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Mental Note

Episode 38 - Perfectionism and Running

By Rachael Steil

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Rachael Steil formed an early and joyful bond with running - she loved the movement, competition, and exhilaration it gave her. Yet, within a decade, her drive for perfection demolished that love and replaced it with isolation, an eating disorder, anxiety, and health issues.

Now - as a running coach, author, and speaker - Rachael runs towards being an "imperfectionist". This new practice has transformed her relationship with both herself and the up-and-coming athletes she now coaches.

I was so scared of feeling guilt for messing up. You constantly feel like if you slip up at all everyone is going to see it. Perfectionism is very restricting--not just in what you do in your life, but it constricts your personality as well.
- Rachael Steil

 

Transcript

Ellie Pike:

Many of us would love to live flawless lives, but how often do we stop and think about what that would cost?

Rachael Steil:

I was so scared of feeling guilt for messing up. You constantly feel like if you slip up at all, everyone is going to see it. Perfectionism is very constricting, not just in what you do in your life, but it constricts your personality as well.

Ellie Pike:

Meet Rachael.

Rachael Steil:

My name is Rachael Steil. I am a Runner and a Cross-country and Track Coach. I also speak on eating disorders for the Running in Silence nonprofit, and I'm the author of the book Running in Silence.

Ellie Pike:

Her drive for perfection as a runner slowly transformed from an aspiration into a burden, and finally into a prison. So in a matter of years, the things she'd started doing out of pure joy became the driving force behind isolation and an eating disorder, but that's not where Rachael's story ends. As well hear on today's episode, she's grown to be much more than the obsession and disorder that wants to find her. She's here to offer her story, as well as practical steps for athletes, coaches, and families on how to keep perfectionism at bay and their joy alive. You're listening to Mental Note Podcast. I'm Ellie Pike. Rachael, what were you like as a kid?

Rachael Steil:

I was definitely perfectionistic. I was a type A person. I wanted to get perfect grades. I wanted to please my parents and please my teachers. I wanted to make everyone around me really happy. I was always striving to be the best I could be in school and in running, because I actually started running when I was five years old. I always had a lot of anxiety too, so I remember being scared to grow up a bit. And I think that's why the perfectionism played out. I thought if I just made everything perfect and avoided failure, then I would be more safe.

Ellie Pike:

You said that you started running at the age of five. Can you talk a little bit about how that played out and how your parents supported you in that?

Rachael Steil:

When I was in kindergarten, we had to run this race for field day and it was a race just around this big baseball field. And I took second place in that race. And I remember thinking, "Wow, I really want to beat that girl ahead of me. How do I get to do that?" So there was a lot of joy in it because I think I recognize I had some talent there, but also I loved to try to get better at things. So I started running when I was about five, my mom put together this little schedule for me, and it was nothing intense.

Rachael Steil:

It was like, run a mile every other day and then up to two miles every other day, and we'd go back down to one and it was a very nice gradual training. So I grew to love it the more I did it. And my mom did a lot of runs with me, so it was a good bonding time with my mom and she always emphasized running should be fun, so even before races, have fun. It was a really healthy experience with a sport growing up.

Ellie Pike:

Can you talk about that transition to when it wasn't fun anymore, and it also had a negative impact on your eating?

Rachael Steil:

Everything started when I was a senior in high school. I still loved running, but when I started restricting how much I was eating, running somewhat became a chore because it felt so hard to get through. I started counting my steps because I was just trying to get my mind busy to finish the run. I was just exhausted and I didn't think it was because I wasn't eating enough, I thought I was eating exactly what I should be eating at that time. As that continued, I had some unexpected success in running. So I thought I was happy, but I have this big secret with food. So really my life wasn't very balanced or healthy and mentally, I wasn't in a good spot.

Rachael Steil:

By the time the binge eating started later down the road, that's when I really didn't like running as much. And I was almost mad at running because I felt like everything had become about how I controlled food and how that related to running, and running almost became lifeless for me.

