I am someone who is a bit of an overachiever. I’m definitely Type-A, where the A stands for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Also, I’m in academia which is, let’s say, really really really frakking competitive and stressful. I love teaching and working with undergraduates so SO much that it’s worth it, but it’s a recipe for me to be overwhelmed. How do I balance this? I do something that I’m terrible at.
My specific thing to be terrible at is crossfit. No… don’t close the tab! I swear I’m not going to be preachy about it and yes it’s a bit of a cult. What matters is that I happened to find a local gym where people are really cool and coaches are incredibly helpful, even for someone like me.
To know what someone like me is like in the gym, let’s back up a moment. Let’s go back to elementary school. I played softball for many years. Now, when I say “I played softball,” I mean I warmed the bench, kicked dandelions in right field, and scrunched up as small as possible to make my strike zone tiny enough to get walked because I couldn’t hit a damn thing. I liked sports, and I thought I was okay at it. I wasn’t. I’m quite terrible. But I wanted so badly to be good… and it was difficult and painful to accept that, dude, you’re terrible at this, please stop.
I hated gym class (think Daria theme song). I went to a sporty summer camp… and I was always picked last for teams. We did a fitness test every year, and I failed just about everything. (I could balance on one foot, that was about it.) By high school I had accepted my lack of sportiness. In senior year we had a choice: play a club or varsity sport or join a commercial gym. I couldn’t afford a gym membership… so I joined bowling club. This club basically consisted of un-athletic seniors who wanted to get out of gym class. Physical activities were just never going to be my thing.
In college, I was required to take two health-related classes. I took CPR for one, very useful, but in my senior year I went out on a limb and took karate. I actually liked it! For a while that is… I didn’t get very far and quit a year into grad school. However, by then, I’d found bellydance. Now, I’d never been a dancer either. I stopped going to dance classes when I was 5 years old because the shows were too stressful. I was always hidden in the back line for our elementary school group talent show performances. But, with a few of my grad school classmates, I felt adventurous and tried a bellydance class.
Bellydance may not seem like a fitness activity a first, but you have to look at how you train for it. I joined a club, and then a troupe, and I trained in the studio for far more hours per week than was prudent for a grad student sometimes. And when I say trained, I mean we drilled and drilled and drilled until I was sore the next day. But it kept me sane… or so I said. It helped me to be physical and creative, but being in a performing troupe turned out to be almost as stressful grad school itself. Look, I was in my 20s, I didn’t always make the best decisions.
When I moved for my postdoc, I looked for a bellydance group to join, but I didn’t find one that trained the way had I trained. And I realized, I liked the dance, but I had liked the women I danced with even more. Without them around, I dropped it… and went back to being pretty sedate. For a while I went to the campus gym, but only because our temporary offices were literally in the same building. But I didn’t really stick with it. I was always going to be unfit.
Before I knew it, I was in my 30s. I’d moved to New Hampshire, and I’m starting to realize that doing some physical activity will actually be beneficial for my health… my body is getting older! I have a friend who had been doing crossfit and it sounded absolutely ridiculous, but there had been some positive coverage of it on NPR, so I decided to give it a try. One little spark of my inner child wanted to do something athletic.
I went into the gym for a trial. People were doing things with weights and bars and their bodies that seemed impossible for me. Luckily, the coaches were wonderful at teaching newbies. I signed up for “on ramp” which gets you used to the basics before you join regular classes. At one point, I picked up a 35-pound women’s barbell and put it on my back and I tried to squat… I fell on my ass. Part of my brain thought I should be humiliated… but instead, I laughed. It’s me, I’m not supposed to be good at this! And I’m a beginner so it’s okay. Coach gave me a much lighter training bar and I moved on.
But I wasn’t always going to be a beginner. Fast forward to now. I’m at the same gym 5 years later, and I still come in last or next-to-last in almost every workout. I still use the training bar for certain lifts. I still occasionally fall over in a way that is hilarious. And I love it.
There’s something freeing about doing something that you are objectively bad at. When I enrolled in a worldwide competition, I came in 77262nd place. When I did an actual competition with some teammates, we came in dead last. I still can’t do a pull up or do a handstand against the wall, and forget that thing where the jumprope goes under your feet TWICE for every jump.
And still I love it. I love that there’s no feeling of competition with others, even when I’m in an actual competition. I love that there are no high expectations. I love that if I do want to compete, I’m only competing against my own previous scores or times or lifts. I love that I can just show up, do the things they tell me to do, laugh if I fall over, fist bump everyone at the end, and do it again the next day. I love that I can come in, turn off my anxiety brain, and just lift or row or whatever the thing is that my body is asked to do. For a few minutes, I’m free of my brain and living in my body.
I’ve tried setting goals for myself in the gym. Lift this weight by this date. Get a pull up by this date. Show up X times a week. They were always too ambitious, and they took the fun out of it for me. The anxiety crept in and it made me want to hide under the covers. I would go months without showing up. Whenever I did that, my mental and physical health suffered. My knees would ache, my mind would race, and fear of going back would overwhelm me. It was counter-productive.
So I let those goals go. I set a modest monthly goal for myself, 12 classes a month, and that was a purely financial decision. That number is high enough to justify my monthly membership as opposed to going to the pay-per-class system which I KNOW would de-motivate me further. Turns out, a month is a much nicer span of time over which to achieve a goal, especially when you’re the type that can be overwhelmed by a mental illness for days at a time.
I just finished up my fourth month of achieving this goal, and I’m still the slowest athlete. I don’t get a “personal record” on my lifts very often. But I feel good. For that hour a day, I don’t feel the anxiety of performing in a judgmental world to my own judgmental brain. I throw myself into it… and I’m free. And you know what? Without even trying, I do manage to achieve some cool things. Remember how I fell on my ass back-squatting an empty barbell? My current one-rep max is 145 pounds.
So I encourage you to find some activity that gives you joy, something that you will never be objectively “good” at. Something with no goal, no outcome, just the pleasure of being in that moment doing something you enjoy. I think we all need that these days more than ever.