How Pretending to Be Someone Else can Help You Love Yourself

Once I was at a wedding, celebrating love, talking with Brandon Dottin (@poweryogaguy) about love and about masculinity. He was telling me of a seminar he had attended recently where individuals were asked to go around in a circle saying, “I am worthy of love.” Brandon noticed that the men, himself included, had difficulty saying this phrase. I laughed with him about how perverse modern masculinity had become, but inside my heart was cold and still. I knew that if he asked me to say that sentence out loud, in front of strangers, I would have had a lot of trouble. Thankfully the conversation veered in a different direction but the thought stuck with me. Days later, alone in my bathroom, looking in the mirror and saying my daily affirmations I still had trouble saying it out loud. Learning to love ourselves can be challenging. Over the years I’ve picked up a few simple, actionable tactics that have improved my relationship with myself.

Create the Possibility of a Loving Relationship with Yourself – by naming a plant after you! Before this conversation with Brandon I never asked myself if I was worthy of love. I knew people loved me, wasn’t always sure why, but never asked if I deserved it (spoiler alert – I do, and so do you). I knew that if I ever wanted to embrace my worth as a truth I would have to at least create the possibility of me being worthy and see how it felt. So I started with a plant. I actually got this idea from an instagram post and it has worked wonders as a practice towards self-love. The idea was to name one of your plants after yourself so that every time you nurtured and cared for that plant you could conceptualize caring for yourself. When you spoke to the plant lovingly (you DO talk to your plants, right!?) you would be speaking kind words to yourself. As the plant flourished and grew you could take pride in its growth, and by extension in your growth. Like a child playing house this practice allowed me to “try on” what it would feel like to be the kind of person who loves themself. It turns out, it feels great! Once I knew how it would feel it was time to take things out of the playground and into the “real” world.

Little Nicky is a Pearls n’ Jade Pothos I got at Trader Joe’s

Make it Easy for You to Love You – by putting self care in the third person. When it comes to caring for others I consider myself a superstar. If I know there is a need that I can help fulfill I’ll do whatever I have to. If I’ve got an hour in between classes and I can either eat lunch or exercise my dog, we’re heading to the park. If my partner needs to be at the airport at the crack of dawn I’ll lose an hour or two of sleep without thinking twice. If someone tells me they’re only in town for a day and it happens to be on my one day off of the week, well, it’s just one hour right? No problem. I am proud of my willingness and capability to help others. But in every example, it’s me who gets pushed to the side. Even when I promise myself I’ll leave a day open just for me, it’s never a big deal to break that promise because I know I’’ll get over it. If anyone is unaware, this strategy does not work. So I started thinking of myself and my self-care actives as if they were someone else. Instead of putting “Eat Lunch” on my to-do list I write “Take Nick to Lunch.” Instead of writing “Workout” I create an appointment with Nick (one of my most challenging clients). Instead of blocking out time just for me I write “Take Nick Birding.” With this tactic I am able to use my people-pleasing skills to my advantage. I’m not asking myself to make an intimidating, paradigm-shifting change. I’m just changing some phrasing. And the amazing thing is it works! These activities go from negotiable, semi-important tasks to imperative, helpful, self-affirming actions. I am able to treat myself with the same value and respect as I would treat anyone else. But what I do is only part of who I am. My rich internal monologue still resists and insists I’m kind of the worst. So how do we practice loving self-talk?

Learn to Speak Lovingly to Yourself – by pretending you are a friend. This last suggestion is one with which my athletes will be very familiar. No one who has studied under me would call me excessively kind. When something is good, I will say so. When something is not good I will not hesitate to say that as well. I am not mean, but I’m also not a confectioner. I’m not going to sugar-coat it.

This is not me.

I believe that by identifying and acknowledging a problem I create an avenue to solve that problem or change that situation. Saying, “this could stand some improvement” sounds harsh but is actually an act of kindness. Pretending it isn’t an issue would be the real betrayal. When people train with me I do not allow them to talk negatively about themselves. I don’t allow people to say “I can’t,” I only allow people to say “I’m having trouble.” Similarly I don’t allow people to say “I suck at this.” I do allow people to say “I want to get better at this” or “this needs improvement.” What is fascinating to me is that while I have had this self-talk conversation dozens, possibly hundreds of times, I have never once had to admonish an athlete for saying something negative about their friend or the person lifting next to them. Even if we may sometimes think, “Wow, they are a terrible lifter,” we would never say that out loud. We speak to our friends with encouragement, we focus easily (perhaps even excessively) on the positive. It can be hard to notice negative self talk without someone else to help you hear the negativity, so I became my own sounding board. When I talk about myself I say “My friend Nick…” Suddenly my willingness to say something negative is gone. Instead of “I suck at finishing my pull” I say “My friend Nick… needs to work on finishing his pull.” Once again we are using our natural disinclination for cruelty to our advantage. By talking about ourselves as if we were someone else we make it easier for us to speak kindly.

Perhaps it is easier to love other people because we know so little about them. Perhaps our revulsions at ourselves comes from knowing every word of our interior monologue. Perhaps the difficulty in loving ourselves is the result of being bombarded by capitalist pro-consumption marketing from the moment we are old enough to behold a screen. I don’t think it really matters why one is easy to love and other is not. All that matters is that we try.

Learning to love yourself is hard. It’s not going to happen miraculously one day or just because you read an article, however compelling. Who we are is a result of what we do. By using what comes naturally to us (love of others) we create space to become the person we want to be (love of self). Try just one, or try all three, but either way try. You are worth it— you are worthy of love— just like me.

A Brief Essay on Tactics

The past few days have seen a revolution in the world of CrossFit. In response to a litany of tone-deaf and off-brand media, capped by the dismissive and insensitive comments of the CEO, one gym started a tidal wave of disassociation from the CrossFit brand. By examining the tactics used to successfully combat an outdated ideology we can inform and improve our own tactics in the fight against systemic racism and social injustice generally.

It’s Worth It. When Alyssa Royse of Rocket Community Fitness wrote to Greg Glassman she didn’t write to say “change your stance or I’m leaving your brand.” She didn’t say “put up a social media post or I’m going to call you out.” She said “for a variety of reasons, your attitude to the current civil rights movement among them, I am leaving your brand.” (not a direct quote) There was no threat. There was communication. Alyssa wrote, here is why I am leaving. I am telling you this so that you can have the opportunity to keep this from happening again. In the organizing world we call this “leaving the door open.” Alyssa took this approach because, as she states in her email, she thinks CrossFit is worth it. “If I didn’t think you and CrossFit were worth it, I wouldn’t bother.” 

Right now white people like myself are being asked to have tough conversations with themselves and tough conversations with the people in their lives. Presumably these are the people we care about. It is much easier to criticize a stranger than someone close to us. But truly this is not the work that needs to be done. Next time you want to use some of your finite energy, ask yourself if you care about that person. If you do, put up that good fight! If you don’t maybe leave that fight for someone who does actually care about that specific individual. Someone who cares is more likely to know the situation, know how to talk to that person, know their experience. I promise, there are enough battles for all of us to have our fill and more.

Cancel Culture is Cancelled. When Alyssa reached out to Greg Glassman it was from a place of compassion. When that compassion was met with vitriol, Alyssa decided to share her stance with the world. She said I have decided to leave CrossFit. She specifically did not say “and you should too” or “and if you don’t you’re also a terrible person.” When we allow our light shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. We will never know what could have happened if instead of taking this self-oriented approach Alyssa had chosen to tell other people what they should do. What we do know is that by showing the CrossFit community what could be done she created space for other gyms and owners to be just as powerful, brave and accountable as she was. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Lao Tzu in the Dao De Jing – “of a good leader, when the work is done, the people will say, we did it ourselves.”

When we talk to a relative or a friend or an employer it is important to communicate with them in a way that makes it possible for them to change their stance and their behavior. If you go to a person and say you’re wrong, you’re bad, you’re evil, — if you attack a person — they are going to withdraw. They are going to entrench. You are going to create a more fervent enemy out of a potential ally. By the same token if we simply tell a person what to do they will not learn what to do in the next, new, different situation. “Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they will eat for a lifetime.” We all hate racism (presumably that’s why you’re reading this essay). The only way to eliminate racism is to eliminate racist behavior. And not just on the internet but in real life. Backing someone into a corner, calling them an enemy, will not change their behavior. When I talk to someone I care about, a misguided family member or an ignorant friend, I come to them from a place of compassion. “You said or did this thing, and it hurt my feelings. Here’s how it hurt me personally, and here’s how it hurts other people. If you want to continue to be in my life here’s how I would like you to act in the future. I want you in my life so I do hope you think on what I’m saying, but it’s up to you.” And then I give that person time and space. And another chance to improve their behavior. I don’t expect them to change overnight. I never look for an apology and I never look for an explanation. I don’t care “why,” just don’t do it again!

Meeting someone with compassion, teaching them an alternative and giving them the space to put that teaching into practice is hard. It’s much easier to lash out at someone and call them names. While this will feel better in the short term it does not move us closer to our goal of having more anti-racist people in our country. So what is the role of cancel culture?

Cancelled is what victory looks like. When Rocket Community Fitness decided to distance themselves, and gave others permission to do them same, the result was that CrossFit was “cancelled.” The boycott is not the tactic, the boycott is the vision of success. The tactic is compassion and education. The boycott of CrossFit is the new world we are fighting for. A world where we will continue to forge the bonds of community through fitness just without making some disconnected old man rich in the process. What’s more, we’ve empowered ourselves to stand up for what we believe in within our community. If we had just cancelled because someone told us to there would be no empowerment. We’d be the same as we were before but with a different leader. This is not progress. This is a lateral move. Next time someone tells you to cancel a celebrity or post a certain hashtag, ask yourself who they are trying to empower. Are they trying to empower you to be the type of person you want to be? Or are they trying to empower themselves to make you the type of person they want you to be? It’s fine to decide to go with the trend, but make sure you’re doing it because you believe in it not because you’re afraid of being punished if you don’t. Step into your power and let your light shine. Give others the space to let theirs shine as well.

The Next Horizon. While I am immensely proud of the CrossFit community and my association with the athletes, owners and coaches the fight against systemic racism is far from over. I think we all know that. But it is important to acknowledge what we have done today. We have stood together for something we believe in. Just as we practice being brave in the gym so we can be braver outside the walls of the box, we have practiced standing up which will make it easier for us to stand up next time. We must not be satisfied with this small success, but we must honor our efforts and the efforts of our brothers, sisters and friends. From this coach to Alyssa Royse, thank you for inspiring me. To all the other ex-affiliate owners and the athletes they’ve empowered, thank you for standing with me. Because of all of you I can say with pride that in the place I call home Black Lives Matter.

The Unexamined Life

As a white person, I am being encouraged right now to look inward. To ask myself what my role is in institutional racism. To examine my actions and my attitudes. To face the problem head-on. While self-interrogation is a cornerstone of my personal practice and foundational to my formal eduction as a philosopher, it occurs to me that not everyone has done this kind of work before. In this article, I would like to share the things that have worked for me, help you identify areas of difficulty and create some markers of success.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that self-interrogation is scary. What we are going to do will challenge your concept of personal identity, and your self-preservation instinct is going to scream. It is OK to feel intimidated. It is OK to feel afraid. It is even right and normal to be afraid! It is not OK to not do the work. I find it very helpful to validate my feelings. I will say aloud, “I feel fear.” I will give those words a few moments to dissolve in the air. And then I will remind myself, again aloud, “I am going to do the work. I am strong enough to do the work.”

Once I have acknowledged and affirmed, I am ready to begin.

We start to form our identities as children. Some aspects of identity are gathered from experience and observation. Some aspects of identity are given to us by authority figures like parents, teachers and television. Some aspects of our identity are given to us by our peers. Deep traumas and everlasting joys are gathered during this period. By the time we are in our early teens, we have developed a sense of self that will endure for most of our life. What is interesting is that until that point we lack the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze our beliefs. We are given an identity without the tools to check if we want or believe that identity. As our minds begin to develop critical thinking skills, our society starts to give us the intellectual freedom to explore new ideas and new modes of being. As we spend less time in our childhood home and more time at school, with friends, in another city, or another country, we are bombarded by ideas that challenge the ones we were given originally. Using our new critical thinking skills, we develop the ability to say “No” or “I disagree.” Like a child, we swing that newfound “No” around like a hammer. Most of the time the ideas that we say “No” to are ones that contradict the ideas we already have. Because we never said “No” to the original ideas we believe that we cannot ever say “No” to them in the future. This is how our identity becomes fixed, and we become unable to change. This is how our hearts become hardened.

Humans are, if nothing else, creatures of habit. As we say “No” to one thing (and, implicitly, “Yes” to another) we become more likely to say “No” to that thing again and less likely — to the point of unable! — to say “Yes.” Rather than acknowledge this as a problem our society has created some comforting platitudes. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is not the way.

We gon’ learn today!

By the time we are in our late 20s, we have mostly finished cementing our identity. Maybe we’ve picked up a few changes, but maybe we haven’t. Despite the fact that we haven’t experienced even half of the total phenomena that will comprise our lives we’ve settled pretty firmly on who we are and what we believe. The second step of self-interrogation is to articulate this identity. We must establish who we think we are. Again, I prefer to say these things out loud. Writing them down is fine but you will be amazed how different ideas sound when they’re in the open air. As an example, one might describe themselves as “Straight, White, Conservative, Christian, American, Female.”

Now comes the hard part. In the above example the majority of the identity is based on the circumstances of the individual’s birth. That is to say, the individual did not choose that identity, it was handed to her. You must ask yourself what aspects of your identity were given to you before you could choose. I am not saying that just because you were told you were straight at birth that you must be gay or that being straight is inauthentic. I am just asking you to ask yourself honestly and without judgment “what did I choose and what was chosen for me?” I often find it helpful to ask myself by name, “Nick, what aspects of your identity did you choose?” We are used to answering questions other people ask us. If we can frame it similarly, it may be easier to answer. If you are already starting to feel offended, taken-aback, afraid, angry, please refer to the second paragraph. What we are doing is shaking up our sense of identity. It’s supposed to be scary. You can do it.

You may have done something like this before without knowing what you were doing. I am thinking here especially of my gay and transgender readership. You know intimately what it’s like to be told you are one thing and to feel another. To wrestle with yourself. There is no aspect of your identity that is different or immune to this wrestling and confusion.

At this point, we may be feeling exhausted, and I believe we deserve a rest. To take apart one’s entire identity in a few hours could be devastating, assuming we even have the intellectual firepower to do so. Instead, starting tomorrow, we will take things apart bit by bit.

When I was in my early 20s, I saw a Kat Williams skit where he implied that if you haven’t made any progress in your life since your last birthday you shouldn’t celebrate your birthday this year. This idea struck me, and I have practiced this every year since. I am thankful to say that only one year since I began have I had to say No Birthday This Year. At some point just asking if I was “making progress” started to become too intangible and I would dedicate each year to a certain idea.

Our next step in self-interrogation is going to be asking ourselves who we do not want to be. This is different from asking who we want to be. That is too easy, and often we will delude ourselves into thinking we are what we want to be. Again, self-preservation is a powerful force. Instead, identify the things that you don’t want to be. Say them aloud. Violent. Sexist. Homophobic. Classist. Or, today especially, Racist. Once I compiled a list of things I did not want to be I would spend an entire year examining my thoughts and actions and comparing them against the year’s focus. I would cross-check those thoughts and actions against my conception of identity to see if I could identify their source. Wherever I found contradictions between my thoughts or actions and my goal I would try to eliminate that behavior. If I could find the root of the undesirable thought or action in one of the aspects of my prescribed identity I would explore what other thoughts and behaviors came from this identity.

My face when someone tells me they don’t do self work.

When I was in college my friends and I used to say “slay” as a euphemism for having sex. As in, “did you slay that girl last night?” While spending a year examining sexist thoughts and behavior, I became stuck on this piece of verbiage. Was it sexist to describe sex as a violent act, in fact the most violent act of all, killing? Was it sexist to imply that women are enemies or monsters? Was it sexist to suggest that I was on a noble quest like a knight of yore when I had sex with a woman? Yes, yes and yes. Did my comfort with these implications and words come from my identity as a straight male? Might I feel different if I had been handed a different identity? What other ideas did that identity allow me to feel comfortable with?

I do not write this anecdote with any pride in my old behavior or in an attempt to excuse or explain it. I am thankful that I had the presence of mind to identify it and change it. I want you to know that it is OK if you find thoughts or actions that you are then ashamed of in the course of your self-interrogation. This is the process. I do find it helpful (albeit terrifying) to acknowledge aloud that I am ashamed of that behavior and to thank myself for changing it. I also find it helpful to reach out to anyone who I may have offended or hurt with that behavior and apologize to them. Most of the time they have no idea what I’m talking about, but it is mostly for me and my process anyway. Acknowledge, affirm, act.

