Inspiration and info for midlife women who lift—or want to start

Thief with flashlight as a metaphor for comparison is the thief of joy.

Outsmarting the Thief of Joy

You know those days when you wake up feeling like a champion? Like you could eat the world for breakfast and in fact you just might? Those days when you feel strong and powerful and capable and you know in your bones that nothing’s gonna stop you?

I fucking love days like that.

Unfortunately, they’ve been rather few and far between these last few months.

Lately I’ve been waking up quite often feeling small and weak and scared and full of doubts. Doubts that I will be able to get past this back injury to put up decent numbers at Nationals. Which leads to questioning why I shouldn’t just say screw it and drop out, because I’m not going to win. Which reminds me of the videos I keep seeing of my friends PRing their 300-plus-pound deadlifts, when pulling 300 is just an elusive dream for me right now.

And on and on, down the rabbit hole of comparison and self-doubt.

These days happen to me more often than I’d care to admit. I share them occasionally, but mostly I keep them to myself and do what I can to hack my brain and endure the negativity until it passes. Talking about it feels self-indulgent and whiny.

But I decided to write about it because I figure I’m not the only one who has feelings like this sometimes. Maybe talking about them, and what I do to deal with them, might resonate and help someone else.

Yeah, yeah, thief of joy, blah blah blah

“Don’t compare yourself to others! Compare yourself to you yesterday! Comparison is the thief of joy!”

Yeah, yeah. I know. I say these things to myself and everyone else all the time. And on its face, it’s true.

But now I’m going to say something that may be a little controversial.

Yes, we would all probably feel more content if we just never compared ourselves to anyone else, ever.

But if we’re honest, that sentiment is at odds with being a competitive athlete.

Hell, it’s at odds with being human.

We DO compare ourselves to others. And, in fact, I think most of us NEED comparison. Maybe that’s not the politically correct thing to feel or to say, but I believe it.

The double-edged sword

I see comparison as a double-edged sword. Yes, it can be seriously destructivebut it can also be a tremendously powerful positive force.

If we look at the strongest woman in our gym or our sport and feel discouraged and give up lifting because we can never be as strong as she is, that’s definitely a counterproductive comparison, or rather a counterproductive interpretation or framing of the comparison.

But what if we look at her and think, “Damn! She’s amazing! I want to be that strong!! And maybe realistically I can never get to her level, but I can sure try to get to the highest level of which I’m capable!”

Well, I’d say that’s an extremely valuable comparison. When we feel inspired by or motivated by others, that’s a comparison, by definition. It’s just a very constructive one.

I don’t believe we should aspire not to compare. I believe we should aspire to understand and manage how we frame the comparisons we make, and how we handle the emotions they cause.

Arresting the thief

So, rewind the tape. You see a video of someone lifting a crazy amount of weight on Instagram and you try but you just can’t help yourself. You compare.

You don’t fare well in the comparison, and you feel pathetic.

Dammit. That bitch got in again and burgled your house. The joy has left the building.

Now what?

I’ve still got lots to learn in this life, but one thing I’ve definitively learned in my 50+ years on this planet is the power of the words we speak to ourselves.

What I choose to do with my mind in the moments after it gets caught in a comparison vortex is everything. The thief may have managed to break in and steal my joy, but I can still set a perimeter around the neighborhood, find her, tackle her, grab my shit and put it back up on my mantel where it belongs.

Step 1: Acknowledge

I find the very first step in fighting these feelings is—well—precisely what I’m doing here right now. Instead of arguing with them and telling them to go away, I look at them, acknowledge them, hold space for them, respect them.

This strategy actually works well for any type of negative emotion. Pretending feelings don’t exist almost always makes them stronger. Feelings are like people; make them feel ignored or unwanted and they get quite agitated. Acknowledging and allowing them to speak has the counterintuitive effect of helping them move on faster once they’ve had their say.

(If you compete or perform in any way, this principle can really help with anxiety and stage fright too. Some people try to fight pre-performance jitters by talking themselves out of the fear. You may have discovered this doesn’t work very well. You can interpret the feelings differently—some experts, athletes, musicians and others who perform find it effective to frame the adrenaline, rapid heart rate and breathing as excitement, which is a positive and empowering interpretation— but first you have to admit you’re having those feelings in the first place.)

Notice I said “acknowledge,” not “wallow in.” How you react to the feelings’ existence is a separate step. But before you get there, tip your hat to them. Give them voice.

Step 2: Accept

You ever have a not-so-positive feeling and then immediately judge yourself negatively for having it, which makes you feel even worse and starts a spiral of horrible self-talk?

Yeah, same.

I was already beating myself up for being weak; now I’m also beating myself up for not being an advanced enough human because I let the thief of joy slip past my defenses.

It’s bad enough to feel upset about something. Do you really need to then feel upset about feeling upset?

