Articles -

Shadows on the Platform

by Chaz Franke MSW, LCSW

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
-Carl Jung

Envision the last time everything came together for you in the gym. The last time a PR was easy, the last time you surprised yourself, or even the last time you were able to push yourself harder than you thought possible. Take the time to reflect and contemplate what brought you to that point. Contemplate on the concept that every single second of your training had to go exactly the way it had gone ,to the  second ,for you to be at the point you were at in that moment. It is these moments that create a residual effect, and keep us coming back for more. But this is not an article to discuss simply why we do what we do. The reality is that is a very personal journey for all of us. A journey that, although it is unique for every person, is the journey that joins all of us together. Whether you are a gym rat, a powerlifter, a strongman, a crossfitter, a bodybuilder, or some combination thereof, we are all still connected by that drive. This is an article to discuss some of the common threads that create a person who makes individual physical activity a strong part of their life. This article is to expand on the ways that picking things up and putting them down becomes a philosophy for life. This article is being written to start an open dialogue, and an inner dialogue, about the ways this extreme and strenuous behavior seems to have lifesaving qualities for those of us willing to explore our darker corners.

First, let me note some of my values and priorities. More than anything on this planet I care about people. I am a licensed psychotherapist, and it is in that calling that I have truly been able to see the toughness and character of the human spirit. Through that insight I started to see the amazing stories that make their way into the local gym. I started to see that everyone had a narrative that they could relay that discussed the areas of their life where they were unhappy, where they lost their way, or where they hoped to reclaim a level of themselves through hard work and a personal investment. Hopefully, everyone reading to this point can relate to this story. My story was no less archetypal when thinking of the world of lifting. I was 340lbs, fat, uncomfortable, depressed, and directionless. I started riding a stationary bike for three miles three times a week because I was too embarrassed to go to a gym. Eventually, I joined the local YMCA and since that time I have not had a period in my life that was not profoundly affected by lifting weights. At some point weights were not enough and I transitioned to lifting objects as a strongman. I do not tell you this story to bring up inspiration, but to start the dialogue about the role of self-awareness, resiliency, and acceptance in the context of lifting heavy.

An inspiration in my life is the writings of Carl Jung. A man of intricate thought and compassion, Jung has been described as anything ranging from the conventional term of psychiatrist to the less conventional phrase of Mystic (a term he vehemently disliked mind you). One of the more simple yet profound aspects of Jungian thought is that of, “the shadow.” In this theory Jung is basically (please allow for poetic license here) stating that we create a sense of self or an ,”I,” and in doing so we are likely, and in some cases excitingly, willing to disown the parts of ourselves that do not fit this construct. These parts become our shadow. In this writing and the upcoming writing I am going to expand on the role of both disowning and accepting these shadow aspects of our lifting selves, and focus on the ways that being able to accept and work with these disowned parts can have truly lifesaving qualities. As with any aspect of the shadow our ego will protect itself, and our inability to continue identifying this always fluid sense of self could lead to blind spots that open us up to injury or worse.

First, I’ll use myself as an example of this acceptance. It was important for me to truly explore my proverbial blind spots that had prevented me from being able to invest in my health. What was my shadow? More than anything I had disowned any part of me that included true self-worth. In my construct of self I was no good to anyone if I was not doing what they needed. The second I was not providing anything for anyone I was worthless under the guidelines of this construct. Second, I was a fat person. As an overweight person it is hard to escape the idea of being anything but that. It becomes a huge part of who you are. It is the first way people describe you, it is the one characteristic people recall, and it becomes the only way you know how to relate to the environment. Remember, in the world of therapy we look for pattern, familiarity, and functionality. Just because something serves a purpose does not mean it is healthy (this will be discussed at length in the next article). For me to give up being an overweight person would mean I had to give up the only way I knew how to relate to the world. I had disowned the parts of me that had confidence, the parts of me that could be comfortable in my body, and most importantly I had learned how to disown and criticize any part of me that thought I had worth as an authentic version of myself. As you can see the shadow takes many forms, and is always in a position to change. We do not learn how to cope with the shadow through anger or further distancing. We learn this through learning that these parts of us that we have disowned are still actually genuine parts of ourselves. That makes these parts of us something that deserves strong, compassionate, and forgiving attention. Many of us have been able to give those parts of us attention through heavy lifting. Whether it be the ability to feel strong instead of fat, or the ability to have an obsession with health and lifting as opposed to an obsession with your next high. Lifting weights is one the purest forms of learning about yourself. You have to learn how to miss lifts without losing confidence. You have to learn how to use your strengths while learning enough about your weaknesses to improve. You have to learn how to have to a value to yourself so you can pass on that value and strength to the people in your life who need you. Without the ability to see how you made this journey to the weight room you will never learn about what you may have disowned or what parts of you can truly go from the shadows to the light.

There is a great psychological component to lifting as we all know. What is often neglected is the role that self-awareness plays in being able to make your next goal. Knowing your shadow and the parts you’ve tried to disown allows you to learn your intention with each lift. This awareness allows you to know that pulling this weight is a reminder that you were not always who you thought you were. It is a constant reminder that you do not to stay where you are. It is a reminder that your hard work alone moved towards being the true genuine version of yourself that you may not have always believed was possible. Lifting is a reminder that even in your darkest corners there are still parts of you that can truly be appreciated, changed, and embraced as opposed to hidden or misguided. Next time you step into your weight room of choice make sure you set your intention. Make certain you remember that you are there to serve yourself and humble yourself in one of the few arenas that allows for both. Do not lose this intention for you may revert back to behaviors that caused you to limit yourself in the first place. As Thomas Moore once said,” My insanities define me. Without them, I would be wondering who I am and when my life will begin. My healing requires that I honor the foolishness of all these moments.”