My biggest steps towards achieving goals came from forming the ability and strength to not just acknowledge weaknesses, but to embrace them, to own them, to use them to further myself towards where I wanted to be. For my mental health it came from facing up to my past and setting out to heal the causes, not just managing the symptoms, of my deep rooted coping mechanisms. For my body it was the changing the perception of what ‘weakness’ is and why it’s not something to be ashamed or fearful of.
Before I go further some more context may be needed. I’ve mentioned before my childhood wasn’t great. One mainstay was a regular Friday and Saturday night berating from my drunken foster father. As long as I can remember as a child, particularly my teenage years, I had to stand in a darkened smoke filled kitchen at the end of a week and be told how little I was worth and how little I would achieve by a drunk man. If I showed weakness, if got emotional or upset during these lectures it would only make it worse, with things sometimes turning physical.
The coping mechanism my mind developed from these foundation years would prove to be both one of my strongest yet equally one of the most harmful qualities I have. My subconscious brain saw a threat and the way to avoid it was to be ‘strong’ and wait it out. The way my young brain learned to cope was to simply block things out, wait for the storm to pass, hold my emotions behind a wall until I was dismissed to my room. As I moved in to adult life this coping mechanism resulted in me able to throw up impenetrable emotional walls in order to achieve a goal. I had developed an extreme ability to focus to the detriment of all else. I was able to do this whether a goal was healthy or self destructive. Regardless of any and all emotional fallout that may occur around me.
You can see see both the benefits and the pitfalls of such a strong coping mechanism… well for almost all of my adult life I didn’t! I became aware of this pattern not long in to my early counseling experiences. Soon after that I then began my initial steps of improving my health and fitness. It wasn’t really until my first ultra challenge on the Isle of Wight in early 2016 did I realise the strength of this ability and conversely realised how key it had been in the destructive parts of my past.
On the Isle of Wight 106km challenge I had an excruciatingly painful injury occur just as I was coming in to the 80km rest stop. My IT band (Also known as runners knee) essentially had enough and locked on my right leg. I managed to get it loosened enough for me to continue but within a few hundred meters it had locked again. What followed was 26km of pain and emotion. I had walked through the night so my mind was
suffering almost as much as my body. The only way I made it to the end was absolute focus on that finish line. Every single time I pictured myself reaching it and holding a medal I started to well up as a wave of repressed emotion and imagery washed over me which I simply directed to my legs to keep moving. The ability to do that was rooted in being able to harness and control emotions from that early coping mechanism.
It was a couple of years after starting my counselling I decided to give a personal trainer a go. The first few months of sessions were filled with dread for me. First was being instructed, something in itself I wasn’t great with. Then there was the root of the issue, being seen as weak by an authority figure. Finally, the kicker, was training in front of strangers, as often the sessions were in the open gym, in front of everyone else, so they could see how weak I was first hand. Every fibre of my being wanted to avoid all of this.
Yet this is where and when it really came together for me. It took time and much emotional effort but both in my counseling and in my training sessions it became clear that weakness was something to embrace. Where there was weakness , emotionally or physically, there was something that needed addressing. If there was a painful memory, a pattern of behaviour I did not want to think about or a situation part of me did not want to discuss with my counselor it began to perk my curiosity as to ‘why’ part of me was avoiding it. In turn that gave me a clue of where I should be focusing my thoughts and time spent in session. Conversely with training, if there was an exercise I was terrible at, a movement where I was clearly in need of improvement in, then surely that is where I should put the effort in? Why else was I doing this if not to get stronger? How could I get stronger if I only did the things I already felt I was strongest in?
When I finally saw this both my mental and physical health improvement massively accelerated. To this day it still doesn’t come naturally. I still sometimes hold thoughts back from my therapist that if I shared would only help us both to progress in our work together… I know this as now, if I’m tempted to hold back something I make a point of sharing not only the thoughts but analyse why I felt I had to hold something back in the first place.
In my personal training I still often struggle showing weakness not only in front of my personal trainer (The same personal trainer I’ve had for almost three full years now) but also in front of the friends I’m getting to know there when we train together. Yet now I know, if I’m feeling weak, if I’m reaching my limits and if I can manage just one more hard push beyond that point then I’m achieving what I’m there to do. To grow stronger and to push that limit further each and every time.
I hope by sharing these experiences it perhaps helps someone who is at the start of working this out, or perhaps on the cusp of understanding the same revelation and this in a small way helps them along the same path knowing that you can turn what you think of as ‘weakness’ on it’s head and see it as something to be valued. When you find what you perceive as ‘weakness’ and embrace it you are miles ahead of anyone else as now you have a clear path in front of you to travel, you can set a clear goal, remove any fear and set about achieving what it is you want to achieve.