A slightly blurry early morning gym selfie
I don’t even remember what we were talking about when a family friend’s name came up in conversation. I’ve known her since she was born; a photograph of a six year old me holding her as a new-born still sits on my parents’ piano. My partner has only known her for the two and a half years that we’ve been together. He made a passing comment about her ‘being sporty’. Much guffawing immediately followed on my part. ‘Sporty?!’, I retorted. ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. She is even more bookish than me.’ ‘She plays netball’, came the reply. ‘And you play badminton with her’. ‘But she hated adventures when we were kids!’ – the moment that statement left my lips I realised how lame my reasoning was. My partner was presenting clear evidence that the friend is sporty (present tense) and all my counter-arguments relied on examples from twenty years ago (past tense).
This conversation has stuck with me since, giving me the kind of brain itch where you know you have to scratch your head and think about what it means some more. When I relayed the story to my friend, her first reaction was to splutter with laughter as well; even for her, the past tense dominates over the contrary present tense. She isn’t alone. I also considered myself un-sporty despite regularly being active and fitter now than ever.
We all do this in different ways. We acquire or assume labels, often very early in our lives, and they stick – or we stick to them. At school, it seemed that you could either be bookish or sporty, not both. The fat girl state of mind lingers on long after the weight has gone. Envy of the popular girls likewise.
Along with labels there are stories – stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are like, how we show up in the world. I am not sporty therefore every effort to exercise is doomed to failure as it runs against my very nature (or at least that’s what I tell myself). I am not sporty therefore there is no point in not eating a second helping of dessert. I am not sporty therefore there is no point in buying myself clothes that I might actually want to exercise in. I think therefore I am not.
What if we challenged these stories?
What if we wrote a new story – not an ending, but a new narrative about who we are, what we are like (and what we like), how we show up in the world?
This is a difficult task to negotiate. We don’t want to force ourselves into a new position that is just as limiting but in different ways. Many of us don’t need help in finding new ways to make ourselves unhappy or uncomfortable. We are already adept at telling ourselves untrue stories that we go along with for years anyway: of course I love him. Of course I want to follow this career path. Of course I enjoy every weekend getting completely wasted.
So what if we simply tried out a new story? What if we experimented with the labels that we give ourselves?
In the name of research on your behalf, dear readers, I have conducted such an experiment over the last week. I was aware that the ‘not sporty’ label wasn’t a good fit anymore. Whereas once it was a useful protective barrier, now it felt restrictive. I’d outgrown it. I didn’t want to be un-sporty anymore. Moreover, I am not un-sporty anymore. The experiment turned out to be less about doing something different and more about opening my eyes to see that things are already different. Like with my netball playing badminton partner, I was already acting in a new way – only by unconsciously clinging to old labels and stories, I was blind to this change.
Maybe this is the key to finding which stories to adopt and which to rescind: looking out for which have already taken seed within us. When we listen to ourselves closely and carefully, which already sound like a truth we believe?
Experimenting with new stories in this way, we find a secret hidden in plain sight, something our deepest knowing has been aware of for some times but we’ve been unable to see or to sense.
Once our eyes and hearts are open, the previously hidden seeds find ways to blossom and bloom. The new stories take on a life of their own. Our creativity kicks in, helping the new way to embed, to become even truer.
This was certainly the case in my own recent experiment. When heavy rain prevented the planned bike ride or the backup plan of a run, I was initially at a loss. Previously, I would have taken this as cosmic confirmation that I was not destined to a life of exercise and sat on the sofa with a magazine instead. But with the new mind-set came new possibilities – and a dance workout on YouTube turned out to be an awesome substitute activity. Never occurred to me before to look online for help with exercise. Just when I realised that my new trainers were actually over a decade old, I spotted some hallmarks on an old no longer worn bangle; the trade in weight of the gold is more than enough to cover the cost of new footwear. Perhaps most crucially, when some bad news left me angry and hurt, my instinctive reaction to pull out of my first netball session that evening was soon overridden by a clearer urge to go because it would help…and it did.
That I am sporty is a new story. New, but it is true, feeling truer for me right now than the old un-sporty badge that I for so long wore with a strange pride.
And having played Wing Attack against my badminton partner’s Wing Defence on Wednesday, I can tell you that the new story is true for her too.