On health, joy and assumptions
Studying counselling is super interesting, extremely challenging at times and also very rewarding. I am slowly entering the stage of active practice – which is, of course, very humbling. As I enter the next phase of this journey I am also spending a lot of time thinking about health, collective wellbeing and systemic conditions we all grow up in. Not only because I am obligated to do so, but also because I want to.
You see, historically we have lived a strange paradox in carrying professions and carrying roles (motherhood etc): we were told we need to always care for the other, but never really focussed on how to recharge our own batteries. I was lucky that despite my heavily Catholic upbringing (which dictated turning the other cheek and always putting others first), I was raised by a pragmatic father. I was always expected to eat well, move, study, learn and invest in myself as much as possible in order to help others. I did not believe in complete altruism because it never really made sense to me. You cannot pour water out of an empty cup so why would you be expected to give and give without receiving any support yourself?
I learned this through conversations with dad, but also through modelling. Before my GCSE’s I was studying 24/7. One day dad walked into the room, confiscated all my notes and books and kicked me out to see a friend or go for a walk – genuinely, honestly threatening me that if I don’t stop and rest he would take me out of school altogether.
And so I lived this approach as well as I could and now that I am entering a really demanding world of mental health support, I am aware of the natural need for self-care more than ever. I spent the first few years making time for studies – to lower my stress levels. Then I spent two years in therapy working on my financial health – an aspect of life we normally don’t talk about whatsoever. And now I am moving to the most difficult area for me: fitness and physical wellbeing.
At the beginning of the year, I set myself an intention – to continue working on my financial habits but also gradually start thinking about my weight and fitness. As a result of Brexit and increased levels of racism, I have gained 25% of my body weight in the last five years, which even on paper feels heavy – not to mention me having to carry this surplus on me all the time (and put up with the occasional judgement of others too). I grew up relatively skinny, healthy and confident. Surrounded by boys (hanging out with my brother’s gang) I did not feel threatened or judged like other girls. In primary school, I grew bigger but lost the weight in puberty so I learned that it’s my body’s response to the world around me. Brexit is just another example of that. However, as I enter the new phase of my life – move through the menopause (another tabu topic) towards a fast-paced decline in my health, I remain comforted by the fact that we are an ageing society and all age better these days. I am however concerned about my general ability to stay fit, focussed and helpful to my clients. As a child of academics, I never considered running or cycling fun, so I want to tackle fitness and learn it as a new habit altogether.
Since January I was looking at my nutrition and activity levels to realise that I eat relatively well. We make our own food, grow some of it, order it from the local farm and now and again allow ourselves a take out (but in Bristol those are really good too). I don’t drink alcohol (oh, what a difference that makes to overall wellbeing) and I appreciate the power of good daily dose of vitamins too. But I do not move! I hate running. I am scared of cycling – traffic is way too fast for me, I simply don’t feel safe on the road. I think doing a fitness class at home is weird. Yoga comes in and out of my life when I have periods of quiet mindfulness or difficult life choices to make. I meditate daily over my coffee, but I do not actively practise meditation at all.
I spent six months trying actively to improve my fitness habits, but in vain. I am always back to the same place: I cannot do it and I do not like it. I am sharing this today because I finally had a really good breakthrough in my thinking and behaviour patterns so I would like to flag up a few things I have realised, just in case it’s helpful:
- Our systemic pressure to be fit, skinny, beautiful and successful is a myth, but it does affect us. Many of us avoid shopping malls and approach our body image relatively sensibly. However, the notion that we are “never good enough, and never will be” lingers like a bad poison deeply in our psyche due to severe market demands. Sometimes we might not be aware of just how detrimental it is to our willingness to change. As I went through my CBT techniques around fitness I had to admit that yes, I am conscious, yes – it is important what I wear when I run, and yes – I am more inclined to run when streets (pavements, not roads) are empty. That’s sad, but it’s a good starting point. Knowing this I am not running accepting that on some days I might feel ugly or vulnerable and that’s OK. But it should not stop me from running. That would be giving into a wider problem I do not wish to support.
- Our systemic abuse of women is making us feel unsafe on the road and that sucks. It’s incredibly sad but picking up my first few running magazines I realised that the abuse increased in the times of pandemic – because people feel even more stressed out and lash out on each other. So it’s not easy to motivate ourselves to go out and face the world like this. However, as an annoying feminist I decided to take this on and respond to every single comment and – if needed – report it. It’s the only way this world is going to change. I refuse to stay at home based on the assumption that if I am out, men are free to subjectify me just because I am wearing fitness clothing. Nope. I do not consent to this.
