Weakness has never been one of my strengths.
I’ve always detested it in myself and I’ve disliked it in others. So much so that I’ve ridden roughshod over my own weaknesses, ignoring them or fighting against them in a way that has ultimately done more harm.
And I’ve often run a mile when I’ve sensed weakness in others. That’s because the traits I most despise in me are those I most dislike in others.
Neediness is a case in point. For many years, I prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient. On not needing anyone. Or on not having many needs. Sleep was for wimps. Poor health or injury were to be disdained and ignored, rather than treated or allowed to run their course with the help of rest or medical attention. And all that love and support stuff? That was for others – for those mushy, sentimental types.
There was a time – I think I’ve blogged about this before – when the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘I am a rock’ really resonated with me. I saw it as some sort of mantra, an ideal way of being (I’ve built walls. A fortress deep and mighty. That none may penetrate … And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries). But that self-image, I now know, was bravado. It hid a deep need for others, for love and support – so deep at times it felt overwhelming and so it seemed a good idea to bury it. Perhaps I learned to put on that mask at a young age because I felt my needs, if I revealed them, would likely go unmet. Pretending I didn’t have any or that they weren’t important was much easier than being met with silence or rejection.
So I associated having needs with shame, guilt and being dismissed. Having needs became a sign of weakness that was incompatible with the strong woman I wanted to be. But my neediness was like a pressure cooker – as soon as I came close to someone who was offering to meet my needs, as soon as I allowed them to surface, they’d bubble over and all pour out at once, trying to find their long-lost home, trying to get met. And of course the person on the receiving end of this torrent of needs would run for the hills.
Similarly, in the past I’ve frozen or fled when people have brought their needs to me and asked me to meet them. Since my needs weren’t being met – for rest, play, joy, security, love or whatever – there was no space for anyone else’s. What if your needs overwhelmed me? What if they suffocated me? What if I lost myself while trying to meet them? And what about my needs?
You needing me also suggested weakness – the same weakness I despised in myself. I needed you to be strong and I needed you not to need me. Make sense?
The good news is that as I’ve learned to meet my needs – for rest, play, joy, security, love or whatever – as much as I can, the pressure cooker effect has lessened and the lid isn’t so likely to fly off. Today, I recognise I have many needs and am finding healthy ways to meet them myself or to ask others for support. I can also tolerate your needs much better, because I have more space, more love and more acceptance of both of us and of what it means to be human and in relationships.
But I digress, as I so often do.
This blog wasn’t going to be about neediness so back to the original topic: physical strength, weakness and our limitations.
I’ve always been active, strong and fit. Gymnastics, trampolining, tennis, dance, netball, lacrosse, athletics, cross-country running, rowing, cycling, swimming, Taekwondo, wake boarding, hiking and a bit of women’s football – I’ve managed to do a lot of sports and activities reasonably well and I’ve always taken my physical strength and abilities for granted.
But as I type this very slowly and carefully because of a sore right wrist, I’m aware of two quite contradictory things:
1) How much I push myself when my body is complaining or asking me to stop
2) How easily I can be defeated and give up
When it comes to pushing myself, many of you will be familiar with my story. I used exercise as a form of bulimia for years, punishing myself for overeating, desperately trying to lose the weight I thought I’d gained in the previous binge.
I’ve pounded the world’s pavements – London, Oxford, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Valladolid and another small Spanish town (I was recently reminded by a friend that many years ago at a wedding in Spain I slipped out of my dress, put on some shorts and trainers and went off for a run around the town’s sleepy streets half way through the reception, while everyone else sipped wine, ate nibbles or took a nap – bizarre behaviour that was duly noted by my fellow wedding guests). Everywhere I went, work trips or holidays, I took trainers and running kit, with very few exceptions.
Now it goes without saying that I love exercise. I love the buzz it gives me and I love to sweat (or perspire). It clears my head and lifts my mood. But for years, I felt obliged to work out and there were times when I almost fainted exercising on an empty stomach and a horrible hangover or after a massive binge. Not to mention what I’ve done to my poor joints. It turns out I’m hypermobile – my joints over-extend, they pick up injury easily, are slow to heal and wear down faster than average – and running isn’t the best idea for my ankles or knees, at least not in the punishing way I used to do it.
