I recently joined a gym. For the last three weeks I have gone faithfully at least three times each week. I’ve scheduled time on my calendar during my workdays and I have kept the appointment. I have decided that my health is a non-negotiable and that when I have a date with myself, I will show up.
This only happened after I learned, deep down, that I’ve had the order of things backwards for a long time. You see, I used to think: When I start getting more fit and less flabby, I will love myself. And now I think: I love myself. Period. And what follows is this: When you love someone, you take good care of her. You take her to the doctor. You feed her food that makes her body feel good and work at its best. You let her rest when she is tired. You help her body get strong and you give her whatever permission she needs to be well.
(And, it also took a dear person, an angel, really, to sneak into my calendar and hold time. And sneak me brochures and prices of nearby gyms. You know who you are. You plant the seeds at just the right time.)
And as beautiful as that is, loving myself is hard to do sometimes when I walk in there. It’s a super-friendly place. I chose it only after looking at lots of options. I like it. The staff is great. All that. But me? I’m very different than I was the last time I seriously worked out in a real gym. I remember my strength and conditioning class at Liberty High School, back when I was, well, in HIGH SCHOOL and training for track and tennis and basketball. And I was fast and I was strong. And now? That isn’t the story anymore. I’m a little uncomfortable with myself. It’s like I’ve shown up to this date with myself and I get there and the gal looks WAY different than I had imagined. 30 pounds heavier, a lot slower around the track, and not bench pressing like she used to. It’s like a bad on-line dating experience. Expectations are no match for reality.
I’ve noticed one thought, one narrative that keeps showing up when I’m at the gym: I don’t want others to think it’s hard for me. Which is so bizarre–because this is a place that is actually dedicated to the pursuit of challenge. People come here to literally give themselves a hard time, to push limits, to stretch themselves, all to get stronger and build endurance. People come here to sweat. And I don’t want them to see me sweat. AT THE GYM. So I’m poised on the stationary bike like a princess just taking it easy. Or doing leg extensions and trying to make sure I’m not too breathy since I’m only lifting, like, 4 pounds. I tried to bench press 15 pounds yesterday and was shaking from the weight. Puh-lease! I look around hoping no one sees my shaky hands or the tiny weights.
I don’t want anyone to think it’s hard for me.
And there it is. That sentence has two parts: I don’t want anyone to think…..it’s hard for me. I struggle so much with wanting to control what others think of me. And I struggle so much with thinking that if I was really good, then nothing would be hard for me. I don’t like others to see me sweat. Or maybe I don’t like coming face to face with the reality that some stuff is beyond my capacity. Maybe I don’t like that I have limits. That I’m human. It’s all a bit too…vulnerable for me.
When a colleague gives me critical feedback on a paper I wrote, I cringe. When someone on our staff questions a decision I made, I get scared. When I don’t know an answer that I think I should know, I am embarrased. Somehow, somewhere, I have connected love and acceptance with perfetion. And not just perfection, but perfection with ease. When I’m effortlessly strong and good and competent at all things big and small, then I will be worthy of love and acceptance. I have to say, this is not ideal. This is a hard gig to keep up for longer than, say, 12 seconds at a time.
So far I’ve loved myself enough to keep showing up. And then I get there and I am asked to love myself in my weakness, in my struggle, in my confusion about gym equipment. I am asked to love my 35 year old self. I am asked if I will come back tomorrow. I am asked if I only love this gal if she’s perfect or if I’ll take a chance on showing up again tomorrow and facing my limits again. I say yes. I’ll keep showing up. Because the right question isn’t “what do I want them to think of me?” The question is “how do I want to live in this moment?” Do I want to live scared and, as Brene’ Brown says, “hustling for my own worthiness?” or do I want to live out of deep, unconditional love? Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God, asks: “If Love could speak, what would it say?” I think Love would say “Let them see you sweat, darling. And here, have some water to cool you off.”