- I am full of excuses based on assumptions, systemic, cultural, personal biases that form a huge defence wall protecting me from…getting better at taking care of myself. I actually had to do a word map on an ideal fitness state and one I am in now to notice scary, sad realisations: feeling guilty, ashamed, worried, feeling that I might try but I will never be fit on an ongoing basis. And it does not matter if it’s due to my rather academic upbringing, a privileged and comfortable position in life over the years, good health and no need to get better or much deeper mechanisms at play. The point is this: I am setting myself up for failure by default. It took me a long time to realise this but it’s a great place to be in: realisation means I can let go of the assumption and work on fitness differently – with joy, hope, determination but also a sense of lightness of the “oh, yes I can” attitude. So these days I run, because I can and because I am capable of getting really fit.
- My ungrateful, moaning, negative thinking. I am so upset that we are all raised in reinforced negative biases. It’s not enough that our brains are searching for negativity (in the very natural need to protect us), we are also culturally adding a layer of complaint – because it’s fashionable. I find it infuriating and when I discover that bias in myself I do my best to weed it out. It’s simply unhelpful. We can sit and moan or we can consider the possibility of change for a better, dream, imagine it and aim for it too. Which thinking is going to get us to a better place? Well, that’s pretty obvious. So this week I run practising gratitude and counting my blessings: I listed my opportunities and options (green Bristol, calm streets, an immense amount of time to work with during the lockdown, a sunny summer, a teenager who can take the dog out, my own strong health-giving me a good start). And as I run I notice more blessings: the man in the wheelchair who greets me each morning during his morning patrol makes me wonder – why am I sitting on my bum at home? The mum with three children who cheerfully waves at me in the park makes me think of just how easy my motherhood is comparing to hers – and why am I not smiling? It’s tricky to make comparisons, but if done from a humble place of gratitude it really motivates me to run more. Simply because I can.
- My historical operating from my “smart head” is not helpful in picking up this new habit because I am fighting over 40 years of other habits and a pretty ancient reptilian brain. And so instead of talking about running, I have to get up and run. So these days I get out of the shower, have my morning coffee, a glass of water and then put my shoes on. I will have to do this for at least three months to override the old habits (we never actually get rid of those, we can only override them).
- Trying to be fit versus staying fit is not productive at all. I spend so much time researching, discussing and preparing for running that I have no time left for the actual activity. Yes, of course, running means I need to change my morning routine or wake up earlier but it pays off so much! I get more work done faster, I write more and I feel generally happier and more joyful. What a cheap way of becoming more organised and energised. So today I think of running (and cycling, yoga or meditation) as an investment – daily one. If I do it, I am going to get more done in the day. If I do it for a week, year, decade, rest of my life, I am going to achieve so much more and a have way more time left to rest, re-charge and socialise too. So win-win.
Last Thursday I had a difficult day. I was angry about the levels of oppression in 2020 UK reality but also about the idea that people choose the easier way of living, ending up locked in their own assumptions. I arrived to the place where I had to look hard at myself and start the change there. So on Friday I woke up, got out of the house and started running. I am determined to do it daily – weather permitting. Instead of worrying about my looks and my presence – I say hello to every single person on the way and I am validated with lovely morning smiles. I am realising that so far – after a week of running – I had only one car slowing down and no comments were made because I looked directly at the driver. He did not dare. I count my blessings and stay positive, light, joyful. I welcome every rose, every scent, every dose of oxygen as a blessing (how can one not in the times of the pandemic!). I get out of the house to work on my new habits and top myself up with even more positive energy. Then I go back home, have my breakfast and start serving others too.
Why am I writing about this? A friend of mine asked me to do so – she had found my recent thoughts on the topic relevant and recommended writing about it. Additionally, I would also like to know how you deal with fitness? We all have different, individual experiences and I would love to learn from you. So let me know. To me, 2020 feels like a steep journey. I had to learn a lot academically, in my head, to get ready to step into my heart and my body. But it is so worth it.
I know it might sound like a paradox – six months of thinking about something and arriving at the place where I “just do it”. But the truth is more complex – the change is gradual and does need space and time to reflect, to shift, to feel uneasy to the point of movement. And that’s OK.
Today look back at my Strava stats only to realise that the change was indeed gradual. I had my ups and downs, and I am sure I will have many more. But I am doing better and I intend to do even more. I want, need to for others and I can get better at taking care of my physical health. As someone wise said to me: nothing is impossible.
(A crucial aspect of this journey is friends and family – I am lucky to have wonderful support from both groups, which I am eternally grateful for. However, in my opinion, the change and the commitment to that change have to come from within).
Thank you for writing such an insightful reflection on your own journey to better health. I am inspired by the difficulties this has presented and the means by which you have approached dealing with this. I hope inspiration stays with you and I thank you for your bravery in sharing your voyage of discovery with us.
Thank you so much for reading, Nicola, and for supporting me along the way. It means a lot! Thank you!