Dying to Know the Workout? What’s the Deal with Not Knowing?

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Our ten-year-old daughter tried out for a competitive A Capella group a couple of weeks ago.  Tryouts were on Friday, and the casting email was sent the following Wednesday.  Our kid can sing, no doubt, but she was nervous and distracted for four days while waiting to hear if she’d been chosen.

Watching her through this experience made me think about the collective anxiety among CrossFitters during the CrossFit Open, which peaks on Tuesday nights.  It’s worse on Tuesdays than Wednesdays, because Tuesday is the last night of going to bed not knowing what the workout will be each week of the competition.  Why are people so anxious?  Unlike other sports in which participants know what they are training for, a hallmark of CrossFit competition is that the format of the testing ground is unknown.  The skills and domains in which athletes must become competent are vast and increase as the field and the sport becomes more competitive.  It’s like being a track and field athlete and having to be ready to do everything from the steeplechase to a high jump, because those two, and everything in between, could show up on game day.

So for CrossFitters competing in the Open, from the newest beginners to the most elite of the competitors, Tuesday nights mark the final dawn on the days of not knowing, at least for that week.  Since tonight is the final Tuesday night of the Open, I thought I’d honor it by writing about our human struggle with NOT KNOWING.

We like certainty.  We want stability.  We generally want to be prepared and be able to put our best foot forward, rather than being caught off guard and forced to wing things last-minute.  We like to know we will have a roof over our head, a meal in front of us at dinnertime, a person to call when we are down.  We like to KNOW that these things are givens.  For the most part, we’d prefer not to have such fundamental aspects of our comfort left to chance.  Sure, there is the excitement and intrigue for some people when things are unsettled or in the works.  Life wouldn’t be exciting if all things were known all of the time.  But, in general terms, we are a species that gravitates toward knowing.

In the psychoanalytic literature, there is a line of thinking about how, very early on, we become able to experience our own emotions and psychological perspective.  It all has to do with a kind of initially unspoken recognition and mediation of our experiences by our parents, and ultimately through their translation via formal language.  Some psychologists understand certain pathologies as stemming from a difficulty “knowing” our own emotional states, an inability to experience how we feel, in part because we are too afraid of what we might find.  Extreme cases of such struggles might manifest in addictions, eating disorders, and obsessive behaviors.  The idea is that the behavior or relation to the substance is a placeholder preventing us from recognizing and reckoning with our inner experiences, or worse yet, acknowledging that we don’t even know what our feelings are.  Unsettled because you have a constant feeling of dread but can’t quite figure out why or how you got there?  Have a few drinks.  Not sure you want to know that at your core you feel abandoned?  Maybe overeating will help.

Clearly, this is a watered-down and totally insufficient explanation of a very important and complicated psychological construct, but hopefully it suffices for my purposes here.  The idea is that NOT KNOWING something can be quite unsettling, while at the same time knowing something “bad” deep down might be even worse, and we are extra adept at defending against the anxiety inherent in both experiences.

What the heck does all of this have to do with the CrossFit Open on Tuesday nights?  It’s all about the anxiety of not knowing.  I’ve talked with people who have no chance at qualifying for the next stage in competition, who are maybe the 12,000th best exerciser in the world, who are losing sleep and stressing themselves out while waiting for the workout announcements.  The same goes for athletes who are gunning to win.  There is something powerful about not knowing what we’re in for, what our proving ground will be, what we should expect.  The tantalizing fact is that there are people who know what we don’t, and it affects our fate, our performance, potentially our self-esteem, and almost certainly our pending physical soreness.

Those of you obsessing over the final workout tonight might want to take some time to reflect on what aspects of “not knowing” are most uncomfortable for you.  Are you afraid that what comes up will be hard for you?  Are you afraid that you will see something you like and will feel the pressure to perform especially well?  Are you hoping you won’t have to work as hard as last week or won’t be able to do one of the movements?

Of greatest importance, and where we can learn the most about ourselves, is what do we do to manage our anxiety.  Do you start getting critical or judgmental of the people in charge of creating the workouts?  Do you try to diminish the import of all of this madness, in an effort to make yourself not care so darn much?  Do you feel agitated? Sleep-deprived?  Irritable?  Do you talk about it incessantly with your friends who also do CrossFit?  Do you bore the hell out of your family members who don’t?  Do you try to find ways of distracting yourself, like going for a walk with your kids, only to face the unnerving reality that, even there, you are preoccupied and tempted to call on Facebook for clues to your exercise fate?

What about in our lives outside of CrossFit?  How do we manage not knowing?  How do we deal with uncertainty when our fates are in the hands of others?  How do we deal with chance, or worse still, the possibility of subjectivity affecting our future in significant ways?  How do we expect teens to manage the days between submitting a college application and receiving the letter in the mail offering acceptance or relaying rejection?  How do our kids survive the hours between an audition for a singing group and the email with the cast list?  How do we bide our time and reign in our thoughts when we have interviewed for a coveted job and have not yet heard if we’ve been chosen?

These moments rich with anxiety can lead to self-doubt, a general sense of powerlessness, and a feeling of frustration and loss of control.  Have you ever diminished the character of an interviewer simply because you were anxious that he/she would reject you?  Maybe it feels better to proactively minimize that person so that the rejection stings a bit less (after all, getting rejected by a flawed person feels better than being unwanted by a rockstar).  Speaking of rejection, what do we do when we are unsure of where a relationship is going, but we suspect it is heading south and we want it to go north?  How do we deal with not knowing a partner’s inner feelings and desires, and wondering if we might become the next ex-girlfriend?  What do our protective measures look like, and how productive are they?

I leave you with a parting thought along the lines of a “Would You Rather” game my husband and I like to play with our kids:  Would you rather KNOW that Open workout 13.5 is a workout in which you’ll fail because you cannot get even one rep, or would you rather be left in your current state of NOT KNOWING, in which, despite the agony, there is the eternal hope that you will hear exactly what you want and you will rock it?  All the while that our psyches want to be saved from a state of anxious not knowing, sometimes it is better than the alternative.  It is how we manage both that makes up who we are.  Of course there’s a third alternative, which is that we KNOW the workout and it is filled with things at which we are awesome.  But life isn’t all neat and tidy, and I’d argue that it’s our management of all things imperfect that makes up our character and leads us to the most meaningful personal growth.  Try to relish in these moments of not knowing, and learn from what comes up for you while you’re here.  I’ll bet these lessons will apply to your life lived outside of working out, and that probably makes the wonder of it all that much more awesome and worthwhile.

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