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Shadow on the Platform Part 2: Our Destructive Corners

by Chaz Franke MSW, LCSW


In the first part of this writing I wanted to start the open dialogue about the role of self awareness and self acceptance in the arena of strength and fitness training. In introducing this concept we embarked on a journey that took us into our ability to construct a narrative. It is in that narrative that we are charged with developing a sense of comfort and awareness that allows for growth, health, mindfulness, and intention. This is a topic that can be returned to at any time throughout your life, but it is not the topic for this writing. In part 2 of this process we are going to start exploring the more destructive patterns that have shown up throughout all levels of training. To be more succinct we are looking at what happens when the shadow’s fluid nature creates a new avenue of avoidance and disowning. If you are going to cling to any concrete version of yourself you are going to create a shadow. This is the tradeoff. If you are going to insist on creating any version of yourself that cannot be challenged, that must be protected, and is not willing to compromise then you will inherently disown something. In the case of these writings our goal is to establish such a fluid nature to ourselves that we become like our training: tolerant of ups and downs, willing to change, and comfortable with the ability to fail and improve. Any time our ego prevents this flexibility some consequence will be levied. In this process we will start to explore the aspects of personality that prevent this flexibility, and essentially play a role in frustration, injury, over training, and potential abandonment of strength and fitness training altogether.

‘Learn what is to be taken seriously, and laugh at the rest. “

-Hermann Hesse

            Initially, let me state something about the viewpoint that is directing these articles. This is not a discussion about how athletes start doing drugs, get too big, have, “roid rage,” and in the most tragic cases lose their lives. There is enough written on these kinds of situations. The main contributing reason these issues are not exclusively addressed here is that I have never attempted to use. Here we are addressing the day to day pitfalls that are created by our egos. So, if you’re a person with the toughness and dedication to participate in intense training then hopefully this is relevant to your experience.

Let’s explore the psychology of lifting weights from the angle of disowned and disregarded parts of us that are created in the gym. There is no greater place to study the effects of ego and imaginary audience then in a gym setting. It is likely less than truthful if someone were to try and tell me that from day one they were capable of putting their head down and training without comparison. Compare and Despair is an oft used phrase in the realm of psychotherapy. This is not a knee jerk reaction with the intention of helping people love themselves. This is a brief commentary on how horrible we are at comparison, and the patterns this poor habit creates in our lives. It takes a significant level of maturity to be able to learn from better athletes, and to train with people that are seemingly light years ahead of us in terms of skill and strength. That being said, we all know that surrounding ourselves with these top athletes is the one way to get better. So what are some of the ways that people create an ego that will allow for this humility and maturity without quitting the sport of their initial interest? Then to further that question, what are the ways that people create an ego to avoid the insecurity that is awakened by this process? These questions are the foundation of our dialogue at this point.

Let us focus on the second question regarding insecurity. It is insecurity and a lack of comfort with self that creates a pattern of behavior that will prevent any exposure to growth at a personal level. For me personally, if you do not want your training to be a part of you that is reflected in your general experiences in life, I am not sure your motivations would be that common. Many people enter this extreme level of training with the hopes of gaining confidence, comfort, and the chance at rebirth that no one can take from them. The original translation of the word Karma is basically, “intentional acting.” This concept meaning that whatever your intention is in the moment will simply grow into your next behavior or action, and this process will continue to grow on itself as long as you will consciously, or unconsciously, allow for it. This applies to the difficulties that occur within our training. This issue was initiated in a more positive cry for awareness in the first part of this article. Here we are viewing the idea of seeing this lack of awareness unfold in all its personally destructive glory. If we do not address our insecurity or difficulty with ourselves as our training goes on we will start to reap the Karma that is associated with it. Simply put, if your intention is to be the only lifter anyone on the plan is thinking about then you will fail , or you will burn out trying. This is the constant struggle we have seen unfold within all levels of athletics. This is where you see in-fighting amongst the sports, arguments, or simple put downs in a casual tone. This is where you hear statements similar to, “ Yeah he benches 600, but he’s not a great deadlifter.” It would be nice to think that this was simply concern for our 600lb bencher to be a well rounded athlete, but I think if you explore the intention behind that statement you might find the heart of an insecure lifter. This particular part of us is something I often refer to as our, “Kid Voice,” in therapy. Meaning there is a part of us that suddenly starts to feel not good enough, or isolated, or that we are not liked. This is similar to how quickly offended we are as children the second we start to feel discomfort. The reason for this reaction as children is that we are not psychologically developed enough to prevent our egocentricity so we feel that anything occurring is influenced by us, and that anything we think about ourselves other people would know as well. If this behavior goes unchecked ( for most of us we get knocked down a few pegs pretty early) then it will continue into adulthood. It has the potential to prevent you, as an athlete, from being able to admire and connect with the aspects of training that would have fallen in love with in the first place. These traits including concepts such as improvement, pushing yourself, a community, etc.

Another way you see this idea of disowning come to fruition is through injury or over training. As we all know the mind and body are connected without question. It is this connection that allows for the confidence to push through a lift despite discomfort, and it is the connection that allows us to learn enough about our body to see how to push ourselves. If you have any experience training other lifters then hopefully you have learned the art of the push. It is truly a craft to know how to push a lifter appropriately without putting them in harm’s way. The question becomes how good are we at doing that for ourselves. If we continue to have significant blind spots regarding intention and confidence I would argue we cannot be good at it. Many of us see pain as a badge of honor to show how far we will go for one more rep, but the psychology behind this is more complicated. To be truly honest with yourself regarding why you are willing to absorb this pain and put yourself in this position is an honesty that many people do not pursue. This is also a topic that will continue to be explored through these articles. It is this pushing to the point of over training or injury that can start the process of true introspection. This brings us back to the idea of what we will call, “Strength Karma.” Strength Karma is our ability to  know with each rep what our intention is regarding this act of strength, and therefore be able to build on this intention. This will occur while keeping our peak awareness present at all times. Without this awareness we will lose our ability to stay the course that our mature, wise self has set for us.

Let us conclude this aspect of our shadow journey with a mention of self. Psychologist Jack Engler once stated, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody. “I do not want to convey any idea that you have to give up on your ego because there are times this is the most loyal part of you in terms of self care. The purpose behind these writings lay in the need to create a full, genuine version of yourself in your respective sport that can be applied throughout life. This allows for integration of multiple topics of self. In particular you have to have the ability to know intention, care for self, gain security, gain acceptance, and learn forgiveness of self before you will be able to learn how to drop that ego when it is creating more shadows in your mind. Once you have gained more insight into the patterns of your Strength Karma you can train as a more complete version of yourself. You will not fall into ego based patterns of over training and injury. Once you have learned how you create selves, and therefore shadows, you will learn the skill of re-establishing a relationship with yourself in the weight room. In a similar vein if you choose to let your ego run wild you will find yourself in a pattern of thought that leads to jealousy, criticism, and I guarantee a lack of gains in training. Learn to love your bad days or you will allow them to define you. Once that definition has set in you will lose yourself as an athlete. You are not in your sport to build an ego that will never be satisfied. This is part of your journey and your narrative. Do not let that fall into the category of criticism. Keep your strength Karma in each session and truly learn how to make sure you can realize there is no part of you that deserves to be in the shadows.