I want to recognize here that this step is very difficult. Up until now, the things we’ve done have been perhaps scary, but they have not been hard. Paying enough attention to your mental state to observe your own thoughts and actions is very hard. If you have a mindfulness practice, a movement practice, or a meditation practice it might be a little easier. If you don’t let this be your first foray into the world of self-observation! I do not want to give the impression that I could identify and analyze my actions and mindset in a few minutes or even a few days. It takes weeks of practice and turning the idea over and over in your head. We call it Work for a reason. If you are lucky enough to have people in your life that you trust, let them help you. Ask them if they think you said or did anything racist or sexist recently. Try so hard not to be defensive. When it comes to thoughts, only you know them. Ask yourself, by name and aloud if possible, “Nick, how do you feel about Black people?” Observe your mental state when you see images of Black people in the news, on TV, or live on the street. Observe the language you use when you talk about race. Do not expect to change yourself in a day, but do not expect to be able to change ever without good observation. It may take a month, it may take a year and it may take the rest fo your life. The first time you are able to notice, “that was a racist thought/action,” you will know you are making progress. One easy way to account for your identity bias is to ask yourself, would I think/do this thing if I wasn’t the identity that I think I am.

Identity is a process. If we allow it, it can continuously change in reaction to the endless torrent of experience and impressions that we call life. Consistency is comfortable, and there is no shame in being comfortable with who you are. However, there are times in the history of the world where situations force us all, especially those of us in positions of power and privilege, to confront what we’ve become comfortable being. I believe we are in one of those times now. I do hope that the practice of self-interrogation is one that stays with you even beyond the tense times of today. Through this practice, I believe that we can all rise and become the great people we were born to be.

Self-Talk Practice and Praxis: Where Weightlifting and Corona Virus Converge

In the sport of weightlifting nothing is ever good enough. Could’ve been closer, could’ve been higher, could’ve been faster. And if it was all those things then it could’ve been heavier. With a hundred elements to refine it is very easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole into a place where your interior dialogue is so suffocatingly negative you feel as mad as a hatter and as hopeless as Alice adrift in a sea of her own tears.

It is important to acknowledge the areas that need improvement, and very few people struggle with this. It is equally important to acknowledge when and where you make improvements, and with this almost everyone struggles. At times I have to stand in front of someone, look them dead in the eye and demand that they say, out loud, “That was better.” With some poor souls I can stand for there for 15 minutes unbroken and they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge when they’ve done well.

The reasons why critique flows easier than praise are beyond the scope of this article and usually beyond the 60 minutes I have allotted for a session or a class. And honestly the Why is not important. Unlike a weight that can simply be too heavy the words are not impossible to say. The psychic barriers that try to stop you from saying your words of affirmation are a mile high and paper thin. You just have to open your mouth and say them, no matter how scary it is for you. “That was better. I am getting better.”

Critique only serves a function when we use it improve. When we start using critique as a from of punishment it is no longer useful.

As I write this we are in the midst of a pandemic. If you are like me you are checking numbers every day and looking for trends, trying to predict the future. If you are unlike me you are using the news media or Facebook to predict the future (don’t do that). A few weeks ago our epidemiologists and virologists were predicting that two million people would die from corona in the United States. They predicted that my home, New York, would run out of medical supplies some time in late March. A few weeks later the projected death toll was down to two hundred thousand and the supplies were estimated to run out a week into April. Today the projected numbers are down to around eighty five thousand and the supplies might run out some time next week; the exact date gets pushed out every time we get up against it. In short, the situation sounds better every day. Not good, but not as bad as it could have been.

Here is where the training we’ve done in the gym improves our lives outside (indeed, banned from!) the gym. Many of us have wrapped ourselves up in fear. Many of us have written doomsday scenarios in our head to insulate ourselves from the only slightly less terrifying world outside our doors. We’ve spread our fear around and thrown it onto other people, all in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. But it doesn’t work, does it? Just as constantly criticizing yourself in the gym does not make you better, constantly writing a negative story in your head does not make the world better. What’s more, it makes you worse in the world (trust me, everyone thinks it’s super annoying). I am not saying we should be relentlessly optimistic and pretend things are better than they are. But nor should we ignore what’s happening around us and pretend things are worse than they are. We must acknowledge what is true. If you’ve been doing this in the gym for months or years it will be a little easier. If you have not, let’s start together today.

My challenge to you is this: Take a look at the numbers coming in from the state of New York. Acknowledge the positive trend. Acknowledge that spread and death rates are going down. Acknowledge that while this is not the end, while this data is incomplete while a thousand other pessimistic thoughts try to pushing their way to the front, acknowledge that things are looking better. For some of you this will be the bravest thing you do all week. 

Now, say it out loud with me… 

“Things are getting better.”