Once upon a time, I dated a boy who'd recently begun working out. That was fine, but it did not align with any of my interests or passions. At the time, most of my interests and passions revolved around Big Macs, Coca Cola, exploring coffee shops, and cheering for, well, everything. (I'll be honest, not much has changed.)
I vaguely remember talking about us going to get food, and then the memory becomes vivid. He mumbled something about how, maybe since he was working out, I could too. Which would have been a nice encouragement - maybe something I would have even considered doing - had he not pulled me in for a hug, and then, snaking his hands around my back, grabbed my back fat.
I felt all the words fall out of me, and what was left unspoken was this lingering feeling that I was supposed to look a certain way, feel a certain way, be a certain way, and carry less of myself here and there.
So I numbed, and I felt weak, and I felt both like too much + not enough. Like a not great version of myself.
About a year later, I was talking to a former boss about her recent yoga classes. I indicated surprise about this exercise path - she was an intense force to be reckoned with, and yoga felt like soft and gentle exercise to me.
She said, "I don't do it for the other stuff. I like it because it makes me feel strong."
I'd heard people wanting to feel strong before and I found myself wondering what that feeling would be like, because I mainly just felt like the Pillsbury Dough Dude.
My athleticism, my weight, my looks, and my coordination have always felt like the most "not enough" parts of me. The weakest parts of me, if we're talking about strength. Physical strength is not my forte.
In fact, I spent the better part of 25 years telling myself I couldn't do things. I couldn't run, because I looked bad doing it. I couldn't participate in sports, because I didn't like any of them, and besides, I was too uncoordinated and not graceful. I couldn't keep up with regular exercise, because I was too busy, too busy, too busy prioritizing everything else over my health. I couldn't lose weight because I was carrying it as a hate grudge to an immature boy.
But we all know better than that, right? The truth under all those years of "I can't"s: I told myself all these little things, because I wanted to be seen as smart, successful, capable, able - and these areas of my life were the weaknesses + vulnerabilities. I didn't want to try to get better at any of these things, because I already knew I was weak. The "I couldn't"s were numbing agents to protect me from the unworthiness I felt in my own skin, protection against any other boy that tried to grab my back fat. I didn't need your reminder via laughter, back fat grabs, pants cutting off my circulation, and subtle yet pointed questions about my weight.
When that boy grabbed my back, it felt like the nastiest trick: his hugs were supposed to make me feel safe and secure and strong, and for so long after, I flinched any time someone tried to hug me. I gave that one moment so much power, and I lost a lot of confidence in myself. I felt so inadequate, and I numbed so hard.
And I just wish I would have realized that I didn't have to give that moment that sort of power, and that feeling strong was a choice.
In the last year, I've done a lot of cool things and have made some pretty great progress in these physical areas of my life. Because of that, I've spent a lot of time, rolling around my former boss' words: "I like it because it makes me feel strong."
The day I finished my first 5K, I thought about her words. I felt accomplished, but I wouldn't let myself feel strong.
The day I did my first AquaZumba class, I thought about her comment. I felt joyful and light, but I wouldn't let myself feel strong.
The day after I took my first weight lifting class with a bunch of fierce woman, I thought about her strength. I felt fierce and also very tired, so I told myself I didn't feel strong.
Every day of saying no to certain foods, I thought about it. "I like it because it makes me feel strong." I still wasn't strong - I woke up every morning dreaming that I had eaten ketchup chips.
But then, a few weeks ago, as I was putting my weights away after class, tired and sweaty and laughing at how I am almost 25 years old and still can't do a push up, I thought, "I feel strong."
It wasn't that my muscles were sore, or that I was doing everything perfectly, or that I had reached a goal weight. It wasn't even that I pushed myself the hardest I ever have in that class. It was more that I let my guard down, and finally told myself I was not going to keep settling for feeling not enough. I was going to start feeling strong.
I grinned and smiled the whole way home.
I came home that night, all fired up and feeling strong, and wrote down thing after thing that makes me feel strong.
Twice a week, I lift heavy things, and I do it because it makes me feel strong.
For 30 days, I said no to foods, and I complained about it all the time, but I did it - saying no made me feel strong.
I try to pick up a pen and put some words between lines every day, because nothing calms my thoughts more, and oh yeah, it makes me feel strong.
I tidy. I make things. I try to tell people how I feel. I try to let myself love people and passions deeply. I try, a lot + imperfectly. I read a lot. I toss around Bible passages in my head for months. I say yes. I say no. I run. I drink coffee with cream + whipped cream, and watch - as sliver by sliver - the sun rises. I ask questions. I try to be a better listener. I cry in Paddington 2. I mull. I adventure. I try new things, and I love comfortable things. I get way too many books out of the library for one person. I Google a lot. I try to make, "I don't know" roll off my tongue more naturally than it is inclined to. All things - albeit weird things - that make me feel strong.
I root myself in a faith, and out of those roots grow a trunk, and out of the trunk, branches which hold all my questions and fears and doubts - and yet, the roots stay strong.
It took me almost 25 years to be kind enough with myself to come to this realization: a lot of things make a person strong. Some of it has to do with lifting weights and some of it has to with the words I use, and a lot of it has to do with the life I choose to live. It doesn't all rest on my back fat - in fact, none of it does.
And I guess, at the end of this long and meandering post, this is just a note to say - I am starting to do things because they make me feel strong, and it is changing the game.
And I hope you do too.