As I’ve been out for my regular runs in the last couple of weeks, I’ve thought a lot about limiting beliefs. Such as “I hate running.” “Running is something I will never do.” Other limiting beliefs of the last few years have included “I’m not a person who does yoga,” and, “No matter what I do, I will never like this body.”
I’m 47 years old and these thoughts have been with me for most of my life. As a young person I was taught that bodies like mine didn’t do athletic things, that PE was something to be endured (and hell, sports education in school is so poor who could blame me), and that the only real point to fitness was being thin (ie: attractive). But mostly I was taught that my body was uncontrollable by me, and somehow wrong in its shape and operation – a feeling that has persisted through my life despite the fact I have never had a chronic illness, major medical problem, or other condition that bars me from doing whatever I want to do.
For the last three years I have been attending yoga regularly. Since October of last year I have been back at the gym in a serious way (focused on power lifting). And this fall I suddenly found myself running on the treadmill in the gym for longer and longer stretches of time as part of my workout warm-up. Even so, I wasn’t exactly ready to commit to “running”. The treadmill was straightforward, while outside seemed much harder. However, running inside is pretty boring, so I got over that and started experimenting with jogging around the lake while up at the cabin in early October. It’s only been a couple of months, but it’s pretty clear to me that even though running is hard some of the time, I *can* do it.
A few weeks ago, my fitness pal Belinda asked me if I wanted to go for a run instead of our regular Tuesday walk. I said “only if you accept that I am the slowest runner in the universe, and that I don’t know if I can run with someone else.” We met at our usual time and ran 5 km around the neighbourhood, chatting most of the way (except the beginning which was all uphill and had me winded). It went by pretty fast and at the end she was more than a little chuffed because she’s been looking for a running partner for awhile. She said, “You are your own worst enemy. For the last year I’ve heard you say I can’t this and I can’t that (note: we were in a fitness class together last fall) – and every time you end up doing it. You could just do it without saying the I can’t part first.”
Right. In other words, I could just do the thing without saying ”I can’t do the thing” before doing the thing.
Yesterday I started a new strength program – Stronger by the Day – which sends out a new workout weekly, but contains the three main powerlifts. I decided it was time for a change in my workouts because left to my own devices I tend to stay away from stuff I don’t like – and I like the idea of changing it up to some degree every week. One of the main exercises being focused on at the moment though is pull-ups. And honestly (this isn’t negative self-talk), I cannot do a non-assisted pull-up to save my life, nor have I ever been able to. I’m starting out at the very beginning – with dead hangs (hanging off the bar for as long as I can) – before moving to negative pull ups, iso hangs, and so on. But as much as this isn’t an area of strength I currently have, one thing I’ve learned in the last little while is that most things just come down to practice over time. So I’m dead-hanging and not beating myself up about it, not telling myself I’m weak, not feeling internal resistance because “I can never do this”.
As with running, I’m beginning at the beginning – which is humbling, but also freeing because there is nowhere to go but up (literally – and I’ll have to train hard to get there).
In the last year and a bit of power lifting, I’ve learned that the hurdles we face in lifting increasingly heavier weights are rarely physiological, and almost all psychological. It’s true that there are some real physical barriers, but it’s also true that a lot of what blocks progress is a combination of limiting belief and nervous system constraints. An example of this from my own lifting progression this past summer when I put what I thought was a couple extra pounds on the bar for deadlifts. I had intended to put 197 pounds on the bar (2 more than the previous week). It was only after I had lifted two of the heaviest sets of my life (I couldn’t figure out why it was so damned difficult) that Brian walked over and pointed out that I had put 217 pounds on the bar! (No wonder it was so heavy.) Lesson being, I was much stronger than I *thought* I was and able to lift more once my ideas of what I could lift got out of the way.
Fitness isn’t the only realm in which the self-limiting thoughts creep in, of course. Creative life, work, relationships – all these are fodder for negative self-talk and deprecating internal commentary. But fitness is the place where it’s become most obvious to me how much I construct my life through the things I tell myself. And so I’m working on undoing that as my monthly road-running mileage ticks up and I return to progressive overload on the heavy weights after a few months of maintenance. One of the unexpected benefits of working out has been some of this insight, which I plan to take into other areas of my life in 2021.