Here’s a thing that happens in my head not infrequently:
I start something completely new, like CrossFit. I assume I’m terrible and have no expectations and just do what feels good, so I get better. All is well. Then I start to think other people have expectations of me, expectations to not be terrible. People say nice things and I infuse them with excessive significance. I start to worry that I’m not living up to those expectations and the only way to compensate is to work harder. To a certain point that helps and I improve, but that doesn’t dissipate the perceived weight of the expectations. If anything, it makes it worse.
Unchecked, this train of thought rapidly careens towards injury and disappointment.
This past week, I could definitely feel the self-inflicted unhealthy expectations train slipping off the tracks. I accomplished a couple of goals that I’ve been working on since I started training at my current gym three months ago (consecutive double unders and unbroken sets of kipping pull ups) and improved significantly in a basic exercise (wall balls with prescribed weights). I shared these small victories with my friends at the gym who were happy for me. They encouraged me to sign up for the upcoming CrossFit open, the month-long, entry-level competition for the sport that takes all-comers.
I started to think, “Shit, I should be able to do this. What if I can’t do it? My lifts suck. I should work more on those. How do I make time to work more on those? Literally everyone is better than me at this. I should at least try to lift what that other girl is doing…” And so on.
At the same time, I started noticing a recurring pain in my elbow, an on-again/off-again tennis elbow type of thing that shows up in workouts with shoulder-to-overhead movements. It’s not serious right now, but recurring minor pains are a rest stop on the road to Major Tear City if you keep doing the thing that causes the injury in the first place.
But I didn’t want to take time off. I had literally just registered for the Open, the only athletic event I’ve ever signed up for in my life, if you exclude road races (which, to be honest, are an entirely different animal). I wanted to prove that I was tough and gritty and all those things virtuous athletes are supposed to be. I didn’t want to wimp out or lose the gains I’ve made recently. Yet, another part of my brain was screaming at me to not be a fucking idiot. To give it time.
At the end of the day, it really came down to this question: Are the short-term gains (and their consequences) consistent with my long-term vision?
For some elite athletes, it makes sense to walk knowingly into an injury because that action fulfills some lifelong goal. But I am not that person by any stretch of the imagination. Two years from now, I’m going to move away from Chicago and never see these particular CrossFitters again, though I’ll probably meet many people like them. So injuring myself to meet a perceived expectation, constructed largely by my own insecurities and not their actual beliefs about me, is just stupid. So. So. Stupid.
This morning, I tried to put this “long-term vision” into practice. I was doing squats with a friend who lifts similar weights to me, but she always goes a little bit heavier. I didn’t give into the voice in my head that said, “Do what she’s doing. Do more.” I did what felt safe for me and gave me a good workout. After the squats, we had a WOD with chest-to-bar (C2B) pull-ups and sit-ups. On a good day, I could do this workout as prescribed, which is a great feeling. But I knew the aggressive, repetitive movement I needed for the C2Bs would wreak havoc on my already inflamed elbow. So I scaled down to ring rows and aimed for a high number of reps. Then I did some goofy looking physical therapy stretches for my forearms and elbow.
This lesson learned, though specific to CrossFit, circles back to the same story I always tell myself: I can never be the best version of someone else, lifting what they lift, learning what they learn, accomplishing what they accomplish personally or professionally. I can only be the best version of myself. I can only seek out my own happiness. I can only walk in my own truth.
P.S. For your amusement – my latest fascination is learning how to do butterfly pull-ups:
P.P.S. I just found out that the coach at my gym that takes these great photos during workouts is actually a professional photographer who coaches CrossFit for fun on the side. It’s always cool to meet talented people from fields way outside of my own. You can see more of this work here: