A couple of months ago, my trainer bought a Halloween skeleton as a joke. She posed it in different machines with appropriate captions. One of the pictures featured the skeleton on the Jacob’s ladder, a climbing machine that can go at different speeds.
I don’t like the machine; in fact, I avoid it at all costs. When I learned it was not working, I expressed an immoderate amount of happiness. My trainer, who is as perceptive as she is focused, asked what the issue was. I told her I despised the jake and furthermore I was afraid of it. Her response: “If you genuinely hate it, we can leave it out. If it’s fear, then when we face it is your call.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. While I might not like a particular exercise (go away Bulgarian split squats), I usually complete them and do the best job I can. It never occurred to me to think about why I was afraid of that machine and why I hid the fear behind the more innocuous phrasing of “dislike” or the even stronger word “despise.”
My dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” I’m not afraid of many things, but two I know for sure: heights and small spaces. The first is a consequence of mid-life hearing loss but the latter I have always had as did one of my parents. My claustrophobia is not limited to small spaces, but also includes masks which cover my face.
While I haven’t figured out what is at the root of my fear of the Jacob’s ladder, I know it is more than dislike. It is also not a function of mechanics. Once I am shown how to do something, I am usually pretty good at managing the parts involved in executing the action.
I know I am not ready to train on the bar by myself without a spotter, and that’s a safety issue. My arthritis sometimes makes my grip weak; with the greater weights I’m using now, I am not confident I can hang on to them, especially when I get tired.
Fear is a pretty complex emotion. It can stop you from trying new things or maintaining others. While I am not ready to tackle the Jacob’s ladder, I do have other cardio-intensive activities I can choose to replace it.
Since I have started thinking more about the difference between disliking something and being afraid of it, I wonder what role fear plays in women choosing certain forms of activity compared to others. Last month in my column for our daily newspaper, I looked at how our fear of assault and harassment can limit our activities:
“… how we live our lives as women is very different from how men live their lives. Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, Durham University (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41614720) has spent the last five years looking at the choices women make to manage their fear of sexual harassment and assault. Her work is echoed by another piece of research in which more than half of the 42,000 women surveyed reported limiting their activities out of fear.
Another researcher, Liz Kelly, talks about this as “safety work”, the conscious and unconscious strategy development we do every day to make sure we don’t put ourselves at risk. As Ver-Gray puts it, “Despite how common it is, or perhaps because of it, we rarely even think about the routine choices and changes we make to maintain a sense of safety.””
But I’m also thinking about my trainer’s comment that when I am ready to tackle the ladder, we will do it on my terms. That the decision is in my hands makes the fear more manageable. I can approach it when and where I choose. Having that element of control matters hugely, even if it also seems contradictory. After all, I go to a gym and work with a trainer precisely because I want someone to tell me what to do and when.
I’ve concluded the best thing I take away from incorporating fitness in my daily routine and gaining strength through powerlifting is how I maintain my own sense of power and agency. It also means learning how to face your fears and embrace them for the teachings they offer.
— MarthaFitat55 lives and works in St. John’s.