Activity and Embarrassment

Image description: grey cat on a turquoise yoga mat with one rear leg over ear, grumpy look on his face. Water bottle and people doing yoga in the background.
Image description: grey cat on a turquoise yoga mat with one rear leg over ear, grumpy look on his face. Water bottle and people doing yoga in the background.


I’ve never really thought much about embarrassment as a barrier to physical activity, but Kira Bidrim’s “These seven words changed my whole perspective on working out” made me reflect on just how severe a barrier it can be. The seven words that changed her perspective are: “I want to see if you can.”

Embarrassment at taking part in physical activity was number two on a list of obstacles in a 1999 article published in The Physician and Sports Medicine. (Predictably, lack of time was first on the list.) We have blogged before about women who work out on treadmills in sheds because they don’t want to be seen.

And then there is a clothing that a lot of activities seem to demand — body hugging fabrics and styles that anyone who isn’t extremely confident in their skin will feel exposed and uncomfortable wearing. Some say, well, you don’t have to wear those clothes if you don’t want to. But of course, that singles you out in yet another way, since the “fashion” at a gym or a yoga studio or even on a ski hill is a key feature that separates out the newbies from the veterans who “belong” there.  That can lead to another source of embarrassment.

And add all of that to the awkwardness of trying a new activity or entering into an unfamiliar and intimidating space that has its own culture and practices, and of course it makes sense that embarrassment may well set in. This is not to say anyone has a reason to be embarrassed. But it’s not a shock that self-consciousness takes hold in these scenarios.

I don’t experience it much in yoga or at the gym because I’m at home in those worlds and feel as if I belong. But where I find those thoughts can plague me most is in my running, where I sometimes feel embarrassed for not being faster. It’s a fleeting twinge that I only get on occasion, and it’s not keeping me from doing it, but it’s there. Deep down, though I love running, I also feel as if I’m a bit of an imposter because I’m not “fast enough” to think of myself as “a runner.”

Kira Bidrim’s seven revolutionary words — I want to see if you can — came from her personal trainer, “The General.” The perspective of exploring whether you can rather than assuming that you should be able to was all she needed to feel as if she had permission to be a beginner. As she points out, most motivational talk says “You CAN do it.” But what if you can’t?

Taking this into my running, instead of assuring me that I can maintain a 6-minute kilometer pace for any length of time, I can approach it as “I want to see if I can maintain a 6-minute kilometer pace for a whole kilometer.” And maybe next week I can explore whether I can hold it for 1.5K, etc.

It’s a small thing, but the permission not to be able to do the thing before you is a really important part of overcoming embarrassment if you can’t. It’s also quite motivating. Instead of “you can do this” (because, quite honestly, maybe you can’t–like I can’t do full lotus position in yoga), it’s more of a “beginner’s mind” approach to see what you might be able to do (or not).

Subtle, yes. But if it makes a difference and helps address some of that insecurity and sense of embarrassment that holds people back, why not?

If you ever feel embarrassment as a barrier to physical activity, do you think this slight change in approach (to “I want to see if you/I can…”) could make a difference? Do you have other strategies for getting past embarrassment?

7 thoughts on “Activity and Embarrassment

  1. You’re right to point out how clothing worries can really complicate physical activity for many of us. For me sometimes, wearing proper cycling kit with my bike club jersey and being as slow as I am now feels really embarrassing. When I’m feeling vulnerable in that way, sometimes I’ll wear clothing that signals I’m not a serious cyclist– I’ll wear more recreational bike shorts and a top that’s not a cycling jersey, and strap a small bag on my handlebars. (in lieu of jersey pockets). Then I feel like I’m ducking the (admittedly projected) expectations of others I encounter. Of course all this is in my head. But it feels like I can be more inconspicuous that way.

    1. It’s amazing how that sort of inner dialogue can affect our enjoyment of our activities, too. So many expectations, and mostly we ‘re the ones that impose them on ourselves!

  2. I am not sure that phrase would make a difference to me or not. However, I will tell you something that does – my gym is very open about changing/modifying workouts for people with injuries, mobility challenges, asthma, pregnancies or anything else. They start every class with a description of the workout, but also a “If something hurts, or you need some assistance, let me know.” And they mean it. We have people with all sorts of reasons they need modifications, and because they gym and attendees are so welcoming and it is part of the culture, no one bats an eye. So, if you can’t do something, or are nervous about it, it’s okay. Not feeling embarrassed about not being able to do something keeps me coming back every day, even on the days when I think it might be something that I might not be able to handle – because I know it will be okay.

    1. That’s a good thing when a gym recognizes diversity in that way and makes an effort to find modifications for people who need them. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I like the idea of this phrase for my students. College students are unusually resistant to certain types of exercise that I feel they would be more successful at than me. I’m going to try this on them in the next few weeks.

  4. This phrase would definitely make a difference to me!
    I have joint damage from years of gymnastics and stopped going to group training sessions because of the military” This is your next exercise” mantra. Admitting that I needed some exercises modified felt like failure, especially when I shared some areas of limitations before class even started.

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