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What Working Out Did for My Self-Esteem That I Didn’t Expect
by Jared Williams
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March 21, 2019

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14 Minute Read

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What Working Out Did for My Self-Esteem That I Didn’t Expect

He started working out at the gym to improve his body.  This led to an improvement of his mind and soul in ways he never could have imagined.

Courtesy of Jared Williams
Courtesy of Jared Williams

Undergrad was finally over, and I felt like I could focus. I’d just completed an eight-month job hunt and landed an incredible position, but in true fashion of a recovering perfectionist, I still wasn’t happy. Things in my life seemed to be going so well. I had gotten my bachelor’s –– a journey that felt like I had hiked up a mountain in the wrong shoes with two backpacks and a rolling suitcase –– and I had persisted through rejections to find a job in my field. But despite all of the progress I’d been making, I was going home to an issue I had dealt with since middle school –

When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw.

I’d never really seen myself as particularly attractive. I was more artistic than athletic, and despite the hours of training I committed to dance, my body was just something I was never comfortable with. My wrists were too small, my arms were too long, my body looked weak. This, combined with the naturally feminine mannerisms I’d developed growing up, had become my greatest source of insecurity and what I would consistently blame for my anxiety and depression. I didn’t like what I saw, so why should anyone else? Who would believe that I was worthy of love and belonging?

A few weeks into my new job, I took to the gym. I was determined to get the body I wanted. One that I could be proud of that wouldn’t make me question my ability to do the things a man should be able to do. I had managed to start this process with friends once or twice in college, but I never made any progress. The commitment would hold for a month or so until I got busy, and then one off day quickly turned into two off weeks. If I were able to resist that pitfall then I would surely fall into the trap of comparison. As I would sit in the weight room of the recreation center, I’d watch as the guys around me would make things seem effortless. They would lift twice the amount I was lifting, three times as long as I could lift it while I looked at myself in the mirror with an expression that could only be read as “ain’t that bout a b*tch.”

The gym had never been my safe space. On the contrary, it was the place where I would watch enviously as people who had been working out for years demonstrated their own expertise, all the while I played a track in my head on a loop: Why are you here? You don’t know what you’re doing? They’re watching you. They know you don’t belong here. These were the times that I turned to Joe, a friend from home, whose carefree nature meant that he navigated the world with reckless abandon, completely uncaring about the opinions of others. Joe had recently joined the military but was familiar with the tantrums I would throw in the gym from the time he trained me for all of two weeks. Joe’s unique brand of motivation was something I would turn to when I felt discouraged. He was frank, honest, and didn’t take my shit, which in my world was impressive. Our friendship had always been one where we could lean on each other at the best and worst times.

So now, as I struggled with insecurity in between workouts, I texted out my frustrations.

Me: “I can’t do it.”
Joe: “Do what?”
Me: “Come to the gym. I can’t do half of what everybody else can do.”
Joe: “Screw ‘em. It’s not about them.”

That was the first of many times Joe would shut down my self-doubt with his unique brand of emotional support. But I held on to that sentiment:  

My fitness wasn’t about the people around me, it was about focusing on my own growth.

Courtesy of Jared Williams

So I did. Over the next couple of months, fitness would become a part of my regular routine. I took advantage of being without a social life and developed a schedule where I left for the gym immediately after work. I’d started to build habits into my life to support my new gym lifestyle, but I was still going for the same reason – to change the parts of me that I didn’t think were good enough.

Still, it had been months and I hadn’t quit.  I’d never made it this far in my fitness journey without giving up, which put me in unchartered territory. But, again, I found myself frustrated and disappointed. I was doing all of the right things, putting in the work, and yet when I looked in the mirror I saw the same body looking back at me. I was comparing myself against the fitness goals I set for myself by thumbing through the profiles of athletes and bodybuilders, only to find myself discouraged in the process.

So again I turned to Joe, trusting that he would be able to turn my tantrum into a solution.

Me: “I don’t think I know what to workout or how.”
Joe: “Google it…”

Per his advice I turned to Google for workout plans and found myself immersed in terminology I was only mildly used to.

Me: “The hell is an Arnold Press?!”
Joe: “Google it.”

Joe made it clear that there was a fine line between supporting and enabling, and despite my best attempts, homie was not an enabler. So I became more invested in trying on workout plans, but also paying closer attention to their effects. When it came to building muscle, I remembered a little from ballet and anatomy but felt so unsure as to whether or not I was doing anything with the correct form. So, I followed Joe’s advice:  I Googled it, and I learned.

I started to internalize what I was learning –– jumping from fitness plan to fitness plan, researching exercises, and learning more about what my body responded to. Developing my own knowledge was putting me in the driver’s seat of my own journey, which was a completely different experience.

No longer was I leaning on someone else’s expertise to tell me what, when, and how because now I held the knowledge and only needed the desire to apply it.

I maintained my schedule over the following months, leaving work, gym bag in hand, excited to try out something new. Then, one evening as I was getting dressed, I stopped as I was putting my shirt on and stared. Something about my body was different. The slow rate of my body’s physical change combined with the fact that I saw my body every day, made me unaware of the reality that my body was changing. For the first time since I had picked up my gym lifestyle, I looked in the mirror and didn’t point out that my body wasn’t perfect or that it didn’t match the Instagram models. I took pride in knowing that what I was seeing was a physical manifestation of my own research, commitment, and work. This moment meant more to me than I thought it would. It wasn’t about the amount of progress I had made, but the realization that despite what I told myself – that I was out of place and would never get to where I wanted to be – my focus had resulted in some small improvement.  In my body, and in my mind.

Courtesy of Jared Williams
Courtesy of Jared Williams

Slowly, I began to feel more comfortable in the gym and in myself. Not because I’d made gym friends (#NoNewFriends), but because the more I learned about the exercises I was doing, the more I focused on the muscle group I was working. I would find a playlist to fit my mood and for just one hour of the day my mind focused on nothing else but building muscle and pacing my breathing. Not whether my meeting earlier could’ve gone better, or if I should text him back for a third time even though he hadn’t answered the previous two (which I’m sure I did anyway). This time that was growing more sacred to me was reserved for self. It was like a meditative practice. My movements tied to the energy of the music I listened to, which tied to the emotions. Early on, DMX proved to be great for getting through tough workouts, but the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade really changed the game there.

In that unexpected way, weightlifting was becoming a form of emotional expression, while also being a space to focus all of my energy on my own growth.

 

Pretty soon now, it will be three years since I decided to make this a part of my lifestyle. In the beginning, the only thing that motivated me to keep going was my need to be someone other than myself. Along the way was where I found a lesson I never expected to. I came into this with a goal in mind.  That goal was to change my appearance so that my circumstances would change –– I would become worthy of love and affection.  The longer I stayed and focused on myself, the more I learned that, independent of other people, I didn’t have a strong opinion about my body. No longer was I obsessed with how close I was to looking like the athletes I had frozen in my mind like sculpted statues, or envious of the people around me who started their journeys long before I had. I’d found a sense of peace within myself where I accepted that this practice wasn’t going to mold me overnight. Hell, this wouldn’t even mold me over a solid year.

This process was about allowing myself to own the innate power I held to change and resist my own defeatist thoughts.

I take solace in knowing that what others see externally is no match for what I hope to develop internally. Those are the muscles I hope to tone and build –– those of the heart and soul, that make up my determination, my discipline, my ability to be me, the best that I can be.

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