A Note from Shelly: A few weeks ago, I went hiking with my friends Jack and Joanna. Jack is a personal trainer and one of the wisest people I know, and Joanna continually amazes me with her weight-lifting accomplishments. (By the way–Joanna is a grandma, and I met her at a strength showcase event in which she was participating. I will write a post about her someday soon!).
Were were all discussing how good and strong hiking makes us feel. I mentioned that for me, exercising as a way to feel good and strong is much better than trying to exercise to maintain or lose weight.
For me personally, focusing on the second thing turns exercise into a punishment, and and that makes me want to stop.
Jack said, “Our spirits will not tolerate abuse, and that is why we can’t maintain exercise routines used as a means of punishing ourselves.” This was so beautifully said and insightful that I asked Jack to write a guest blog post about it, and he did.
The following post is what he wrote, and it is so helpful to me. I think it will be to you, too. (He let me do illustrations for it.)
In the simplest terms, there are two ways to approach physical activity: to build yourself up or to tear yourself down.
You can come to activity, exercise, training, or working out because you believe there is something wrong with you and are hoping that this will fix it. OR you can begin from a place of knowing that you are #alreadyawesome and that engaging in this activity will allow you to express and increase your innate awesomeness. (I recommend the second way.)
As I said, these are the simplest terms. Simple, however, does not mean easy.
Why We Forget Our Awesomeness
It is not necessarily easy to believe that you are awesome, especially not in a world that contains so many forces that work so hard to make you believe otherwise. There are forces that constantly communicate to us that we are shameful, gross, unworthy, and losers. I will collectively call such forces the Forces of Not Awesome, and I will return to this idea shortly.
Because it is so easy for us to lose sight of our awesomeness, what is often required is a little extra fuel to help push ourselves in the direction we hope to go—in this case, in the direction of using exercise to express and increase our awesomeness.
While engaging in regular exercise is an excellent way to cultivate awareness of our inherent awesomeness, when we are trapped in a false mind-state that tells us that we are the total opposite of awesome, it can be very hard to engage in activities that celebrate it.
In other words, when we falsely believe that we are not worth much, we are less inclined to behave in ways that reflect our un-erasable worthiness. We often fail to treat ourselves with the respect and love that we deserve.
So, often exercise (or other health-promoting behaviors like getting adequate sleep, using targeted actions to manage stress or allowing ourselves to eat something besides stale tortilla chips over the sink) becomes one more tail in the whip that we beat ourselves with for not being “good enough”.
So how do we break this cycle of failing to recognize our own awesomeness and how do we stop stewing in self-hate and guilt? And how does this relate to exercise?
The Fuel for Change
Because recognizing our awesomeness is hard and because smelly sacks of self-hate and guilt sometimes fill our thoughts about ourselves, I want to remind us of simplicity.
While our goal in exercising is usually to be able to look into the nearest reflective surface and exclaim, “Hey hot stuff!”, that goals often isn’t a great place to start because of the smelly sacks of self-hate and guilt that often plague our thoughts.
So instead of trying to start exercising motivate by that goal, it can sometimes be simpler (and yes, hopefully, easier) to start from a different place
To get ourselves headed in the right direction, it is often better to take a long, hard, cold look at where we are (even if it is painful) and to recognize how powerfully it does not suit us.
And in the process of this long, hard, cold looking we start to see the Forces of Not-Awesome I mentioned before that are working against us. When we realize that the Forces of Not-Awesome are purposefully sabotaging us, this most often results in anger. And the great thing about anger? It burns, because it is fuel.
The Power of Expressed Anger
That is the purpose of anger: to propel us towards the actions we need to take in order to change our situation. And this fuel can be the deciding factor when we are facing a task that is not easy, like this one that we have before us of seeing our awesomeness clearly and celebrating, expressing, and increasing it.
Right about now you may be thinking that connecting with anger sounds like a lot of work. You may be thinking that your feelings of self-hate and guilt are probably already painful enough and now I am asking you to work yourself up into a lather of rage over those feelings, which might seem to make the problem even worse.
Or, you may have problems feeling anger, and you might be saying to yourself, Where is this anger supposed to come from? What bottomless well of rage power does this dude think I have inside me? I mean, if I could access those feelings and harness them for change, I would already be taking trips to I’m-So-Awesome Land, and I wouldn’t need to be reading this essay in the first place!
No worries, Friend. Trust me when I tell you that I am well versed in the overwhelming fatigue that comes along with being confused about your true state of awesomeness. I lived deep in that sucking mire for most of my time on this earth.
And you can also trust me when I tell you that nothing will shoot you out of that grody swamp faster than a good dose of anger and that you do not have to work to find that anger magic.
It is already inside you and it is just waiting for you to point it in the right direction. Anger is your birthright as a human (just as are all of your emotions).
