As a young athlete I was typically motivated by two strong emotions: anger and the need for approval. If those seem contrary, you’re correct about that. I was angry at the world for its injustices and at the same time craving attention and satisfaction from the compliments of others.
In a classic case of nature vs. nurture, this internal conflict was due in part to my anxious character. Some of it was also due to contrary aspects of my upbringing. But in any case, it was a long and often furious engagement trying to prove myself to others, and to myself.
In some ways, that inner conflict worked to my advantage. As a competitive person, I used that inner turmoil to drive my athletic pursuits. That produced success to the level of my natural ability. I can honestly say that during the peak years of my youth from age 13 through the age of 28, I trained as hard as I could and raced as fast as I could. I have no regrets. Looking back at training journals from those years, there weren’t many places where I slacked off. If anything, I overtrained and raced too much at times.
By the time I got married and we had our first child, it dawned on me that perhaps my formula for success was a bit out of balance. That combination of using anger as a motivator and having the need for approval was not especially constructive in the work world. For one thing, anger has no place in professional life. Yet neither does the need for constant approval. People just don’t have time for that. “Do your job,” is more often what managers and executives will tell you. “That should be satisfaction enough. “
But it took some real life crises and a number of years to breed that anger and need for constant approval out of me for good.
During years of caregiving for my father, a stroke victim, and taking care of my late wife, who died from ovarian cancer after eight years of survivorship, I was invited by a local cancer resource center to take part in some counseling. I’d shared the challenges of taking care of my father and all the family relationship management that had to go into that. There were old seeds of anger still rooting about our family that would crop up in moments of frustration from him. It took every ounce of patience I had to manage some of that.
Meanwhile I perhaps desperately wanted approval in how I was taking care of my wife. Some of that I poured into journals and blogs, and ultimately published a book comprised of those explorations titled The Right Kind of Pride: A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community. But mostly that work turned out to be a record of all the vulnerability we experienced and the blessings we received. The algorithm of vulnerability–being open and honest to the point of being powerless–– is what I mean by the right kind of pride. Authenticity is critical to relationships, that includes one’s faith in God, and in others.
During one of the counseling sessions I was talking about the cycles of difficulty and reconciliation with my father when the therapist leaned forward and asked, “You seem good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”
I was floored by that question. It made me think back on all the ways that I’d beat myself up in the past for what seemed like failures, but were in fact just experiences that contributed to my life just as much as the successes. And once I looked at each of those situations through the lens of forgiveness, life itself began to take on a new appearance.
It’s no cliche to say that giving and accepting forgiveness is liberating. Until you’ve tried it sometime, it can be hard to imagine what it means to forgive or be forgiven. But when you do that for yourself, it frees you from the ruminative chains that bind you… and how you think about the past.
When that happens, it opens up new thinking processes for the present and future. Living with the ability to forgive yourself enables you to make small or even large mistakes and forgive yourself in the moment. Then you truly learn from them. It is thus far easier to correct the situation and move forward. And when you aren’t beating yourself up for the supposed failures of the past, present or even future (expecting failure…) it is much easier to believe in your ability to achieve what you set your mind to.
Thus it is vital to understand the power of forgiveness when setting goals for yourself or making resolutions. I recently happened upon a journal from 2008. In its pages I noticed that I’d made a notation in goals for the year: “Cut carbs and replace with fruits and vegetables.”
That was depressing to read in some respects. I’d forgotten how long I’ve been trying to accomplish that goal. So why hasn’t it happened? The most honest answer is that I’m somehow not reconciled to certain aspects of my behavior. Some are still emotionally-driven, and it’s easy to collapse into those patterns. So perhaps, like so many people in this world, I’m still eating my feelings rather than eating for reasons of health and fuel.
It’s the same thing with athletic pursuits. If you’re taking too much time in transitions during triathlon, it’s a simple process to figure out how it’s happening. But it’s a much more powerful examination to consider the question of why it is happening. What is holding you back from wanting to get through transitions quicker? Is it fear? Laziness? Pressure? Questions worth asking.
But to get there in terms of better eating––and this is my main goal for this year––I’m going to take a hard look at my eating habits and assess the emotions that must be driving some of them. Consuming comfort food and anxious calories is a real thing. We also eat to cope with feelings of depression, uncertainty, boredom and perhaps worst of all, self-pity. Worst because that indicates a lack of gratitude.
But first, I’ll have to forgive myself for the lack of commitment in order to open up those patterns to examination. After that, a more honest emotional framework can be applied and the motivation to eat better attached to objectives rather than buried under layers of non-constructive carbohydrates.
I hope this helps you take a better look at yourself both in the mirror and in the context of your life. Forgiveness is a powerful thing. Let it work for you, and grow.