A few months ago, I did a Powerlifting Competition.
Not because I have aspirations to be a competitive lifter; moreso to give myself a goal, work consistently towards it and to achieve something new. It was motivating slowly making gains every week and I was getting good at it.
When I was training, I felt like the most powerful version of myself. If I could lift many many kilos, I thought, there was nothing I couldn't handle at work or at home. It trained my physical and mental strength.
The day after the competition, I thought I’d take a few days off. Then, after that, I thought 'I’ll take a week off'. And the next week, I did exactly the same.
And so it went for the next three months. I didn’t go to the gym at all.
After training consistently and eating pretty much the same thing everyday for six months, all of a sudden I didn’t have a goal to work towards anymore. I just didn't have the mental capacity.
When I did return to the gym, I was weaker and I was bummed.
Experience had taught me prior if you take time off training, you can’t dip back into it straight away and expect to be in peak performance, so not being able to lift the weights I used to was a bit depressing at first, but nothing I hadn’t anticipated.
But, despite logically knowing it was sensible to avoid injury to move slowly back into it, and understanding from experience taking a break means your body needs time to get back to where it as, returning to somewhere where I used to slay and then feeling rusty was a bit of a downer.
It’s like when you leave a job where you are the big fish and then you start a new one and all of a sudden you need to learn all these new systems. You feel like you have no idea what you’re doing and all of a sudden you start to doubt whether you should have gotten this new fancy job in the first place. You know you'll get the hang of it eventually, but for the first few months, you feel unqualified and unproductive.
Despite me routinely telling myself it would take time, using logic not emotion to get back into lifting, there were a number of times I felt like giving up because it felt like I wasn’t good at it.
But to be good at something shouldn’t be the reason you do it (although it is a lovely side effect to doing something consistently).
As a number of flexible types have told me, leaning into an uncomfortable yoga pose actually paves the way for you next time. Feeling uncomfortable - and being ok in that uncomfortable space - tells you you're improving your physical and mental resilience.
In his book The Way We're Working Isn't Working, Tony Schwartz suggests that if the definition of physical fitness is how long you take to recover, perhaps the definition of mental resilience is how swiftly you can perform after an emotional setback.
Schwartz suggests the ability to think rationally and clearly under stress relies on the individual being able to regularly recover, rest and rejuvenate their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual selves. Without rest and rejuvenation, the individual can't perform in a way that is constructive, insightful or helpful to others. Individuals under stress, without rest and perspective, are more likely to act out of line in other words.
It made so much sense. Coaches had sent me home before if I turned up without eating or sleeping enough prior to training. One coach had ordered me to sit in the corner and stretch because I was too tired and was going to injure myself. I could only get stronger, if I ate enough and slept enough, they had all said. Without rest or food, I might as well be throwing the money I was paying them down the treadmill.
So when I stopped training, instead of mentally resting, I filled in my space time with all things not rest. Work, writing, speaking, socialising, eating (lots), and well, mainly more work.
I did it because that's what I knew.
For so many years work (or feeling "busy" or "productive") defined me. Performing at work became so ingrained in my identity I lost perspective and ultimately burned myself out three times. So let's just say flicking the switch from training for a competition or nailing a work presentation to popping along to an art gallery hardly came naturally to me.
So, over the last few weeks, I've been testing out ways to rest my mind and find pleasure outside of work. I bought an alarm clock to (attempt to) ban my phone from my room. I asked friends for book recommendations and took those to dinner instead of checking my emails over a curry after work. I took myself on dates to the movies.
I felt the impact of all this when I went back to the gym just recently.
With rest, sleep and perspective on my side from the New Years break, lifting those smaller weights didn't bother me so much. In fact, I felt kind of thrilled to be able to just want to go to the gym again and to enjoy the feeling of not staring at a screen or checking my emails.
And I thought of something a trainer had told me last year, after coming into the gym mentally exhausted from a massive week.
"I don't care how you perform when you're feeling good, Rach. I want to know how you respond when you're having a bad day. All you need to do is pick that weight up and put it down."
"All I need to do is pick it up", I smiled to myself this time. "All I need to do is pick it up."