Strength Training as Self Compassion

Why do you work out?

Last year, fitness was an 88 billion dollar industry. Our society is more focused on health and wellness than ever before, and even I’ve joined in. A short, high-intensity workout to start the day was a game-changer, helping me feel more awake, more mentally and socially engaged, and more physically fit and functional. But it wasn’t until I made a mistake this past week that I realized the emotional state I want to create for myself.

There I was in plank position on my kitchen floor, doing renegade rows in my underwear. (I never was much of a gym rat; but a PT session or two would’ve helped me avoid what came next). In a moment of lust for that extra edge of confidence an ectomorph like me feels when I see a six-pack in the mirror, I lost my technique for a moment and aggravated an old shoulder injury. I’ve had chronic shoulder pain since my late 20’s, and it’s taken focused rehab and daily maintenance to get to the point where pain-free is normal again.

I’d been having great sessions earlier in the week and was feeling better than I had in years. The next day, after a few beautiful months without it, the old pain was back. Anyone who’s had a chronic injury will know that “oh shit, not again” tape that starts playing; I’d spent years in that emotionally intense relationship with my body. I’d mis-exercise it, injure it, get frustrated at it, and gradually become afraid to use it to its full potential. This affected my physical fitness as well as my social confidence and my mental and emotional realities. I found myself joking with a friend that I’d trade them my shoulders, wishing I had some other, healthier body. I was shaming the one I had because it was in pain.

In my work with men, this comes up in its own forms of chronic pain: hazardous diet, drug use, avoidance of medical care and performance of physically damaging labour. Not only can we take our bodies for granted - we can treat them like the can of a beer we just shotgunned. The relationships we have with our bodies can often reflect the unaddressed self-limiting beliefs we have about our own worth. If we tend to take care of the things we care about, what does it say about us if this is how we treat our most irreplaceable possession? That we feel prohibited from acknowledging weakness, effectively isolating ourselves from the beginnings of compassion, is the coup-de-grace can-crushing against our own face.

So a few years ago I invested in treatment, and not only did it change how I stood in a room - it changed how I walked into it. Instead of seeing the image of a fit, dominant, invulnerable man when I looked in the mirror, it became more important to see a man who cared about himself. Developing that muscle did more than strengthen - it healed and nurtured.

So this past week, I experienced something beautiful. The day after the old injury stopped in again to visit, instead of feeling exasperated at the limitations my body was placing on my over-compensating ego, I felt humbled and connected to a deeper, more grounded wisdom. Through all the encouraging progress and frustrating setbacks of my life, I stopped working for muscles others can see. Now I work for compassion that I can admire in the mirror.