I’ll Open My Own Jar, Thanks

I don’t remember who it was but I think it was a client that I had years ago. We were talking about a break up of her marriage or relationship or something and she was telling me about her mom’s reaction. We had focused in on this one thing that seemed to distress her mom, or maybe it was just part of the argument for why she should try to keep her relationship. Her mom said, “Well, who is going to open jars for you?” As I remember it, the comment was matter of fact and so very out of context of the pain the person was feeling both in the relationship and because of the break up. However, it did seem self-evident to her mom that jar opening was a thing you wanted a man around to do.

There is a part of me that can imagine writing this piece from a place of grief after death of a partner and taking that phrase in that sense. I vividly remember my own mother’s grief after the death of my dad, encapsulated in the question, “Who will watch the snow fall with me?” This evocative moment speaks to connection, shared pleasure in company and its loss. The jar could be the same. I walk into the living room to find my loving partner and hand him this jar so he can do me this kindness, but he is not there and my heart breaks.

Except, that isn’t what that client’s mom meant. She meant that we need a man to help us with the hard and heavy and strenuous things and that we should put up with all manner of crap to keep that presence. Or alternatively, she thought so little of men that she only kept them around to open jars and clean the eaves in the fall. Either way, connection, pleasure in company, jars as symbols of love, this was not what was getting evoked.

I have been thinking about the jar issue as I adjust to being the only adult in my home that houses me, two pets and an occasional child. I am thinking about what it means to be self reliant and relying only on myself. Last week, I came home at 10pm after starting my day at 7am. It was garbage day the next day and my dog just refused to take the garbage out for me. The nerve. The cat was similarly uncooperative. I took it out myself. Laundry baskets that are full to the brim and well over 20 lbs must be carried upstairs. Snow was shovelled all winter. Bags of salt need to be emptied into the softener and cat litter needs to be moved from car to litter box. And yes, there were jars that I had to open. These were all things I used to defer to “someone stronger than I was”. It’s based on a rational division of labour, at least in theory. Yet I have come to think that I was doing myself a disservice by deferring even as much as I did. The dependence it can create, when we fear we can’t manage the heavy or hard things, can cloud judgement. It can stoke fear. The fear is that of being alone, lost and struggling, protectorless, perhaps vulnerable.

I’m not saying I’m not vulnerable. I’m just saying I’m strong. I’m strong enough to lug the garbage and the laundry and the salt and the cat litter. I have friends to lug motors to boats with me and honestly, I haven’t met a jar that ever beat me. It may take me a while, it may end up looking like the lid has been in a car accident, but it’s open.

Lasting companionship and connection is lovely. Lives don’t always work out that way. Opening our own jars gives us options and a certain clarity. I like that quite a bit. 💪🏻

fitness · motivation

Fitness as a Relational Activity (Or, Only When You are Watching) (Guest Post)

I have a sedentary job. In that way, I am not unique to the millions of others who spend far too much time sitting still in an improper posture. About 10 years ago, I started a very slow crawl out of my consistently sedentary ways and into something that approaches an active life.

I have never done it to change how I look. My goals are always similar and have to do with developing endurance, power, independence and balance. As a Psychotherapist, I am also acutely aware of the role inactivity plays in stress and all the follow-ons including depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

I’ve had some fantastic success. I can run 5k with little problem and even further with walk breaks. I can lift some heavy things. I can survive a one hour Flow class in Yoga. I can carry a canoe on my shoulders, hike for a whole day, carry the laundry from the basement and ride a 7 jump hunter course without hurting anything. I place a tremendous value on each of these achievements and activities and yet, there is one struggle that I have not yet overcome.
I only do these things enthusiastically when someone else is watching. I know that sounds weird, so let me explain.

