I know when: a little over a year ago.
I confess, I’m firmly identified now on social media as one of those people who checks in at the gym. And I’m a pretty serious repeat offender: I go on average about four times a week, and I check in every. time. And I have a running app too, and it’s linked up to let the whole world know I just ran a few miles. I am one of those people.
I could just write myself off (and sometimes do) as a garden variety, tedious narcissist. But there’s more to this practice than vanity. There’s something therapeutic about it, something related to life goals and identity, something connected to my work as a therapist, something worth exploring.
In the summer of 2014, I bought a few personal training sessions at my gym. For the first month or so, I met with the trainer but didn’t do much else, coming in only once or twice to half-heartedly do a portion of his suggested workout. Finally I said this to him: “This isn’t working. I’m not getting anywhere, but now I have a professional on board, so it’s actually more depressing than before I hired you.” “What do you want to do about it?” he asked, and I admired his skillful yet friendly return of the ball to where it belongs—in my hands. And I knew, instantly, what I needed: “I want to email you every time I come to the gym, and (I might have blushed a little here) have you respond back with encouragement. Pat me on the head. Tell me I’m awesome.” He said, “Sure, be happy to!”
So I started doing that, knowing that if I didn’t work out, I couldn’t email him, and if I didn’t email him (I reasoned to myself) he would be disappointed in me. (Therapist alert! Isn’t this unhealthy??) Yes and no: I learn socially, and I motivate socially. I’m an extravert. I’m also not above giving others a little power to validate me. Some of the self-help books would scold me for having a “reflected sense of self,” for allowing my neighbor to determine how I feel about myself. And yes, I can see the danger there. But I also think that life should include some of this: we should build each other up. Encouragement from others is okay. It can’t replace a solid sense of self, but it can be a healthy motivator. Bottom line, I knew that my trainer’s opinion of me really didn’t matter, not even to me, because in the end my fitness work is mine alone, and only I will know truly whether I have accomplished something real, something valuable. And yet … yeah, he’s a professional, he’s helping me out, sure, I care what he thinks.
But the trainer emails, as useful as they were, turned out not to be the whole solution. I simultaneously started checking in on Facebook whenever I went to the gym. I’d try to keep it funny, to make it less irritating, less of an unattractive brag, by posting photos like this in the check-in, of another therapist who was famous for her workout routines (and her love of chocolate sundaes):
And I then chose a close friend to consult every once in a while to get feedback about my social-media presence. “Are the gym check-ins annoying?” I’d ask her (once again seeking validation from another person—yes, I know). “Um, well yeah,” she’d say, “but remember that that’s information about me, not you.” She knows that anyone’s emotional response to another person’s behavior is really just information about themselves. And sure enough, for every person who rolled his eyes at my gym check-ins, another person would message me saying that my fitness work motivated them, encouraged them to go to the gym more often, or walk more, or work on their knee pain so they could be more flexible and active.
And that, naturally, was all I needed to hear. I love to motivate others with my own achievements—yep, I’m a Three on the Enneagram—and the reverse is true too: your achievements motivate me. Sometimes I get small and anxiously competitive, but at my best I engage friendships as a way to motivate both of us to make the changes we want in our lives. I like it when we build each other up.
Don’t even get me started on the joys of Fitbit.
Now that I’m more than a year into my new life of fitness, having finished a half marathon and nearly finished a couple of 12-week courses of weight training, I feel like I’m ready to settle into a new—now not so new—lifestyle of general fitness and strength, an integrated rhythm that comes naturally, a habit that becomes an integral part of a new way or Rule of life. Injuries or illness may throw me off course, but that’s already happened a couple of times, and I feel fairly prepared to handle that, with the help and encouragement of others.
I keep trying to notice the shadow, the dark side, of all this, which is just base vanity and self-centeredness. I won’t pretend I don’t indulge in that. And I may at some point let go of the check-in routine, but not the gym routine. But I’ll probably do so only when I’ve found a better way to share motivation with my neighbor to work for the health and strength of our best selves.