Ellie Pike:

At what point did you realize that you needed support and let in your family and ask for support from a treatment team?

Rachael Steil:

I think the first time I realized I should probably tell someone was when I was struggling with binge eating and I didn't know how to stop. It felt like it just kept going on and on and on. I didn't know how to control myself anymore, so I actually reached out to my mom. She actually didn't understand it very well because at that time, she didn't know binge eating was an eating disorder as well.

Rachael Steil:

She gave me the advice many people here... It's just about calories in, calories out. You have to exercise. And it obviously didn't resonate with me very well because that stuff wasn't working and it doesn't work for most people. I kept talking with her and she advised that I maybe see a therapist because she didn't know what else she could do for me. And that was actually really helpful advice because that was what I did need at the time. And unfortunately, I refused it because, again, I thought it wasn't bad enough. I thought I'll just tell my mom and be done with it and it'll go away.

Ellie Pike:

Unfortunately, Rachael's perfectionism was actually preventing her from finding help, because in her eyes, she hadn't been good enough at her disorder to warrant support.

Rachael Steil:

I eventually did take up her offer and I saw an eating disorder therapist. I went to an eating disorder support group, and I also eventually met up with an eating disorder sports dietician. She gave me different tools to work through my anxiety that I had, that I feel like was part of the underlying cause of the eating disorder. She was a helpful person for me to talk through those kinds of things. I really needed almost a sounding board and someone who's a professional in this field. She gave me a meal plan and some advice and I tried it, and it ended up actually working a little bit. I noticed that the binging wasn't as intense. I started to feel like maybe my body wasn't so broken.

Ellie Pike:

I think you talk about something that so many people can relate to, and that being that there's so much uncertainty and fear and distrust going into the process. For you, it took just a little bit of willingness and a little bit of trust, and then you could build it. And so, I'm curious how this impacted your running. I know that for a while you weren't able to run, so were you able to get back to that again?

Rachael Steil:

It definitely impacted my running. I initially seem to have a lot of success and I made that dangerous connection between controlling my food, in my eyes I was controlling it, and restricting food I thought that brought me success. So I had this really warped perception and that's what continued to fuel the eating disorder. And it was really difficult because I was receiving all of this praise and attention in college for my running. So I thought I was doing something right, but I knew deep down too, that there was something that wasn't quite right as well. I didn't feel like I could connect with my teammates. I felt very distant from people and I was just constantly thinking about food. I couldn't live my life. It was really debilitating, but I thought that's just how I had to live.

Rachael Steil:

As time went on, I started having little injuries here and there. I had some strength issues with my knees and I had some tendon strains in my feet. I didn't think much of them, I was just frustrated when I was injured. And then when I began to binge eat, my body changed and I was not comfortable with that at all. I thought I didn't look the part of a runner, I was really ashamed of my body. Everyone around me thought I looked healthy, and I think that was both helpful to hear, but also really difficult because I was still struggling with an eating disorder.

Rachael Steil:

So eventually, once I did start working with my therapist and dietician, I began to see a pattern between racing and feeling like I was getting on the scale. So each time I raced, it felt like I was comparing myself to others and feeling bad about that number I would see when I crossed the line. So I had a conversation with my coach and asked to step away, and I think it was just really helpful to get away from numbers for some time.

Rachael Steil:

Once I did get back into running again, I was injured. I had a big knee fracture. I've had two surgeries since then. I feel like it helped push me out of the nest, so to speak, because I had to figure out who I was beyond being a runner and realize that I could survive without running.

Ellie Pike:

I think one thing I'd really love to jump into is some of that underlying issues behind the eating disorder. And you talked about, as a kid, you struggled with anxiety and you certainly had the characteristic of being more perfectionistic. So, can you talk a little bit about how you noticed your eating disorder as a way of coping with those underlying feelings and issues?