Harnessing Anger for Positive Change
Anger is not pleasant, and that is part of its power. The sheer discomfort caused by anger is how it propels us toward making a change. When we learn to recognize our anger, listen to it, and transmute it into a force for positive change, it ceases to torment us. It no longer makes us sick or creates negative situations for us.
If we want to harness our anger for positive change, we must learn to hear and see it. I promise that you have already experienced the most powerful kind of anger.
The most powerful kind of anger is the anger of your spirit against its own mistreatment. The human spirit is indomitable. The human spirit will not allow itself to be degraded or oppressed. The human spirit is awesome, and if you try to tell it that it is not awesome, it may be temporarily subdued, it may fall into a short period of hibernation, but it will always come back with a roar.
It will tell you in no uncertain terms that it is indeed the most very awesome of all things; that it is a clear and direct line to all of the awesomeness in the universe; and you are not to treat that as anything less than what it truly is: unbridled perfection temporarily housed in beautifully imperfect, and more-than-sufficient, flesh.
Remembering Your Anger
You have very likely experienced the anger of your spirit more than once in your life, both on your own behalf and on behalf of others.
You have felt this anger as a child when a teacher or other adult in your life tried to shame you for being your most authentic self.
You have felt it when you saw families ripped apart at the border or heard of unarmed men murdered by police.
You have felt it when a bully called you a name or attacked you for being different. When you witnessed children disowned by their families for being honest about who they love. When a magazine headline or TV ad made you feel less-than because your body doesn’t look like the narrow definition of “beauty.” When a friend or partner confided in you that they feel ugly because they are too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall or “too much” of anything else that could never be more than simply their appearance.
There are a million and one ways that the Forces of Not-Awesome will try to crush our awesomeness.
You have felt and seen these offenses against your spirit and the spirit of others countless times and felt anger and rage. And thank god that you have!
The rage that comes from witnessing such behavior is clarifying! It tells you as clearly as possible that what you are witnessing is wrong and it gives you the power to step up, speak up and make changes.
The anger of your spirit speaks in many ways. Its voice can be a boiling rage, or it can be a creeping nausea. It can be a tremble in your hands or voice, and it can be a furrowed brow. It can be a clenched jaw. It can be an unrelenting whisper inside you that says, “this is wrong this is wrong this is wrong.”
And it can be the thing that pushes you to act in ways that you never would have imagined, giving you courage and strength you never thought you possessed. Anger speaks in discomfort, of course, because that is how it gets us to act.
Many of us have learned, however, to ignore this voice inside us. If you are being told again and again that you are not awesome and that the things that you thought were awesome should actually be a source of shame, then you probably learned to deny your awesomeness, and you also learned you were not entitled to anger. So, you learned to ignore or push it down.
The problem with ignoring our anger out is that it doesn’t go away. It simply transforms into a deeper, darker thing like despair. Despair also speaks, but it speaks in disease.
Using Anger to Connect with Our Awesomeness Through Exercise
Let me tell you one way that you may have heard your anger speaking to you. At some point in your life, you have probably been told, either explicitly or implicitly, that there is something wrong with your body.
You were led to believe by the Forces of Not-Awesome that you are “too much” of something (too fat and too skinny are the most popular, but there is an endless stream of “too much” as well as “not enough” messages we hear every day).
Of course, your spirit railed against this offense. Your spirit is neither “too much” or “not enough.” Your spirit always is #justright! It is awesome, it is perfect exactly as is! And so you felt angry, as you should.
But, if you had already been subject to the Forces of Not-Awesome (which, sadly, most of us have experienced from very early on in life) then you likely believed that you didn’t deserve your anger (even though your anger is one of the things that makes you awesome).
So, you might have pushed your anger down, stifled it, or shut it up so that the discomfort would go away and you could continue hiding, hoping that no one else would see how not awesome you are.
But, once again, anger doesn’t go away, and repressed anger often makes us turn against ourselves.
So, when the Forces of Not-Awesome told you there was something wrong with you and you stuffed down your anger, you may have turned it against yourself. You may have thought, Why am I too ______? Why aren’t I _______ enough?
And that anger would have done what anger does: propelled you to make a change. However because your anger was repressed and turned against yourself, you began to believe that if you could be less of one thing or more of another then you would finally be awesome and the discomfort would go away.
And so you started to exercise. You were angry at your body and you wanted to change it, and you maybe even hurt it to force it to change.
This process drove you to pain, exhaustion, and more self-loathing.
And eventually you stopped exercising. You “lost momentum.” You “lacked motivation.” You were “lazy.” You “fell off the wagon.” See how all of those things are in quotes? That’s my clever way of telling you that isn’t what really happened.
Here’s what really happened: you quit exercising because you turned your legitimate anger at the Forces of Not-Awesome against yourself and your spirit, and you expressed this in punishing exercise.
When we exercise in an effort to change yourself that is based upon the lie that something is wrong with you, this is an offense against our spirit.
