”
Mile 24: Two miles to go — you’re almost there! You find yourself thinking about all your normal training routes. “Two miles is nothing,” you tell yourself. “Just eight laps around the track. That’s the distance from the elementary school to my house.” You’re over 90% done, now, and you know you’ve got it in you to finish. Or at least, you hope you’ve got it in you.
Mile 25: The end is in sight. In spite of the pain, you plaster a big smile on your face so you look good in the finish line photos. You’re already working out what you’ll post on social media as you brag about your amazing finish. Since you don’t need to hold any strength in reserve, you might even pick up the pace. Or try to, anyway.
Mile 26.2: You pump your fist in the air as you stumble across the finish line. It feels so amazing to stop running! You collect your finisher’s medal from a friendly volunteer, grab a bottle of water, and begin searching for the table with the bananas. After that, you go find a doggo to pet.
One of the best bits of wisdom I ever received about marathon running is that every mile from 18 to the end is twice as hard as the one before it. The difficulty compounds in this way until the final miles, when the finish line is in sight and you manage to catch your second (or third, or fourth) wind.
“I Can’t Do This”
At about mile 23 on the course in Mesa, as I tried to ignore the cartoon devil on my shoulder screaming “You can’t do this” into my ear, I spotted a sign that changed everything for me. I don’t remember whether the person holding the sign was a woman or a man, old or young. The only thing I remember is the message on the sign: “BUT WHAT IF YOU CAN?”
It was the exact thought I needed at the exact time I needed it. Those five magic words buoyed me up, strengthening my determination to finish and finish strong. With a renewed resolution, I increased my cadence, pushed through the pain and crossed the finish line within 12 seconds of my goal time.
The whole point of running a marathon, I believe, is experiencing the existential crisis that comes in that critical time between miles 18 and 24. It’s countering constant self-doubt with the reminder that you signed up for this, you trained for this, you paid money for the privilege of pushing your body nearly to the breaking point. Whether or not you recognize it in the moment, it’s a perfect metaphor for life.
Real Life Is Tougher
Truth bomb: Life can be hard. If you’re a first responder, your life will often be harder than most. At work, you deal with dangerous people and difficult situations, an apathetic or even hostile public, armchair quarterbacking in your chain of command and many other challenges. At home, you may struggle to decompress while trying not to snap at family members who wonder why you are so distant, so detached.
Remember: You signed up for this. You trained for this. You and your coworkers have dedicated your lives to keeping your community safe, and you can’t expect a shiny medal every time you finish a difficult shift.
Maybe you’re early in your public safety journey, when everything feels fresh … and also bewildering. Or you might be in the middle of your career, when it feels like you’ve been doing the job forever, yet you still have forever to go until retirement. Or you might see your “finish line” up ahead but aren’t sure whether you can make it or not. Challenges and setbacks can hit you at any time, leaving you discouraged and ready to give up. When doubts threaten to overwhelm you, when “You can’t do this” drowns out every other thought, try responding with: “But what if you can?”
Retraining Your Mind
Here are some other strategies for fostering a winning outlook on work, life, and everything else:
Stop comparing yourself to others. Life isn’t a race, though it can sometimes feel like one. Everybody learns and grows at their own pace, and nobody is successful at everything right from the start. In life, as in running, you’re mostly in competition with yourself. Instead of measuring yourself against a standard set by others, compare yourself to the you from last week, last month, last year. Think of who you were when you first started working in public safety, then remind yourself how much you’ve grown and developed since then. Set realistic goals for next week, next month, and next year. When the time comes, give yourself an honest evaluation, then adjust your expectations accordingly.
Silence the negative self-talk. The words you say (or think) to yourself matter. If you’re constantly muttering, “I can’t do this; it’s impossible,” sooner or later you’ll come to believe that’s true. Instead, remind yourself that you’re a qualified, capable person with the knowledge and training to tackle whatever the world throws at you. You may not believe this immediately, but you might be surprised at how successful you can be when you build yourself up instead of tearing yourself down. The next time that voice in your head says, “I can’t do this,” follow it up with, “But what if you can?”
Find your gratitude. It’s always possible to find things to complain about, but what do you have to be thankful for? How about the coworker who helps you when you’re overwhelmed? The spouse who supports you through good times and bad? Children who love you unconditionally? What about the convenience store clerk who always has a smile for you? If you’re always on the lookout for something to disappoint you, you’ll almost always find it. Similarly, if you’re constantly watching for people and things to be thankful for, you’ll never be disappointed. Make a point of thanking the people who show their love and support for you. If you’re active on social media, get in the habit of expressing your gratitude in public to help others find joy in gratitude as well.
Lean on your mantras. If negative self-talk tears you down, it makes sense that positive affirmations can build you up. Instead of dwelling on what you perceive as your weaknesses, remind yourself of your strengths and goals. For example:
- I am confident in my ability to take action to right what’s wrong.
- I am dedicated to serving my community while protecting my friends and neighbors.
- I have the training and experience to communicate with others, stay calm in difficult situations, and get along with all kinds of people.
- I work on my skills every day to become better at my job and as a person.
- I will do anything in my power to perform my job the best I can.
Pick a few mantras that play to your strengths and place them where you’ll see them every day: on the bathroom mirror, inside the door of your locker, or on the inside cover of your notebook.
Surround yourself with positivity. Think about the people you interact with daily. Which ones leave you feeling happy, and which ones cause your mood to take a nose dive? Whenever possible, spend more time with people and in situations that build you up instead of tearing you down. If you’re with friends, coworkers or family members and things turn negative, try changing the subject by making a comment or relating a story that can uplift others. Even short interactions and flippant comments can make a big difference. For example, when a stranger greets you with “How’s it going?” make a point of responding with something like “Fantastic!” or “Couldn’t be better!” You might end up changing the trajectory of that other person’s day while boosting your own positive mood.
Keep your eyes on the prize. When thoughts of “I can’t do this” come into your mind, remind yourself why you entered the field of public safety in the first place. Was it to make a difference in your community? To protect and serve? It doesn’t take many shifts to realize you can’t single-handedly solve all of society’s problems, but taking time to think about the problems you can fix (and have fixed) — the specific individuals you have helped — is a great way to refocus on your ultimate goal. When you’re diligent in doing your job, people’s lives are changed for the better. And after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Courage and Faith
Author John Bigham famously said, “Crossing the starting line may be an act of courage, but crossing the finish line is an act of faith.” The same could be said for a career in public safety. It takes courage to embark on a difficult career with the knowledge that it will push you to your physical, mental and emotional limits. And it takes faith — in yourself, in your mission, in your support structure — to keep doing that job in spite of the challenges.
As a first responder, you experience more than your share of victory and defeat, often in the same hour. It can be hard to resist giving in to your critics, especially your most difficult critic: yourself. And the best way to build the resilience you need to keep going is to answer the voice that tells you, “You can’t do it,” with the simple response: “But what if you can?”