Hands up, who among you want to be better versions of yourselves? Everybody? Yeah, I thought so. Ok, let’s have another show of hands: how many of you have quit going after something worthwhile because someone else’s success made it seem impossible?
The comparison game is not always a fun one to play, and I dare say that in the pursuit of better health and fitness it is the one single thing that scares more people away than anything else. It’s not the gym (or the people in it), it’s not the lifestyle, it’s not lack of time…it’s our inherent need to measure ourselves against the people around us. Most of the time we come up short. When this happens, people tend toward one of two categories: they either get motivated to compete with everyone else (and join a Crossfit box) or they retreat to an environment where their weaknesses aren’t on display. Fight or flight.
Except that with your health/fitness, flight isn’t really an option. Sure, you could bury your head in the sand for five or ten years and pretend that you don’t have time, don’t like the lifestyle, can’t afford it, etc. But EVERYONE needs to take care of their health sooner or later…and if you wait until you’re hurting to start looking after it, well, you may end up wishing you had started sooner. Anyway, people end up starting and stopping ad nauseum; trying this or that quick fix, spending crazy amounts of money to make it happen faster, and growing resentful of the process, the fitness industry in general, and the people who appear to have it together…because they’re the ones making everyone else look bad, right?
If learning ANY OTHER SKILL damages your calm and makes you feel bad about yourself, you have the option to just stop. Zero consequences. Not so with health and fitness.
Storytime: I hit a big milestone last week – I lost 50lbs. FINALLY. It was a long, S L O W process, and hitting that milestone coincided perfectly with the 2-year anniversary of my return to work at World Health after an 18-month hiatus. (There’s lots more to say about the weight loss thang but it’s going to wait for another day.) Suffice it to say that on that June 1st, 2015, I was happy to be back. They took a picture of me that day to put on the social media page, so taking and posting a pic two years later to document the changes that have happened seemed like the thing to do.
The next day, one of my training clients mentioned the post to me. “I liked your before and after pictures,” she said. “They were inspiring. But they also made me feel bad about myself.”
I was floored. What? I had to pause for a moment to think about how to answer, because it simply had never occurred to me that a post like that would make someone else feel bad – I mean, even having lost 50lbs I am nothing special to look at; I’m not shredded or jacked or model material by any stretch and in fact being in front of a camera gives me the heebie-jeebies. More importantly though, she and I are very different people with different lives, different demands on our time, and different priorities. Comparing weight loss success is kind of irrelevant, of which the logical side of her was fully aware…but my success still got under her skin a little bit and made her question whether it was worth continuing.
And then? Then the same thing happened to me.
A couple of days later I was on my couch with a glass of wine. My kids were outside jumping on the trampoline and my dog was fast asleep with her head in my lap. The windows were open and there was a soft breeze blowing: one of those early summer evenings where all is right with the world. I started idly scrolling through social media. Now, under normal circumstances I love seeing what everybody in my little corner of the world is lifting, what they’re struggling with and what battles they have won, whether it’s in person in the gym or on social media later. It’s terrifically inspiring and gets me excited to go hit the iron hard, even on days that I might not really want to otherwise. On the flipside, I always hope that the stuff I send out into the interwebs does the same for someone else. But, every once in a while the opposite happens: I let my ego get bruised and it sends me into a tailspin.
What I saw that wigged me out that night was one of my powerlifting/social media buddies, who happens to be roughly half my size and also roughly half my age bench pressing the kind of weight in the gym that I have only ever hit once in competition. I got angry at myself for not making faster progress, I ate a bunch of junk food (to distract from the bad feelings? To punish myself? Fucked if I know), ultimately decided that I was a terrible waste of space, and went to bed feeling ill. Hello, my name is Hannah and my entire sense of self-worth is tied to the weight on my barbell.
Ridiculous, right? Everything is going right in my life, and I get hella bent out of shape because someone else (someone who I know and like and would under any other circumstances be totally cheering for) has a bigger bench press than me? I mean, seriously – I can’t even tell that story with a straight face, because FIRST WORLD MEATHEAD PROBLEMS. On the other hand – I admit it – I get bugged about my bench press. It is the weakest of my big three lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press) and it is a constant source of niggling frustration. It’s easy to see why, when I was feeling exhausted and fragile and primed to come apart, my bench press poverty was the fault line.
Here’s the thing though: we all compare ourselves to each other mercilessly. It’s human. We aren’t likely to stop so we may as well find a way to accept that tendency and do something constructive with it, rather than let it eat away at our own successes. Which, it is worth noting, we are (consciously or unconsciously) choosing to turn a blind eye to in the heat of the moment, while we are busy comparing what may be someone else’s best qualities to our own weak points.
There are a million and a half self-help articles out there on how to stop comparing ourselves to others. I would submit that it just ain’t gonna happen so we might as well turn that tendency into fuel for our own fire…because if we didn’t see other people out there succeeding at stuff, why would we strive to be great at anything? If we were all alone in the world there would be no reason to pursue…oh, I don’t know…a bigger bench press, for example.
But how do you do that? HOW do you make that tendency to compare into something constructive instead of destructive?
I don’t have a simple answer for that question. I do know that I used to let other people’s successes drag me down a lot more than I do now, and meltdowns like last week happen less and less. I think that happened in part because I learned to get outside myself enough to realize that other people’s successes don’t detract from my own, and in part because I got old and chilled out a little bit. And I started drinking more.
Just kidding, on that last part – sort of.
I have conversations with people about this stuff on a pretty regular basis, and the mentality that the gym is a discouraging/unhealthy/undesirable/unwelcoming environment is pervasive. I’m calling bullshit on that one; most (not all) fitness facilities make a huge effort to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone. Methods and degrees of success vary but suffice it to say that the gym isn’t comparing anyone to anyone else. It’s just a big ass room with some heavy stuff in it; it doesn’t have a brain. The baggage we bring in is all our own: our insecurities, our anger, our fear of the unknown, and our fear of looking stupid. So how do you let go of those fears? I actually do have a fairly simple answer for that one: practice. Keep showing up. Get better at the skill of fitness. Hey, I said it was simple – simple and easy are not the same.
Competence leads to confidence. When we can see the way forward; when we can see HOW to get from point A to point B, we can let go of comparing ourselves to everyone else and just do what needs to be done. There’s no time for stewing or wondering what other people are thinking or justifying our existence in spite of our shortcomings. Feeling competent is the key to checking all that baggage at the door and taking care of business…and maybe even having some fun in the process.
When we see other people doing awesome shit, invariably it’s because they’ve put in a lot of hard work. Yeah, maybe they have great genetics, more talent, or anabolic steroids, but they also put in the time….which is why when I look at someone doing something awesome that I aspire to, more often than not I see the hours of work that went into getting to that point and it inspires me to work harder. Yes, I am forty years old and I’m not going to progress as fast as the younger women who are working as hard or harder than me. Does that annoy me? Hell yes it does. But I have a choice: I can a) let that girl’s beastly bench press get me down and use it as an excuse to eat lots of crap and sit on my ass and feel sorry for myself, or b) get excited for her because she’s reaping the benefits of hours of training by getting super strong, and vow to myself that my old ass is going to keep up with her every step of the way.
I choose b).