So, when you exercise in this way, your spirit became angry and shut down your efforts at exercise because these efforts were hurting you. Your spirit does its best to protect you from harm, even if the harm comes from you.
That is how you have likely heard and experienced your anger in relation to exercise.
If you ever tried to exercise in an effort to change yourself, and if those efforts were fueled by the misconception that there is something wrong with you, then those efforts were injurious. That doesn’t make you bad, and it doesn’t make exercise bad.
But that injury does make your spirit angry, and it will always do its best to speak its anger.
What is the Alternative?
Now that you see how you have already experienced the righteous anger of your spirit you can train yourself to hear that anger again, and when you hear your anger you can learn to respond to it appropriately.
The appropriate response to anger is action, rather than repression. This allows it to become the fuel that I spoke of, this allows you to harness this tremendous power you have to instigate positive change.
Action transmutes anger, it transforms it into something else and so action also heals anger.
One of the most powerful ways to transform your anger is to choose to act with and from love.
If you choose to exercise as an act of love for yourself you will find that you do not struggle to do it. This often means choosing ways to move that you enjoy. It can also mean choosing ways to move that challenge you (because engaging in a challenge shows you that you are strong and capable and, most important, able to learn and grow stronger and more capable).
Choosing to exercise as an act of love almost always means not choosing ways to move because they “burn calories” or “scorch fat.”
Choosing ways to move that build you up, as opposed to tearing you down, means that whatever you are choosing you are doing so not because you think you have to change but because you are already awesome and this way of moving expresses and expands that awesomeness.
But, There’s That Problem of Self-Loathing Again
Ah, but didn’t I say before that it is hard to do this if you don’t first believe you are awesome? I did. And this is true.
But how can you choose ways of moving that come from a place from loving yourself if you currently hate yourself? Is it an unsolvable riddle?
No. It is simply a puzzle that must be side-stepped in order to be solved.
If we wait to believe that we are worthy of love in order to treat ourselves with love (or, if we wait to believe that we are awesome in order to act awesomely towards ourselves) we will be waiting forever.
However, if we simply start with a loving action and allow ourselves, for the moment, to not worry about loving ourselves we can make a huge impact.
Here is what I propose: now that you have taken some time to think about your relationship with exercise and have perhaps found a way to hear the voice of anger within that, hold onto your anger as the powerful motivator that it is. Use that anger to motivate you to try something different, something new.
And here is the new and different thing that you will try: go back to exercise, but instead of choosing a form of exercise that tries to change you choose one that allows you to express yourself (ironically, this can often be the exact same way of exercising simply approached in a different way — but you may need to try something a bit different at first to help yourself get the hang of this).
Here are some possibilities for you to consider: dance, powerlifting, yoga, gymnastics, ice skating, kettlebell sport, hula hooping, Indian clubs, rock climbing, strongman, horseback riding.
How to Get Started
It can be very helpful, when making your selection and focusing your mind on where this decision is coming from to imagine that you are making a choice for your child, partner, best friend, pet or another person/animal in your life who you love deeply. If you wanted this person/animal to feel good, to have the space to feel expansive and capable and to connect with how truly incredible you already know that they are, what would you choose for them?
Instead of trying to convince yourself that you love yourself (which I have found from experience it is almost impossible to do, especially if you are convinced that you are worthless or that something is wrong with you that must be “fixed”), simply pick the most loving action you can take for yourself. Even if you have to imagine that you are doing it for someone or something else. Even if it makes no sense to you at first. Even if it seems dumb.
Remember your anger, remember the fuel that you have. Go back to it and tap into it to help you select and take these actions. Take these actions over and over and over and a surprising thing happens.
This is something that I, and many, many of my clients can attest to. If you take loving action toward yourself in a regular fashion you eventually begin to love yourself.
In other words, if you act as if you are already awesome (whether you believe it or not), you will eventually come to believe it. If you change how you treat yourself, you will change how you see yourself. And this changes everything!
And when I say everything, I mean everything. Making loving choices for ourselves changes how we see ourselves, how we relate to the world, our ability to work for what we want in the world (imagine how much energy you would have if you didn’t spend a good chunk of your time feeling bad about yourself and mentally bullying yourself!), it changes our relationship with ourselves and with others, it gives us full access to our lives and all the potential that resides within.
That is awesome, truly and powerfully awesome. Just like you.
Jack X. Taylor is an artist, writer, trainer and coach and the creator of The Compass, a program that teaches powerful skills of self-care to everyone from busy executives and strength athletes to teenagers and (self-described) “fat, middle-aged theater teachers.”
The Compass 2019 begins in January! This 8 week, foundational group coaching program is great for folks who are just learning about self-care and those who are looking to deeper their practice, since self-care is the basis of all other successful positive change! You can sign up to get info about the special “Cyber Monday” sale by visiting: https://www.jackxtaylor.com/freestuff