Rachael Steil:

I felt like if I just perfected food, I would be a better runner. And if I were a better runner, everyone would be proud of me. And I thought I could just live the rest of my life successful. I also thought that if I perfected food, I would have less injuries, so I wouldn't have to deal with failure as much. So, my anxiety made me believe that if I just made everything perfect, I could go on and live the rest of my life, free of worry, and that's not how life works. But I think my brain was trying to protect myself, and that's all I knew at that time. I thought if I just fixed everything myself and came off as this perfect person, nothing could harm me.

Ellie Pike:

I think that makes a lot of sense that it acts as a shield of protection from things being able to go wrong, because if you have it all together, you can manage it. So let's dive a little deeper into perfectionism. How would you describe perfectionism? Does it feel like and what thoughts go through your mind?

Rachael Steil:

Perfectionism sounds somewhat pretty, maybe it sounds a little obsessive too. But it was actually really awful because you constantly feel like if you slip up at all, everyone is going to see it. I was so scared of feeling guilt, for messing up, and I was scared that other people would point it out and that people wouldn't like me as much. The more I worked through it, the more I found how much more relatable I was when I wasn't so perfect, especially when I wasn't running as much. And when I went through my injuries, I started to explore being an imperfectionist, I called it.

Rachael Steil:

And I actually found, I was connecting with my teammates a little more. People thought I was funnier. People saw my personality coming out. So I think perfectionism is very much very constricting, not just in what you do in your life, but it constricts your personality as well. You don't have the freedom to make mistakes and see who you are as a person.

Ellie Pike:

I love how you describe perfectionism as, like essentially wanting to avoid the guilt of failing or messing up. And so I'm curious, what does guilt feel like to you and why avoid it?

Rachael Steil:

Guilt felt like this overwhelming sense of doom, like I need to go back and fix this and I can't and I feel so ashamed. So those are natural human feelings, and I've learned to see that I'm going to mess up once in a while and I have to deal with those feelings. And part of it though, too, is that I don't have to always feel guilty if I mess up. So it's something I've been working with my therapist as well, that, yes, I may feel guilt, but I don't have to keep feeling that because everyone does make mistakes, and it doesn't mean they're a bad person.

Rachael Steil:

And learning from those mistakes is the only way for us to really grow. I think that's what helped me work through the imperfectionism for a while is seeing that I can't grow without making those mistakes. And it helped reduce the guilt a little bit.

Ellie Pike:

It reminds me of what Brené Brown, Researcher and Social worker, says about guilt and shame. She defines guilt as like I did, something wrong and shame as I am wrong. Shame is really internalizing that guilt as something is wrong with me because I made a mistake. That's just not true, right? That's just flawed logic. And so I know for most of us who have to deal with some of that mental conflict of like, "Okay, I can't change this, but I need to release myself from this guilt."

Ellie Pike:

It takes a lot of work, and I certainly know that you have done a lot of work in this area and worked with your therapist on this. And just because you're not in an eating disorder anymore, doesn't mean that perfectionism and guilt go away. So what are some of the ways that you've worked on anxiety and perfectionism now?

Rachael Steil:

That is such an important point. I have fully recovered from my eating disorder, so I don't have any more eating disorder behaviors. I eat what I want, whenever I want. Exercise doesn't rule my life. That's all really good news, but the anxiety is still there. And I feel like having gone through my eating disorder, I'm able to understand myself better and recognize the anxiety a lot quicker for what it is. Even more recently, I've reconnected with my eating disorder therapist because she knows my background with anxiety and we've worked through it.

Rachael Steil:

And I have really focused on learning how to let go of things. For instance, if I messed up on something, I think it's going to turn into this horrible thing, and we've worked on just letting it go. So if this bad thing happens, so what? Obviously it's easy to say, just let it go, but it does help to get those words in my mind and to see that I don't have to be perfect. I know that sounds very simplistic, but just seeing that everyone messes up and we can learn from our mistakes and that there's no one out there hounding every single thing that you're doing.

Ellie Pike:

Does it help to actually say it out loud, or is it helpful for you to even journal about it and process it internally?

Rachael Steil:

Yeah, definitely saying them out loud has helped because especially with an eating disorder, I kept everything inside for so long. I was literally running in silence and it just kept bottling up. And I was the only one to deal with my fears, but now that I'm able to express myself with a therapist, it's been very helpful and talking it out has actually helped me to see things so much more clearly. One of the things I notice I've often looked for is reassurance. So I'm really scared about something. I'm always looking to someone else to reassure myself, instead of finding ways through therapy to reassure myself.

Rachael Steil:

I don't always have to look to someone else to fix me. I have so much power within and recognizing that I don't have to keep punishing myself, I can take care of myself too. And one thing my mom has often said throughout my life is that other people can be there to support you and help you through things, but in the end, you're the one that's going to be able to save yourself.

Ellie Pike:

What are some ways that you are able to just care for yourself and give yourself some extra gentleness?

Rachael Steil:

I've started to integrate different things with self-care each day. One basic self-care thing is going to bed at the right time, so that I get enough sleep. I drink a lot of coffee when I'm working too much and I realize that's not very helpful for myself. I really do need that sleep, so I've tried to not have as much caffeine and give myself more sleep. I've also done a little bit more yoga. I find once I start doing that more, I feel much more loose and in tune with my body.

Rachael Steil:

I don't really do bubble baths or anything, but I think that's important to see what works best for you. And I have found going on walks is like my own bubble bath, like going on walks in nature.

Ellie Pike:

So Rachael, for you, you gave up running for the most part and it was something that you so deeply loved. So, how have you taken your journey and how has that influenced how you move through life and mentor others?

Rachael Steil:

Losing running was a huge grieving process. I'm so glad you brought that up because I do hear other people who say, "I can't just stop running, I have a scholarship or whatever other sport you're doing." Or, "I've been doing this from such a young age, running means everything to me." And I was at a very similar spot, running meant everything to me. It was part of everything I did every single day. Everyone knew me as the runner, that was my identity. So losing it felt awful at that time. I didn't know how to cope with it, but I think one thing I learned through other people that I was connecting with at the time that I did lose running was learning that I could go out and do new things and make mistakes, and see other parts of my personality through making those mistakes.

Rachael Steil:

So it was almost like tackling my perfectionism helped me move away from running in a weird way. Going out and try new things and messing up or maybe going out and try new things and finding that to be very successful and fun, helped me to see that the world wasn't as scary as I might've thought. Maybe running wasn't the only thing that could make me happy and feel successful and feel fulfilled. There were so many other things that life had to offer.

Ellie Pike:

I think that's incredible, and then you're still involved with the running community as a coach. So I'm curious how this has informed the way that you mentor the next generation of runners.

Rachael Steil:

Becoming a coach has been a wonderful experience, but I had to learn so much along the way as well. It's definitely shifting perspectives and there's just so many different ways I've learned to coach, I think. I didn't realize it wasn't just about the training. When I first started, I thought, "Okay, I have all this background knowledge, this is great." And the more I started to coach, especially with the other coach I work with, I began to see how wonderful it was to connect with the athletes on another level, besides just the training.

Rachael Steil:

And I think I always knew that going into it a little because my college coach was so focused on who we were as people. So it eventually came out over time and I think opening up more about how running influences everything else that we do, but it's not the whole picture too, is really important. And learning life lessons from running, there's just so much. So, working with my athletes has really opened up my eyes to so many other things, but I make sure to also share a little bit about my own experiences, in a way that helps them to open up about anything they might be struggling with as well, and how running can help us work through that.

Rachael Steil:

We do talk about body image a little bit as well. I just want them to feel like they can come forward about anything they're struggling with. And it's not to say that we have huge therapy sessions or anything, but just feeling like they can open up if they are struggling is really important because I found that to be so valuable with my own coach in college.

Ellie Pike:

It sounds like you work really hard to be a safe place and just build relationships with your high school student runners. And I know that they will value that and learn from that, whether or not they open up in this moment or not. Moving on to the bigger picture. You've learned a lot of lessons, you are a coach. I'm sure you have things that you wish all coaches knew. So if you could just give a message out to the coaches in the world that might be listening to this podcast, what do you wish that they knew?

