Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

Diane was in tears as she trailed several hundred yards behind the group of women runners on the desert trail. Seething with frustration at being at the back of the pack, she started thinking: “I don’t belong here.” “I shouldn’t have come.” “I knew I wasn’t ready for this.” “I’m not a real runner.”

The more she ruminated, the more exhausted she became. Her feet dragged over the sandy trail and head hung low. She glanced up with a smile whenever someone approached and offered words of encouragement. But as soon as they moved on, Diane resumed ruminating. “I can’t do this,” she thought to herself. “Who was I to think I could run with this group?”

In that moment, Diane could see only the reasons for why she didn’t belong with the group, and none of the reasons why she did belong. And while the others weren’t shunning Diane by running ahead, she certainly felt that way.

It’s A Survival Mechanism

Research has shown that belonging and connection to others is essential to our health and happiness. And trail running with friends is a powerful way to cultivate such connection.

So it’s ironic that as much as we yearn— to fit in, we’re hard-wired to recognize why we don’t. Diane’s shame, frustration and disappointment at being last are actually part of natural human-survival mechanism we all possesses that is designed to help us avoid the wrong tribes and find the right ones.

But in modern society, rather than ensuring our survival, zeroing in on why we don’t measure up leads to all kinds of emotional suffering. Thankfully, we have shame researchers like Bréne Brown to help us understand how we can overcome the suffering and open up to real connection and acceptance of ourselves and of others.

“Fitting in and belonging are not the same thing,” says Bréne in her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Parent and Lead. “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

In other words: I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like them to fit in.

Leg cramps, a sore knee, fatigue, rough terrain, low blood sugar, or a slow pace are all legitimate reason for being last. But where we run into trouble is in separating the reason for being last from our emotional response to the situation. We may not be able to change the fact that we’re behind, but we can choose how we feel about it.

For example, instead of feeling rejected, what if Diane felt acceptance?

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance,” says Bréne Brown in another of her fantastic books, The Gifts of Imperfection.

With that being the case, instead of carrying the weight of her emotions, Diane could use her slow pace as an opportunity to look around and soak up her beautiful surroundings and giver herself a pat on the back for doing the best she could give the circumstances of the day.

What We Say Matters As Much as What We Do

In order to avoid the pain of feeling rejected we may choose to run alone, saying “I don’t want to hold anyone up!” Such a statement sound altruistic, but is it really?

Saying we don’t want to hold others lets us avoid the risk of being left behind and the bad feelings it triggers. In this case, running alone feels safer. However, doing so robs us of the opportunity to experience meaningful connections with other runners.

Plus, we also lose the opportunity to see if we could actually run with the pack, not behind it. We may not be as slow as we think!

Being at the Back Isn’t Bad 

Should you find yourself at the back of the pack, follow these steps to gain a new perspective:

1. Identify how you felt in response to being last. What feelings and emotions come up? Did you feel shame, frustration, embarrassment, unworthiness? Don’t judge yourself for having these feelings, nor is it necessary to dismiss or suppress them. Acknowledge everything you notice as part of your experience.

2.  What thoughts or statements came to your mind in response to those emotions? Ask yourself if those statements were absolutely true. How can you know for sure they’re true? Is there a possibility that they’re not true? For example, if you think, “I don’t belong here,” can you think of one reason why you do belong here, despite being last?

3.  Recognize your power to choose to respond differently to being at the back of the pack. You don’t need to run at the same pace as everyone else to fit in. What you really want is to belong. And to do that, you need only be your authentic self, as Bréne says. While you can’t improve from running 13-minute miles to 9-minute miles in an instant, you can instantly change what being last means to you. Be proud to be the runner you are today.

You deserve this run as much as any other runner, and that’s what why you belong with the pack.