By Michele Zehr
“Hang on a second, I feel like I’m going to vomit.” Yup, those were the words that came out of my mouth at least twice during my very first session with Mo (I did not end up vomiting, but wasn’t sure for a while). He showed up to my house right on time and said, “Ok, where are we going to have fun?” Ironically, we went outside in the balmy 19-degree weather so that I could warm up by running sprints among other things.
So what makes the thought of embarking upon this entire journey so scary? For me, I have an entire arsenal of rock-solid self-limiting “stories” that I’ve told myself for years now, and already I’m having to confront them. For example, one of my stories is, “I’m not a runner.” Another is “I wouldn’t even THINK about exercising outside in this weather.” Both of these stories were clearly disproven today as I indeed found myself outside in this freezing weather…..running. Now let me be clear, I almost feel like putting quotes around the word running, because in all honesty, it was probably at best a slog (slow jog), which leads to my next self-limiting story, “I’m not doing this good enough.”
Yes folks, I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I think perfectionism is a very damaging epidemic among women in particular. This is partly because of the oppression we’ve experienced collectively as women throughout history and having to “prove ourselves as capable,” but at the same time, I take full responsibility for having entertained it as long as I did in my own life. So as I was jogging, I realized I had bought into yet another external standard of needing to be good enough at ___________ (fill in the blank). Now, when I realize I’m measuring myself once again to the phantom standard, especially when I know it only serves to disempower me, I remind myself that right here right now in this moment, my only job is to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s it (much like I had to do on the Appalachian Trail). Each step I take is one more than I would have taken had I not decided to reclaim my physical self. So at one level, it’s all quite simple….just move one step at a time, and when I get to tomorrow, I’ll just do the same thing.
After our hour, Mo departed but not before giving me my workout assignment for the next week. He’s a very sharp and perceptive guy and I’m sure he caught some micro-emotion on my face when he wrote, “8-10 miles this week” on the paper along with some other exercises. Inside of my head this phrase immediately popped up, “Are you shitting me?” and I felt that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was afraid I couldn’t do it. He looked at me and said, “I know this seems like a lot, but you are an athlete; I can see it in your form, and you can handle this.”
I told him I’d never once in my life believed I was an athlete as physical activity was not a priority in my life, so besides playing soccer for 2 years in elementary school and two years of track in junior high school, I’d been involved in zero sports or organized physical activities in childhood. My only other physical adventures were 4 years active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, backpacking the Appalachian Trail, and about 4 years ago I tried an on-line personal trainer and worked out at the gym for about 6 months. That amounts to about 10 years where I was involved in some type of regular physical activity out of my 41 year-long life.
I could choose to shame myself, but I no longer do that as I’ve learned a much more compassionate and loving approach to take with myself is one of self-love and self-empowerment where I not only believe in my power but I OWN it. I am a powerful woman; I do know that. In fact I believe every woman is a powerful woman. Just as Mo could see the athlete in me, I can see the power in all women, even the women who can’t see it in themselves. Choosing a self-empowering approach motivates me where shaming and guilt trips keep me small and unrealized. We have a choice….we always have a choice.
I didn’t get to the point of really being ready for this journey overnight either and despite the timing, it had nothing to do with a New Year’s resolution. In fact, this started over a year ago when I found myself in a community of people that could “hold” me in my most vulnerable moments and that is when I began exploring my relationship to my own body. Last summer, I found myself about to repeat what I knew wouldn’t work…looking for the “next diet,” or “next miracle whatever.” This was the first time I chose not to repeat what I’d always done, and instead I made a totally different choice which was probably the hardest step of this entire journey. I decided I was going to give myself permission to just see where I’d land if I just did whatever I wanted to and that was SCARY, because as you can imagine I had no idea where this was going to take me. There is nothing more frightening than the unknown for most of us, which is why we stay where we’ve always been even if it doesn’t support our own evolution.
For 6 months straight (and this was a lot of work), I just witnessed myself and how I related to my body through exercise (or more appropriately the lack thereof) and nutrition. I did not attempt to fix anything. The hard part was not judging myself, but I was successful most of the time even though I could tell it was affecting my self-esteem.
During these 6 months, I watched myself “run” one 5k for no reason other than to see how it felt in my body, and it was painful. I watched myself eat a ton of unhealthy food and then I watched how it felt in my body….again without judging. I’ve lived disconnected from my body for essentially my entire life, and had never paid attention to these things before, so along with this came the recognition that I had a lot of pain in my body and it felt like I was almost atrophying…getting stiff, hurting, not wanting to move, and I was using food to reward myself for things as well as to numb out my discomfort. Food is fuel…nothing more or less, so I was not even honoring the plant and animal lives that were sacrificed for me to eat and live.
It was just a month ago when I realized I’d hit my own personal “rock bottom.” It wasn’t anything like what most people think of a rock bottom, so I wasn’t starving myself, although I was certainly not putting nutritious food into my body and I was not moving my body at all. I knew it was my rock bottom because all I could ever see myself doing from this point on was simply repeating what I was now doing over and over again. There was nowhere else that I was going to go with this except wait for the health problems to arise.
The other big moment for me was when I stood in front of the mirror one day naked. I’ve never had a problem doing this in general, but this time I stood there for a long time and really “saw” my physical self. Only one question came to my mind, “Who is this woman I see in the mirror?” I couldn’t answer it, because who I know and feel I am inside was not who I saw in that reflection. So this journey is not only about my health, but also about what I’m calling a process of re-alignment. I know who I am inside, and I need that to match my outside. I need to be whole in mind, body, and spirit, and my body had been ignored.
Every journey we go on, be it reclaiming our body, getting married, going to college, starting a new job, having a baby, or even losing a loved one, is about shedding the parts of our identities (or stories) that no longer serve us or no longer make sense. As we shed those stories and self-limiting beliefs we are making room for what wants to emerge and be born in us. What I started shedding this week were at least 3 self-limiting stories and what was born today was a powerful athlete. Now my job is to raise and nurture that athlete until the day comes when I look in the mirror and see her staring back at me.