Rachael Steil:

I wish coaches knew how prevalent eating disorders were in running or other sports. It's way more common than even I expected when I was going through it. I even had other runners who reached out to me that I would've never suspected were struggling. And it really opened my eyes to see a lot of us don't speak up about what we're going through, especially with eating disorders, because I think so many people feel ashamed or feel like it's not bad enough, or they aren't at a certain weight, so it doesn't warrant getting help. And there's just so many misconceptions that I think keep athletes silent and coaches unaware.

Rachael Steil:

I know coaches have a lot on their plates. I know that from experience, there's a lot to manage and to put awareness for eating disorders on top of all of that is a lot. But I think what would be so helpful is for us to have a training, especially in the high school area, because I think there's some resources for college coaches. I think we still need more, but if there's some sort of training to at least expose coaches to this problem more and realize that it's not just a weight issue, it's not just about looking for the thinnest athlete, it can happen to any athlete, at any body shape or size. There's many different eating disorders. And obviously we don't want to be weighing our athletes. If there's some sort of weight requirement, that should only be conducted by the athletic trainer or a health professional.

Rachael Steil:

And I think a lot of coaches don't know those kinds of things as well. They don't know the professionals to turn to. So I understand the complexity of it. It's tough, but there can be a lot of change going forward and we do need to be talking about it more.

Ellie Pike:

Tell our community about what you've started with Running in Silence and how we can follow along.

Rachael Steil:

I started the Running in Silence website, runninginsilence.org, in 2012, when I was actually struggling with an eating disorder. I was sharing my experiences and the moment I started doing that, that's when I began to realize how prevalent this really was. So it not only broke my own denial, it fueled the fire to start doing something different because I began to see, we're not talking about this and it really needs to be discussed, for athletes and for coaches as well.

Rachael Steil:

And then I put together the book Running in Silence, which details my experience with an eating disorder, the anorexia, the binge eating, and how I recovered by meeting with my therapist and dietician. So I really wanted to focus on the recovery part of it as well and share my experience as an athlete, because I think that does sometimes look a little different. And from there, I found that speaking up about it through presentations was also helpful. I was scared to do that at first, but again, I live by that motto, by Eleanor Roosevelt, "Do one thing each day that scares you." And that was part of that process, going out and speaking about it. So I also started the nonprofit, Running in Silence, to raise awareness for eating disorders in sports and speak for the nonprofit to raise awareness.

Ellie Pike:

Thank you so much, Rachael. And we'll talk to you soon.

Rachael Steil:

Awesome. Thank you.

Ellie Pike:

Thank you for listening to Mental Note Podcast today. Rachael unlocked a powerful ability to live a more vibrant life when she decided to give up shame and embrace imperfection. But she didn't make that choice alone, she had the help of family, nutritionists, and therapist to guide her. If you identify with Rachael or are a coach or parent of an athlete, please check out the resources Rachael mentioned. They're at her website, runninginsilence.org, and we'll also link to them at mentalnotepodcast.com.

Ellie Pike:

Our show is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center. If you'd like to talk with a trained therapist to see if treatment is right for you, please call them at (877) 411-9578. Speaking of our sponsor, I'd love to invite you to an inspiring event they're hosting this coming March 4th, with activist, Sonya Renee Taylor, author of the bestselling book The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Sonya is a leader in the Body Positivity Movement and is recognized around the world for helping people see themselves and others with fierce appreciation. Register for free at eatingrecovery.com/events.

Ellie Pike:

You can learn more about the people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes, it helps others find our podcast. Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike and directed by Sam Pike. Till next time.

Presented by

Rachael Steil

Rachael Steil writes articles about athletes and eating disorders for runninginsilence.org, and is the founder of the Running in Silence 501(c)(3) nonprofit. She has delivered presentatio...

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