My wrists are also weak and prone to injury, hence the current problem. I hurt my wrist moving my Vespa, exacerbated the injury learning to kite surf and finished it off on a late night bike ride in the pouring rain. I had to strap it, could barely type last week and can only do so now with great care.
In fact, I probably shouldn’t be typing this non-urgent blog at all! But that’s the point. On the one hand, it’s incredibly hard for me to stop and rest, to go slow, to take time out. What about all the stuff that isn’t getting done? The work, the book, the housework, the decluttering, and so forth? I was forced to take most of last week off work and it drove me a little nuts.
But on the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, I can be easily defeated. My thoughts head off very quickly in the direction of catastrophe. The fateful ‘What’s the point?’ question starts to surface and then it spreads, to encompass far too many areas of my life.
‘Well if I can’t type, that’s it for my writing career. I may as well just give up. And as for all the sports I love, that’s it. My active life is over. And if I can’t chop vegetables, I may as well eat rubbish all week. And if I can’t exercise and can only eat rubbish, I may as well just get fat’. And so it continues.
But then yesterday, as I walked briskly up a hill, broke into a light sweat, noticed my flushed cheeks and felt good, I realised that I don’t actually need my wrist to walk. Who’d have thought it? And I’m finally taking steps to get myself some dictation software, which will be useful even if this particular injury heals. I also tidied the flat (a little bit), bought some vegetables, did some cooking and got my healthy eating back on track. And I’m determined to get out for that walk. So all, in fact, is not lost.
It was pointed out to me yesterday that this defeatist side of me may have something to do with perfectionism, as well as being a typical characteristic of an addict. If my body can’t do everything I ask of it or perform 100 percent, then what’s the point? If I can’t chop and slice my own butternut squash like I did the previous week, then why bother eating any good food at all? And if I can’t do the work I’d scheduled in, what’s the point of tidying up, reading those articles I need to read or making those phone calls I need to make.
The same applies to other areas of my life. I remember pitching one of my first ever freelance articles straight to the New York Times. They said thank you, but it’s not quite right for us. Instead of celebrating the fact I’d actually got a response and sending the story to a few more newspapers on my list (Wall Street Journal, Washington Post perhaps), I pretty much gave up. I did try to resurrect it a while later but I’d lost my momentum.
Similarly with the book – a dozen rejections from publishers and I lose my excitement. I ignore all the J.K Rowling stories about perseverance in the face of rejection and all the opportunities self-publishing affords, preferring to put it on the back burner until somebody tells me it’s good and I get my momentum back.
Where’s my fight? That fight that got me this far. The drive that got me to university, around the world, back to London and kept me afloat. That helped me get a good amount of recovery from an eating disorder and other addictions that had plagued my life.
I wonder why I can’t apply the drive that’s done me harm – that’s pushed me through injury and illness and not allowed me to rest – to healthier projects. Why can’t I summon up the determination I used in a self-harming way in the past to keep my spirits up when I’ve hurt my wrist, or to continue writing (or dictating) my book in the face of rejection, or to go for brisk walks, or to realise I can chop the onion in my food mixer if I can’t use my hand, or to buy the software I need even if I’m worried about the expense?
Why is it so hard to push through? Why does it take me so long to take healthy steps when I could take the unhealthy ones in a flash?
Perhaps it’s a question of time – I spent the best part of three decades on the unhealthy path and have been on the recovery road just over 10 years. It’s a bit like turning around a massive ship. It’s a slow process.
But as I write this, I know I’m aware of my propensity to give up, which is a massive step in the right direction. And I have taken some positive steps – for a start, I have a fridge stocked with healthy food and a freezer full of homemade meals.
As I was pondering this blog and the questions of living with limitations and being easily defeated, I heard Radio 2’s Pause for Thought, which was particularly relevant. Father Brian D’Arcy quoted golfing great Arnold Palmer who told Tiger Woods:
“If you think you’re beaten, you are. If you think you dare not, you won’t. If you’d like to win but think you can’t, it’s almost certain that you won’t. Life’s battles don’t always go, to the stronger woman or man. Sooner or later those who win are those who think they can.”
He then quoted sports psychologist John Wooden, who advised his students: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
On hearing that, I decided to commit to making the best of the way things turn out.