There is a lot we can learn from how endurance athletes and bodybuilders approach failure that we can use toward fighting mental illness.
I’ve been a huge fan of the sport of bodybuilding for years. My Instagram and Facebook feeds are an endless stream of shredded men and women. I sometimes wonder and laugh at what someone stalking my pages might think of it all. I just find them so inspiring. Nothing motivates me more.
I think endurance athletes and bodybuilders have a lot in common. It may seem odd to compare the two at first but they really do. The most important commonality is in how they approach failure. I’m not talking about losing a competition. That can be the result of a number of factors not the least of which are the other competitors.
A Different Definition of Failure
Society’s definition of failing is very different from that of an athlete in training. This is easily illustrated in weight lifting. To make the gains you need to make you have to push your muscles past their failure point. If 6 reps is the most your muscle is willing to allow then you need to push for 7 reps, 8 if you’re feeling especially jacked. Your point of failure is when the workout really starts. No bodybuilder is eating and sleeping for those 6 reps. No, everything they do is for the 7th or 8th rep because that is where the gains happen, just past failure. Athletes want to get to failure faster. The sooner you can get your muscles to fail the sooner you can go to work. Of course, I’m over-simplifying but the point is this: The rest of the world is terrified of failure because they see it as a sign that something has gone wrong, but these guys see failure as a sign that they are on the right track. They know the person they want to be is on the other side of failure.
Endurance athletes are the same way. If I can run 20 miles I’m only going to get better if I push for 21. That push past my failure is where I become a stronger runner.
So what if we took that lens and applied it to our struggles with depression and anxiety? What if we looked at the obstacles we face (and the breakdowns that result) as if we were training – training to get better. What if the battles we have were no longer signs of weakness and causes of discouragement? Instead, what if they were mile markers – signs we’re pushing further.
First, that would make an already negative situation a bit less negative. That perspective shift alone could elevate things a bit but at least it won’t make it worse.
Second, it would allow us to prepare ourselves a bit. If I see a hill coming up on the horizon I get my mind ready. I bear down and dig in for a tough climb. In contrast, when I see an obstacle coming that can trigger my depression I shrink back in fear. I brace myself for impact. Seeing it with this new lens means I can turn into the obstacle and treat it like an upcoming climb. It probably won’t make it suck any less but maybe I might not cry as much this way and that’s an improvement.
Last, and most important of all, it allows us to give ourselves grace. In the old way we would see our struggles, breakdowns, triggers, obstacles, whatever you’re calling them as signs of shortcomings. They are flaws to feel ashamed of.
Viewing My Depression Differently
Looking at fighting mental illness as training allows me to fall short, get hurt, make mistakes, cry, yell, throw up and pretty much anything else without hating myself. All these things can happen but as long as I keep pushing past it then I am going to get better. This allows me to embrace the suck and accept it while also not making myself hurt more than I have to because of it. A long steep hill climb is painful enough. You don’t need to punch yourself in the face every time you can’t make it to the top. How does that make you any better? Accepting that it hurts and celebrating when you can endure the hurting a bit longer than the last time – that is how you end up getting better.
This attitude shift doesn’t always happen for me. Some days are just too awful. When I am able to, I try this approach and am always surprised at how effective it is. The key is to keep trying. It may not work on Tuesday but it might just be what saves you on Wednesday. Just keep trying.
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