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Tending to the shame of stuckness
... and letting go of punishment in favor of practice
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A song I’m loving:
I’ve barely exercised for the last two years. I go for walks and do the very occasional yoga practice or bike ride, but that’s about it. I haven’t lifted weights or done cardio regularly since before I became a mother. I never sweat. I get extremely out of breath walking up small hills. I feel the sluggishness of my form, the stiffness in my calfs and shoulders, the tiredness from not moving enough added onto the tiredness of mothering, of living. Part of it is depression; part of it is exhaustion; most of it is fear of starting over.
People often ask what my morning routine is and my chest tightens when I notice the distance between my answer and what I wish my answer was. The transitions I’ve moved through the past two years feel represented in my body — in the halted sense of forward motion I often notice in ache of my bones. My body has been quite stagnant, to the point where the idea of “starting over” and re-building muscle, momentum, and movement back into my daily practice feels overwhelming. I start and then stop, afraid to start again, afraid to fail. The shame around this has been thick. Sometimes it’s the diet culture/fatphobia-infused stories of my body not being “right”; sometimes, it’s the fact that I’m not doing something I know is good for me; mostly, it’s not feeling at home in the body that houses me; it’s knowing I’m not treating my body in ways I value; it’s being out of integrity with what I say matters to me and what I’m (not) doing.
Whenever I have experiences like this — where I come face to face with my own humanity, the kind no one wants to hear about unless there’s a powerful or positive ending, the kind where the “fix” or “solution” (just start exercising again!) is quite obvious to everyone who doesn’t need to actually implement said fix or solution, the kind we’d rather not talk about until we’re on the other side, until we’ve figured it out and gotten past it — I feel myself wanting to curl up and hide, deal with it all on my own until I get past the initial slump and find my footing again.
I find myself not wanting anyone to know what I’m struggling with until I can turn that struggle into medicine for others to consume, until it becomes a learned lesson, as if what I have to share only matters if a solution or teaching or proof of overcoming is embedded into it. Not just on the internet, but in my “real life”, too. I find myself not wanting to admit how hard it is sometimes to do the things I know I need to do for myself — to actually lift the weights, to actually engage in the 30 minute workout class, to actually make movement a core pillar of my life again. I find myself not wanting to do physical activities with anyone because I’d rather no one see how out of shape I am. I find myself afraid of my body crumbling. I find myself embarrassed by how often I think, “I should exercise today — it will help the things I need help with, it will nourish the parts of me that need nourishing, it will feel good, it is necessary”… and then not doing it, again, because starting over isn’t as easy as it sounds, even though it is always available.
,As it turns out, “knowing better” isn’t the secret to taking action, creating momentum, or doing the things we want to do. So many things take more than just knowing. And, as it turns out, trying to do everything alone, trying to keep our struggles secret, doesn’t do what we think it will do, either.
Through this process of knowing what I need (movement) but struggling to actually do it, I’ve been practicing not calling myself a garbage person or a lazy, incapable phony. I’ve been practicing getting curious about what I’m so afraid of — about why Doing The Thing feels so impossible — about what gets in the way.
I’ve been staying close to the impulse to move and seeing if I can do it in small increments — getting up to organize a cupboard instead of sitting; walking around the backyard instead of sitting; dancing with my daughter instead of thinking I must go from nothing to an hour-long sweat-sesh. I’ve been tending to the parts of me that feel like a failure for not looking the way I used to, for the changes my body has held and expressed, for not being able to “bounce back” after pregnancy and a C-Section, for struggling to consistently engage in the movement practices I know would be supportive to me. I’ve been letting myself feel the tenderness of something being in reach yet feeling unreachable because of my own inability to suck at something, my own fear of not being able to finish the ride, my own difficulty in facing what is physically (aka emotionally) hard, facing the process instead of the outcome, facing what needs growing, facing the muscles screaming to be rebuilt.
Knowing versus Doing has long been a shame swamp for me. I know so many things; I know what supports my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health; I know what to do. Yet doing those things consistently, regularly, ritually, routinely… has always been a struggle. “You should know better” has long been ringing in my ears during moments or seasons where I’m far from the practices that support me — like movement. I know for a fact that regular exercise is extremely nourishing, yet I haven’t been doing it. I know many things are supportive for me that I stray from for various reasons. And the shame that comes from knowing yet not doing can feel embarrassingly weighty in some moments.
Something often talked about in couples therapy is the idea of a “soft start”, or a compliment sandwich — starting with a compliment, then delivering the feedback, then ending with another compliment. This is the approach I’m taking as I explore in earnest how I can re-center movement in my life. It might look like saying to myself, “I’m so proud of you for trying to figure this out (compliment). You tend to back away when things start feeling edgy, unfamiliar, or hard (feedback)… I believe in your ability to slowly move toward and through those edges (compliment).” I’m committed to exploring this resistance, these blocks, this struggle — so I can return to being in relationship with my body in a way that feels nourishing, like nurturance, like love, rather than avoidance or shame. And I strive to do so in a way that is cloaked in compassion, rather than punishment.
Finding the soft edge between a healthy push and shame-filled demand isn’t easy. My intent is to practice the healthy push, yet frustration, tiredness, desperation for it to be less hard, all of it can quickly lead to the shaming demands instead. So I return to practice: practicing softness paired with the push. Practicing slow and steady paired with the push. Practicing sustainable action paired with the push. Practicing curiosity paired with the push. Practicing compassion paired with the push. Practicing trusting the timing of things paired with the push. Practicing showing up for my body in the ways it deserves, the way it needs me to, the way I want to. And letting the practice be imperfect, have space for some inconsistency, have space for the unpredictable nature of being alive — yet still hold the commitment and intention front and center. I want to be a kind guide to myself, rather than an authoritarian coach. I want to be an open vessel to slow and steady change, rather than a forceful trainer urging myself to morph RIGHT NOW. This is how I want to approach all kinds of change within myself and my life — with the pace and space to do it in ways that honor my humanness, my imperfections, the ebb and flow of my energy, my capacity, my abilities.
I’ll end with this reminder to myself and perhaps to you: You will forever need to practice starting over the long list of things you accidentally let go, let fall to the wayside, quit before you’re actually ready to quit, stop doing out of fear or shame or guilt or lack of time or (I could go on). Maybe starting over, having to go back to the beginning, having to stand at the bottom of the mountain looking up, legs wobbly, with no idea how you’ll get to the top… maybe none of this means you’re broken or incapable or lazy. Maybe it means life gets in the way sometimes. Maybe it means you’re tending to other important parts of yourself. Maybe it means you’re open to being swayed by life, by being imperfect, by not always knowing how to juggle it all. Maybe it means you’re just a person trying to live fully, which includes having to start over, confront your limitations, be a beginner again. Maybe this is just part of it — not something to shame yourself for but something to honor as inherent to being human. You can do it kindly. You can do it gently. You can do it with compassion and care, as if that’s what you and your out-of-shape-yet-still-wholly-enough body deserve… because it is. It is.
△ My daughter and I watched this butterfly bop from flower to flower in our yard and it made the whole world feel small in a needed way.
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