The way we see ourselves impacts what we think we can do very directly, and I’ve seen a shift in my reality. Yet a flawed perception lingers.
For some 30 years or more, I’ve thought of myself as out of shape and unable to do much in the way of physical exertion. And that perception led to a lot of failure in those attempts I made. Ironically, those very attempts are what has changed the reality.
Recently I started a kickboxing class. It’s a great workout that leaves me drenched in sweat and sore for days, and I’m loving it. Looking at a photo of the class we took last week, I see a huge change in my reality.
A poor self-image, based in “I can’t,” has been the hallmark of most of my early attempts at exercise. I once went to a belly dancing class that seemed like fun from the outside, but as a participant left me in tears in my car afterward. I never went back.
Maybe it’s something about the mirror image (and sometimes actual mirrors, too) of an instructor at the front of the class, but I always seem to go left when the class goes right, and I’m pretty sure I have an extra foot that gets in there somehow to trip me up. I have in the past been so self-conscious about this that I would discard many classes or activities right off the bat without even trying. I knew I would zig when the class zagged, or otherwise not get it, and I did not want to feel humiliated. That was a very strong perception about my abilities that even to this day raises its head in my psyche sometimes.
Compounding that was the part of my self-image that has to do with what my body looks like: that is to say large. For years I thought I looked like a toad in every photo and I dodged the camera assiduously for decades. My family is full of shutterbugs and that was no easy task, but I did it anyway. The last thing I wanted to see was what I looked like, because I don’t look like a model. I mean, not even close. They say with age comes wisdom, and I can say that after five decades on this planet, I really don’t care about some of that stuff like I did, say, in my 20s.
What I’ve learned through trying out classes and workouts, over and over again, trying this one, trying that one, hiking, swimming, going to rock climbing gyms, lifting weights, cardio classes—is that this middle-aged body can do a whole lot more than I ever thought it could. That feeling is empowering and liberating.
Last week in the kickboxing class, I was surrounded by women, mostly younger than I am, and all of them quite physically fit. In years past, that probably would have intimidated me enough to quit the class and—you guessed it—cry in my car, while wishing I was thin or fit enough to do what they were doing.
When we took the photo of the class last week, I was chagrined to see myself in the center, looking so much bigger than the other people in the class, and with my face beet red after a killer workout. I cringed for a moment but then the feeling passed. What I focused on instead was that I finished that killer workout—I did everything the other women did, with my focus on my own body and what I was doing.
A weird and paradoxical part of my journey toward physical fitness is that I’ve learned that as hard as I work out now is as hard as I’ll always work out. What does that mean? I have a certain level of physical fitness, which can be measured in terms of heart rate, oxygen saturation in my blood and other factors, just like everyone else. When I push myself beyond what I think I can do physically, I raise my heart rate beyond its norms and push my muscles as far as I can.
Whether I’m overweight and just got off the couch or I’m training for a 10-mile race, that will be the case. I’ll be pushing myself past what I think I can do. My muscles will be sore, I’ll be tired and breathing hard, and I’ll sleep like a baby that night.
The more I have pushed my comfort zone, the more things I am comfortable doing. That’s kind of a no-brainer, except that when I started pushing my comfort zone I thought I would always be uncomfortable, just like I was at the beginning. But I’m not—my reality has changed. Now I just need my perception to finish catching up.