Welcoming Vulnerability: The Importance of Being at the Back of the Pack


By Dr. Allison Belger

In my early twenties, I went on a couple of serious backpacking excursions with Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).  I had never been backpacking before and had never camped or hiked for more than three days at a time.  I was a lover of creature comforts and, though always active in outdoor sports, at the end of the day I preferred running water and a warm bed to the alternatives in nature.

My second outdoor adventure was a semester of mountaineering and sea kayaking in the rugged, cold, and wet outback of Patagonia for 75 days with no access to civilization.  I was about as far out of my comfort zone as possible: no running water, no heat, no phones, no hairdryer.  What I had that served me especially well was solid physical fitness and some attributes of mental toughness—persistence, grit, sheer stubbornness, and a high tolerance for discomfort.  These qualities made life in the extreme as tolerable as possible and allowed me to keep my sanity, despite being soaking wet for most of the 75 days and without food for many of them.

Today I went to a sing-along version of the Disney movie Frozen with my family and some friends in celebration of their daughter’s birthday.  On the ride over, I asked my older daughter to sing one of the songs, just for kicks.  Singing’s her thing.  As she sang, I daydreamed about what it would be like to be able to sing like that (I’ve always wanted to be a really fabulous singer), and what it would feel like to try to develop a singing voice at this stage of my life.  I thought about how different it is to participate in an activity at which you excel—or at least feel competent–from attempting something in which you lack talent or are a complete novice.  This line of daydreaming brought me right back to Patagonia.

At one point on the trip, I injured my knee during the glacier travel, and while I could continue, I was not able to take on extra gear or be in front navigating and leading–the way I had in the days prior as one of the stronger and fitter members of the group.  In fact, with a bum knee, I became one of those who needed help with my pack and who held up the pace traversing difficult terrain.  While my status as a “straggler” lasted only a few days, the impact of it stayed with me for quite some time.  I didn’t like the feeling of incompetency that came with falling behind and slowing down the pace of the group.  I much preferred to be the agile, fast, and able participant who could lead the way when the going got tough.  More than twenty years have elapsed and I still remember how much I hated that feeling — and how meaningful and instructive the experience turned out to be.

You see, prior to being at the back of the pack, I didn’t have much empathy for those who struggled with the physical demands of the trip.  I’d been annoyed at times and found their complaints and doubts to be draining.  I was sometimes frustrated that we couldn’t move more quickly as a group, especially when speed meant a better chance at a dry camp or warm food before sunset.  With my injury came a small taste of what it felt like to pull up the rear; it was just enough of a sampling for me to know that I didn’t like it AND to give me greater sensitivity to what it must have felt like for my companions who struggled to keep up.

Returning to present-day life, I sometimes think back to that Patagonia trip.  Experiences that challenge so intensely, especially when we are stripped of the creature comforts of everyday life, tend to set up shop in our psyches and surface meaningfully from time to time.   The message from my trip and for today’s article is this:  Be a novice sometimes.  Do things that scare you and challenge your abilities.  Find a way to shake up the status quo and let yourself take a place in the back of the pack. Learn a new skill, try a new sport, take up ballroom dancing – even if you have two left feet. Doing so will probably give you a new appreciation for the challenges others face in pursuits that might come easily to you. If you are a coach of any sport or teacher of any content, it is especially important that you know, firsthand, the psychological process of learning and development. Remaining solely in a position of competence offers you little appreciation for the critical experiences of your athletes or students—an appreciation that will make you far more effective in your leadership role.

Self-preservation and other aspects of human nature often prevent us from trying activities that make us feel awkward and incompetent. By branching out and forcing ourselves to be a beginner sometimes–with all of the uncertainties this entails–we just may access new and hidden parts of ourselves. Becoming a student and trying new things may lead to personal growth and a heightened tolerance for uncertainty, along with increased empathy for others in their own challenges.  It’s one of the things about CrossFit that is so intriguing and enriching for those of us who do it:  opportunities abound for being a novice and for having one’s capacity for learning and vulnerability tested regularly.  The appreciation of both the abilities and struggles of our training companions is an important part of the group workout experience.

So get out there and try new things.  Take a singing lesson, strap on some roller skates, learn a new language or try surfing.  Be unsure of yourself, question your ability, be clumsy and slow. Let the self-reflection begin and your empathy increase, and be sure to have fun while doing it!

*Related reading from the archives:

Success is Important, but Don’t You Go Cherry-picking!

Out-of-Comfort Zones, Exercise High, and Visualization: Powerful Ingredients for Change

Blocked Practice Versus Random Practice: Shake Things up in Your Training and Your Life








  1. […] read the latest from Psychologywod here to learn about the psychological importance of trying new things.  Being a novice has many […]

  2. […] Love Read–Welcoming Vulnerability: The Importance of Being at the Back of the Pack, from Psychology WOD. Another great one. Watch–CrossFit Games Update: April 22, 2014. […]

  3. […] breaks out. This is why I love my neighborhood: the people are amazing. 7. {from Psychology WOD} Welcoming Vulnerability: The importance of being at the back of the pack. This post really stayed with me over the last month. (And she recommends strapping on some roller […]

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