My most recent accomplishment, of which I am intensely proud, was a 12 week course of intense one on one weight training. Three days a week for one hour, I’d lift heavy things in ways and repetitions I never thought I could or would. Standing next to me was a person I affectionately named my “Evil Overlord”. He placed these tasks in front of me and expected I would succeed in them. Since the program was carefully tailored to my capacities and well designed, I did succeed and wow, it was a rush and a half.

Previously, I had ascribed my on again off again relationship to physical activity to the deficits in my fitness that left some things profoundly difficult. The Flow class, for instance, was made intolerable by my lack of upper body strength and those wee shoulder muscles we never exercise plaguing me with spasm. My running broke down after muscle imbalances in my knee caused pain that lasted for days. This weight training program zoomed right in on that stuff and fixed it. I mean FIXED. With this new capacity, I felt convinced that I had broken through some magic barrier that would allow me to finally enjoy, not only the benefits of my fitness, but the acquisition of fitness itself.

It didn’t happen. As soon as I didn’t have the thought of the Evil Overlord waiting for me by the barbells, I knew in my gut I would let the whole thing go.
However, I’m a therapist and sometimes, I try and turn that lens on myself. Here I am, ready to spring into further action, and I’m having a heck of a time doing it. As a technique in my office, I often turn a question around. Instead of asking why I don’t do it, I asked myself, when do I do it. By “it” I mean happily lace up and lift/run/flow or otherwise strain myself in ways I deep down dislike.

Then it hit me. I do it when someone is watching. I love to run with my partner. I loved my sessions with the Overlord. I loved the marking of accomplishments, the encouragement and the interaction. I love my riding coach and the way she nitpicks me to death on my position and seat. I am engaged by yoga instructors who take the time to get a little personal with what I am doing.

When I am alone at home with my Pilates mat and a DVD, I am totally unenthused. When I go running alone or even with the dog, I suffer in a very different way than when I run with my partner. It feels like there is sand paper in my joints and I want to go home and nap. There is no joy.

I’ll be truthful. I feel a little ashamed of this phenomenon. I wonder if it means I’m not running for myself, but rather for an admiring gaze. I wonder if I’m just a princess looking for a spotlight. I wonder why my health, independence and personal power aren’t enough. That is one way to tell the story but, it’s a version full of self -judgement. Another thing I’ve learned after years of being other people’s therapist is stories that reek of self-judgement usually reek in general. Perhaps there is something else operating here that is a little gentler than Susan, the raving egomaniac craving the gaze of the Other.

So, here it goes, my alternate story. As human beings, we are wired to relate. It’s a survival skill. We need each other. When we are functioning more or less optimally, we feel better and do better with others around us than if we are alone. I don’t mean we can’t be alone and enjoy it. I mean connectivity is the necessary base from which we roam and return. And if relationship is essential to human success, might relationship be part of what I need to enjoy these intense activities? If I was running to catch my food, I’d have other motivators but I don’t have to chase my next meal in that way. I run for abstract reasons that, in my reality, have absolutely no immediate pleasurable motivator. That is, unless I’m running with another person I care about. Perhaps for me, fitness is a relational activity and when I perceive there is no relational experience or feedback, I am not engaged the same way.

I’m not sure how this will help my fitness future. A recent post on this blog by Tracy addressed the importance of workout buddies and this obviously meshes with that idea. Maybe I’ll just have to remain aware of that quirk of mine and do what I can to satisfy it. Perhaps I can just be mindful that my lonely runs are not as much fun as my together runs and races, but that’s okay.
Alone at the gym with 80lbs to deadlift. . .that is a challenge at which I still squint suspiciously.. .Crossfit? Really? Ugh! I see how it starts Sam. I see how it starts.



Susan Tarshis, B.A., LL B., M.Ed., is a Psychotherapist in Milton Ontario with a very full practice. That’s good because she loves her job and bad because that means she sits a lot. She is a 45 year old feminist with a passionate interest in the human condition and a propensity to return to school every 5 years or so just because. She is slowly discovering her inner athlete and trying very hard to do things that challenge her without either hurting herself or hating it too much to ever do it again.