motivation · Rowing · stereotypes · training

On knowing yourself, changing yourself, and ending the negativity

The other day a friend was asking me about rowing. I talked about how much I was enjoying it. She’s a runner by habit and expressed concern about the technical skills required to row. She asked how much coordination rowing required. My mother smiled and said it couldn’t take that much because I could do, right? And then she looked at me for affirmation.

I smiled back, a bit puzzled, and then realized she’d said that not to be mean, my mother is very kind and gentle, but because I used to describe myself as uncoordinated. It was part of my story of myself as a non athletic book loving person. I’d been calling myself uncoordinated since elementary school.

Funny. I don’t think that at all any more. Rowing, in fact, takes lots of coordination and while I’m not a natural, I’m doing okay. But Aikido takes lots of coordination too and I’ve made great progress there. Ditto cycling. Ditto track cycling. And cross country skiing. And Olympic lifting.

I think it’s safe to say both that I’m no longer uncoordinated and that I know it.

Being uncoordinated turned out not to be a deep fact about me. It was something I could fix and change by learning things that required coordination. I’ve been wondering about the role negative stories we tell about ourselves play in shaping our lives. Tracy wondered recently if she should stop telling herself that she could run but that she’d never be fast.

I know now I’m not uncoordinated but I should have figured it out years ago.

Do you have any negative stories you used to tell yourself that you realized weren’t true?

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11 thoughts on “On knowing yourself, changing yourself, and ending the negativity

  1. I think some people are never happy with what they can do; they only want to do what they can’t do. I admit that I suffer from just such an inferiority complex to a limited degree. The problem is that you can’t train to do everything. For example, doing alot of cardio takes away from the pure strength and muscle you could otherwise build. I am more naturally “given” to stength training than to endurance sports. However, over the last year I’ve concentrated perhaps more on cardio (both aerobic and anaroebic) that weightlifting. I’ve made a dedicated effort to work on my “weak spots” and improve my performance. My endurance levels and especially my speed has increased dramatically. But admittedly, I’ve not made the strength gains I would have liked, probably because of doing all this cardio! Aaaaargh! So recently, I went to increase strength. I’ve gained about 7 pounds over the last 2 months and I have finally made somewhat significant strength gains. The cardio has suffered but really only a little bit. But if I were now to work on agility, balance and coordination specifically by getting back into tae kwon do, say, any gains I make in these areas would in all likelihood negatively affect both my cardio and weightlifting. After all, there is only so much time in the day. So I think we have to choose things we like to do, work on “problem” areas if that’s our thing at any given time, and to simply take pleasure in the process. I try to do this but I admit that it’s not always easy to do. My insecurities have a way of roosting wherever I seem to go, if I do not actively manage them.

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  2. Thanks, Sam. But you know, it’s hard when you’re obsessive-compulsive, you overcompensate for your insecurities by always fighting right to the bitter end, and I suppose when doing your best is something you mock in your own head (Doing my best? Who cares if I do my best? People who care about doing their best don’t know what they can do because they don’t know what it is to strive always, or at least semi-regularly, for something beyond themselves. My job is to succeed, and better yet, succeed without having to do my best, if possible!). *sigh* Yeah – lots of problems there. I know it, which is why I know I have to actively manage it. I once told my wife that I won’t be like my father – my kid will get to do what she wants to do. But she can’t be a mallrat – she will have to have a dedication to excellence in what she does. My wife said that perhaps we should get her to just colour inside the lines first. You think you overcome some things, but remnants of which you’re unaware often remain. All really quite insidious. Ah well, at least I’m able to talk about it and laugh about it.

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  3. Sure, I, as well, as many others identify with nerdiness and simply not athletic for the longest while. Social judgement by others and simply the-last-kid-selected-for-baseball-team reinforced that childhood inferiority (about athletics). I didn’t overly obsess on this misunderstood weakness, I just focused passion elsewhere into my teens –art, writing. Then later returned to cycling as part of my lifestyle.

    The detriment is for some teens, they dig into more sedentary habits which become much more difficult to pull themselves out in adulthood.

    It doesn’t help either when physical education hrs. in school are less these days. Nor do many parents these days, weave in physical activities which a child naturally walks to school, store or to the library. The latter is what saved me in terms of physical activity during my sedentary years. But I didn’t know it!

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  4. have you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Brightsided? It’s about the cult of positive thinking (as a peculiarly american ideological project). having just read it, the title of this post stood out to me. It’s not necessarily “being negative” to have a self-assessment that says, “Right now, I am uncoordinated. I spend most of my energy on bookish pursuits, not gymnastic feats.” I mean, the problem wasn’t so much that it was “negative,” but that you mistook a temporary state for an inherent, permanent character trait. It isn’t actually “being negative” to create a narrative that acknowledges some realities and/ or limits. People do have limits. Reality does have some unpleasant aspects at times. But the problem is really to mistake a temporary reality or a certain narrative for the permanent, unchangeable way of the world.

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    1. Right. I’ve read Bright Sided and enjoyed it. Think there’s lots right about it. I think it’s interesting that for many of us negative self assessments become self fulfilling. The person who decides she’s just “not fast” may opt out of activities that need speed and lose out on chances to develop on that direction. I think we need to be careful about closing doors too quickly, unnecessarily.

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  5. The main point of Bright Sided was that positive thinking (and the banishing of negative thinking) is one way that we individualize and place the blame and weight of the burdens people face on individuals rather than context. When it comes to women and athletic or physical skill, I think there is generally a heavy need for the injection of a little context– the context of our highly gender-saturated Western cultures. I agree that women may often think they they are not “good at” thinks like speed or physical coordination, and at times they genuinely aren’t good at them. I had a pretty classic “stereotype threat” sitation play out involving my own physical prowess today, and I burned with regret for hours afterwards. but stereotype threat is real, the gendered context in which all women must live and grow is real, and the pressures we face have real physical consequences. I guess that’s what I was getting at in my earlier post. To brush all this aside with a call to “end negativity” seems a bit too easy.

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  6. I love this post, because I often think about my life in terms of the narrative I tell myself about it and how that in turn shapes the way I approach my life. The narrative has evolved over the years, in a variety of ways, but the one thing that has been really apparent to me is that becoming conscious of the narrative and taking control of it has had a very positive effect on me and my life. Like, I don’t think I evolved from an uncoordinated, shy, nerdy bookworm to an athletic and confident woman (who is still a nerdy bookworm, lol) by accident. At some point I made the choice to stop accepting this story of myself that was developed before I was even fully grown, and to instead accept that the story of myself could change and evolve throughout the course of my entire life.

    Of course I try to be realistic about it – none of that “The Secret” bullshit for me, thank you – but I also try not to be the primary limiter of my own potential, if that makes sense.

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  7. You’ve given me a lot to think about here. I have always called myself “uncoordinated” and “having no rhythm.” And, I think there is some truth to that, but I also think I have closed some of my own doors by thinking that… and, perhaps the cure is simple: learn to do things that require coordination, like you have. Hmmmm… this is seriously working at one of the pillars of how I have thought about myself. Thank you, this might have been exactly what I needed.

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  8. Your story resonated with me. For just about my entire childhood, my mother called me “clumsy”. Of course, I believed that for decades! It was only recently (within the last 10 years) that I realized I was not clumsy on the baseball diamond, or in the pool, or in the gym, or while I’m Nordic skiing. In fact, I’m not “clumsy” at all, and I don’t think I ever was. It’s nice to be free of that kind of negative thinking, since I think my enjoyment of these activities has been enhanced as a result. I love the feeling of being both powerful and graceful.

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