Actual conversation last night:
Fitness Coach Mat: "I want you to blog about this."
Me: <panting, out of breath, carrying a sandbag> "What? About this workout you came up with, on training like an Olympian?"
Mat: "Yeah. I like to see my name. Use it a lot. I want it out there."
Me: <rolls my eyes so hard they almost fall out of my head> "You just read the blog to see if I mention you?"
Mat: "Pretty much."
Cocky little bugger, isn't he?
He's the same dude who said nonchalantly awhile ago, "I think I'm sick because I'm so full of awesome it's leaking out of me." And then he sneezed.
Where does that kind of confidence come from? It’s easy enough to say that you just have to believe in yourself, but the basis for it must come from something concrete, like skill and ability. Or does it? This feels like a chicken and egg thing: do you grow your ego because you’re just naturally awesome, or do you become awesome by believing you are?
Belief is the key, here. I used to say that I was not a competitive person, that I didn’t care about winning or losing. What I really meant was that I wasn’t competitive when it came to sports, because I knew I couldn’t win. I wasn’t any good. Had I really been honest, I’d have realized long ago that I am an extremely competitive person. It’s just that my focus was on being the best in areas that I was confident I could easily excel in, like academics. Aim for the highest mark on a test, aim to win a debate, aim to be accepted on selective committees, aim to raise the most money. (Ahem: shameless Megathon plug for donations!). I downplayed any sense of competition in areas that I wasn’t confident I could do well in immediately, without practice.
But each of the times that I have pushed myself the hardest this year, each time I broke through a barrier to realize I could do more than I ever let myself imagine, it was because of competition. It doesn’t matter whether it’s who lost the most in Biggest Loser (the small group training, not the tv show), or who could hold a plank the longest, or whether I could push a tire over on someone stronger than me. If there’s a chance to win, to earn pride points, I’m in. Prizes are irrelevant. I wanna be the best. So I push. And that has translated into competing against myself, too. Can I do better than last time?
Which brings me back to last night’s workout. Mat has figured this out about me: give me a challenge, and I’ll work harder. So, we did 4 rounds of 6 exercises, each of which was to represent an Olympic sport. Running with the Olympic theme, the goal was to beat my own time. First round established the base line. 8 minutes. Next round? Can I do better? Yup. 7 minutes. Next round? I was tired. I was wearing a 10 lb weighted vest. I was sweaty. The hour seemed to be dragging on. Muscles were burning and I was breathing hard. Self-doubt kicked in. Somewhere in my head I thought “whatever, it’s just a game.” Mat asked “where’s that competitive athlete spirit?” and I replied,“I think the athlete has left the building.” 7:40 minutes. Ouch. But I knew the next round was the last one. I knew I didn’t have to save my energy for anything else. “Come on, go for the Gold. I’ll sing O Canada if you win,” he said. So on the fourth round, I gave it all I had. And I did it in 6:30.
Mat owes me a rendition of O Canada.
Competition gives me a reason to try, a reason to bring the intensity. That’s pretty motivating, because the more effort I put in, the more results I see, which builds more confidence. And the more confident I become, the easier it is to start to believe in myself, which in turn provides more motivation to draw upon.
Guys don’t tend to do this as much. (Yes, that’s a generalization. Roll with me, here). I don’t keep bringing up Mat just because he likes seeing his name. (Mat Mat Mat Mat Mat. You’re welcome). It’s because he embodies what I see in a lot of male friends and relatives: a belief that he can do anything, and do it well. It’s not an attitude I see in many of my female relationships.
Apparently that’s not just coincidence. Brain research shows that the hormone fluctuations that women experience once a month “make a woman more sensitive to emotional nuance, such as disapproval or rejection. The way you interpret feedback from other people can depend on where you are in your cycle.” Hmmm. Well. That’ll be important to remember the next time I hit a wall. And it explains a little bit about why women exhibit more self-esteem issues than men. (Again. Generalization acknowledged).
So, what’s the solution? Men and women may motivate ourselves differently, but we still have to work at building confidence and believing in ourselves. Understanding how our brains are working against us gives us the tools to fight the negative voices, not a free pass to give up and give in to them.
There is good — no, great — news about changing a pattern like negative thinking, according to neuroscientist Michael M. Merzenich, PhD, at the University of California, San Francisco, who has demonstrated how the brain remakes itself all the time.
"The brain is not like a computer that has fixed wiring and connections," says Merzenich. "Every aspect of you is created by the brain revising itself in response to your interactions in the world — and I mean everything. How you define yourself — the person you are — is a product of plastic changes in your brain. That includes things that relate to your attitude and your emotional construct. What you are is a result of how your brain has tried to create a model of the world, and the brain is plastic until you die."
Transforming negative thinking doesn't occur nstantly. "People can't just change their attitude on a dime," says Merzenich. You're going against all that weight of experience. Thousands of historic moments have led to that bad attitude — every time you've thought about yourself in a defeatist or inferior position. That's deeply embedded, and it takes a substantial effort over a substantial time to drive the brain in a new direction." But you (and I, and anyone) can make profound, fundamental changes in how the brain operates. It's not that different from doing Pilates or taking a spinning class to change your physical self. We know that we can enhance memory; now, remarkably, it seems that we can improve outlook.
However, what’s been happening these last two years as I’ve changed my body, slowly, is that I’ve also been changing my brain chemistry. Whether it’s through self-actualization techniques, through competing and winning, or better –competing and losing! – there’s undoubtedly been growth and change in my thinking patterns. The confidence built each time I can do one more pushup than the day before translates into overall confidence.
What better motivation is there than believing in your self?