Do You Want to Achieve Optimal Self-Improvement? It Is a Matter of Looking In, Not Out

Sometimes an idea for an article strikes my mind due to questions I am hearing in the gym with athletes, coaches, or team members. Sometimes an idea for an article is created by controversies I hear in the media that get me fired up and I feel the need to expand and educate. However, sometimes ideas for articles are created by the battles I play out in my own head, the journey I’ve undergone to overcome them or the present reality of continuing to face them. So, recently what has hit me hard is the older we become, the more responsibilities we carry, some by choice and some by chance.

Over time, with each new hat I put on, I find myself striving to not only continue carrying the previous hats on my head, but also to maintain or improve my ability to do so. But where am I looking when evaluation time comes? I personally feel that I am someone who constantly strives for self-improvement. I have learned quickly how accepting an obstacle or complaining about it gets me nowhere. The rewards of hard work, creativity and persistence far outweigh the easy escape of simply complaining. Don’t get me wrong, I will still have my moments when I can’t bear the pressure and the instant relief of “letting it out” is what is needed. However, this strive for self-improvement all too often slips into the yearning for perfection, or better said, expectancy, of perfection from myself. It is this very desire that becomes the pitfall of self-improvement.

What you will find is that the reason we strive for perfection has many layers. There is the layer that, for many, is ingrained in their DNA – they are type A personality; they always have been and always will be. There is the layer that is driven by outside forces: social media, magazines, fashion, and superficial definitions of success. Another layer consists of fear of failure and defeat and a pure desire to win. Some layers are created from a desire to be accepted and to please. It is seldom just one layer that brings about perfectionism. Regardless, there will be a time when you are ready to peel back the layers, and most likely you won’t choose the day, it will choose you.

You might be asking how this relates to health and fitness – quite easily, actually. On your health and fitness journey to self-improvement, you will eventually realize there are several facets to health and fitness, and the difference between striving for optimal self-improvement and perfection in each will make you or break you. Within the spectrum of health, you will find the physical layer, the mental layer, the emotional layer, and the spiritual layer. This is another part of my profession I am extremely passionate about. If I have seen one thing in the fifteen years of health and fitness, it is the effect one of the above areas has on another. Sometimes, I make a definitive choice to work on one realm of my fitness and focus more intently on it. Other times, life’s events choose for me what area gets the focus. But it is when I strive to excel perfectly at all areas at once that I am defeated. I must realize that how they play into each other and the balance they create is what is to be strived for, not how each one stands alone.

The first layer will be the outermost: the physical layer. All too often, we and society use appearance to define us. Face it: we are our worst critics. However, there is a fine line here. There is the line of accepting what you cannot change…Your skin color, your height, your build (frame), your scars, your flaws, your curves or lack thereof! These are the God-given qualities that make you who you are. Some of these characteristics represent life’s struggles, stories, and events. Let them be a sign of that. Some of these characteristics represent your family; they represent your heritage. Embrace them, love them, accept them, and while you’re at, it surround yourself with other people that love them!

The other side of the line represents factors that you can change, factors that are preventing you from being all that God has created you to be and do what He has created you to do. This does not necessarily represent acceptance, but simply complacency. Are you overweight due to unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise? If so, this can be changed.  Are you out of shape because you choose to spend free time in front of the T.V. or simply manage your time poorly? This habit can be changed. Are you out of breath with minor activities because you smoke? This you can do something about.  Or are you avoiding the gym all together for the fear of acceptance or the fear of defeat? This you can change.

There is appearance, and then there is health. I have yet to meet someone who can run a 6-minute mile, complete 50 perfect pushups, and knock out 50 pull-ups, that didn’t look as if they could conquer this feat. Is your health where it needs to be? Start by addressing the inside first and I guarantee your appearance, also known as the outside, will match or exceed it. There are plenty of fads or diets out there that will get you “skinny”, if you succumb to using that word, in a week. Ask yourself, is it healthy? Can it be maintained? Is this lifestyle and thinking allowing you to be all you are setting out to be? Is this what you want to teach your children is “healthy”?

This appearance-first mindset places perfection in appearance as a priority first, and health second. It is a trap for disappointment and defeat. I can look in the mirror and find a multitude of things to feel unhappy about.  My post two-baby body has left its marks, and honestly I would lie if I said I don’t from time to time still fall into this trap of finding the flaws, but I know not to stay there too long. Will this thinking empower me? Will this thinking better me? Most importantly, will it help me to better those around me?  I can go down this dark road of striving for physical perfection, or I can embrace what my body has physically done in the past, what it can physically do to this day and what the future may hold. I then can decide to consistently strive to improve it by training and eating properly. This is where I will choose to self-improve and this is what will push me forward and not set me back. Address the health first.

So, you have decided to heal from the inside out and take your health/fitness seriously. But beware: you are not free from the perfection trap. What happens when someone else trains harder, sees more gains, and accomplishes more than you physically? Put yourself in any group atmosphere, and at some point, this will inevitably happen. Again, look in, not out. Just as comparing your appearance to another will defeat you, so will comparing your fitness. Not only are we each made differently, and made to accomplish different things, but we each are carrying different loads in life.  And if you don’t believe this, then try observing a sprint race with two different individuals. On one hand, you have individual A, who has had 8 hours of sleep, 3-4 quality meals the day prior, a somewhat stress-free day, and consistent, injury-free training up to the race. On the other hand, you have individual B that is balancing school and work. This individual has had enough time to snack a little throughout the day, stayed up late studying for an exam, and is struggling to save a marriage. Individual B has been able, for the most part, to train 3 days a week for the past 6 weeks with the time and the focus he has had. How can you possibly think they will perform the equally?

Why do we compare ourselves to others?  Others do not define us; we define us. You bring to your training what you have. Depending on the day, some will bring a lot, however, some will bring a little. You bring what you have. Again, acceptance is not the same as complacency.  We have seasons in our lives that are hard, unpleasant, and challenging, to say the least.  Work to accept this and do your part to learn from them, grow from them, and eventually overcome them. No doubt, time and energy will be required of these hard times in order to get through them, not leaving much on the plate for your training.  However, it is during these times that your workouts can re-energize you and bring clarity to your overwhelmed mind, provided you turn in, not out. Be content with the fact that you are making time for your fitness among the current chaos or situation you find yourself in. Setting fitness as a priority is alone a huge step. Use your fitness sessions to focus on the internal gains these sessions bring you and the ability they have to lift your spirits. Use someone else’s training to inspire and encourage you that hard work pays off. Use another person’s progress to motivate you to push harder and be persistent in whatever it is you are battling. Just beware that defeat lies in using someone else’s training and accomplishments to measure your success. Define your own success.

As I mentioned before, there are other facets beyond appearance and fitness that embody the full definition of health. However, if your attention span is anything like mine, there is a possibility that at this moment it is tapped out. So with hopes of keeping you engaged, I will cover the remaining spiritual and emotional/mental health in part B of this article, to be published in April. But for those of you struggling with self-improvement verses perfection, I will leave you with this powerful prayer.  I hope you post it, recite it, memorize it, and strive to live it.

O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,

The courage to change what can be changed,

and the wisdom to know the one from the other

-Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)