So part of the whole acknowledgement/holding space thing means giving yourself permission to feel whatever you feel. It’s not good or bad, you’re not weak or mean or a failure. It’s just a feeling. They happen.

It’s what we do next that matters.

Step 3: Reframe

This is the point where some real work may be required if you’re someone who tends toward negative self-talk, because you will feel tempted to take your feelings of failure at face value. As in, your inner voice will say, in its best drill instructor voice, dripping with sarcasm: “Awwwww, poor little baby. You feel weak? NO SHIT, SHERLOCK! You ARE weak!”

I know this voice very well. On bad days, I find it extremely difficult to turn away from its harsh words. But I’ve found strategies that work pretty well to turn down the volume on that bastard, and they all center on reframing.

The truth is, I am weaker than many women in my sport, including those my age. That’s just a fact; no point denying it. I’m solidly in the middle of the pack.

But the first thing I can say to myself is, “Well, but at least you’re in the middle. Actually, the bottom of the top third.”

However, that doesn’t always work. I might be at the very bottom of the list. I could in fact be the weakest powerlifter on the planet. What then?

Well, I’m still strong. At best, only 20% of women even strength train, and that’s probably an overestimate.

And if I were an absolute total beginner, I could say to myself, “You may be weak now, but look at you: you took steps to get stronger! You’re showing up! You’re learning and putting in the work! Think how many people aren’t making that choice!”

Even if I hadn’t picked up a weight yet, I could reframe like this: “Ok, but you’re researching it! You’re aware of the benefits and you’re thinking about it and you’re working on getting it into your life! That still puts you light years ahead of most people!”

Step 4: Reset

Will you ever achieve the pinnacle of your sport, or achieve a perfect (whatever that means) level of fitness or body composition? Will I?

I don’t know. But I do know that the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against that for ALL of us. And in fact, that’s another mental trick I use for my next step: reset.

I imagine that huge sea of runners at the start of the NYC or Boston Marathon… thousands upon thousands of runners. And I think to myself, out of that vast number of people who have put in countless hours of training will emerge precisely one winner per category.

How ridiculous would it be to suggest that none of those other thousands of people should bother training or running marathons because their chances of winning are infinitesimal?

So why should I have those thoughts about myself? Why should I feel like giving up just because I’m not (and likely will never be) the best?

Now here’s the reset.

It never feels good to contemplate being less talented at something than other people, or less strong, or less capable. But you can take the comparison and flip it from a negative to a positive, and use it as fuel. You can let others’ strength or talent or capability inspire you to improve.

I can look at the insanely strong women who are at the very top of my sport, and while I may feel envious, I can channel that envy into admiration, and cheer their success, and derive energy from that and let it represent what’s possible and what I can strive toward.

The trick here is making sure you’re operating with a growth, not a fixed, mindset. You may be weaker than they are now, but you’re going to keep working and growing and getting stronger.

Stop fighting it

Notice none of my steps are attempts to avoid comparisons with others. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work for me. (If it works for you, by all means, do it! Some people are naturally blessed with that capability. If you are, you probably didn’t even make it this far through the post, because you didn’t identify with the problem in the first place!)

This is me once again acknowledging that I, at least, do compare myself to others. Maybe that makes me petty, but honestly, I’m tired of fighting the impulse or being told (either by others or by my own brain) that I shouldn’t have it.

Instead of trying to lock her out altogether, I’m focusing on finding a healthier relationship with the thief—but if I can’t do that, then I’m going to keep on playing the roadrunner to her coyote, outwitting her, and holding onto my joy by any means necessary.

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  1. Cheryl

    I’ll state first that I no longer compete in anything. I suppose I could, but I don’t because the driving need to “test” my mettle against others has dropped significantly with age. Competition isn’t my jam now. But I do notice those who compete in my preferred sports. Difference is, I’ve learned to view their abilities as a thing of beauty. When their lifting (or horse riding) journey has delivered better results than mine then that’s a thing worth acknowledging. I know something of what it took for them to get there, so good for them. (And I mean it!) Second, I ask myself what can I learn from them? Obviously, better results and a better performance means they’ve perfected something I haven’t … yet. Asking myself what I can learn is helpful because it encourages me to watch their performance with student’s eye instead of making comparisons, which teaches nothing. There is always something more to learn from others.

    But as I hinted above, I could just be showing my age. I found that after reaching sixty the driving need to leave my mark in this world via my physical prowess took a back seat to other, more important values. Yes, lifting is great and has been a constant in my life for over four decades, but I’m much less inclined to go to war with myself over it than I used to be. Who knew?

    • This is beautiful, Cheryl, and exactly what I was getting at. For me, the emotions are a maelstrom of all of what you described, plus the negativity directed at myself and envy and other darker things, which require taming. It’ll be interesting to see if I, too, feel less of those as I get older. I love how you described this process. Thank you for the wonderful comment!

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