You’re not in Kansas Anymore: Acknowledge Your Past, but Make Sure Your Future is Your Own.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Last week, I received a call from my 11-year-old daughter at school, asking me to bring the P.E. clothes she’d left behind.  P.E. class was to start in fifteen minutes, and she’d receive some kind of demerit if she didn’t have her uniform.  I didn’t have much time to weigh the pros and cons of delivering her clothes; despite some reservations, I grabbed them, raced over to school, and dropped them in the office for her, all the while wondering if this was the parenting decision I should be making.

Being available as a parent is critical for the emotional wellbeing of our children.  Stepping up to rescue them from problematic or dangerous situations is an absolute must when they are young.  However, there comes a time when saving our kids from each and every small disaster teaches them only one thing: that they should forever rely on us and that there is no need to develop strategies of their own for dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.   Maybe next time, I’ve told myself, I’ll tell my daughter a version of “tough luck” (lovingly, of course), and she’ll have to deal with the consequences of a lower P.E. grade.  Maybe then she will figure out a better way to remember to bring her uniform to school.

At some point in our growth and development, we need to become more independent and self-reliant.   We need to take hold of our obligations and figure out ways of following through.  We need to find ways to remember to pack the things we need for our day, to do the things we need to do for school or work, and to say the things we need to say to our friends and family in order to sustain relationships.  We can’t always rely on our parents’ cues, such as “What do you say to Sally and her mom for having you over for dinner?”  At some point, we need to internalize that parental function and regulate our lives for ourselves. This is a complicated undertaking—perhaps as much for parents in letting go as for children in accepting responsibility and accountability.

We are all given a genetic blueprint at birth, as well as an environment in which we are raised.  These two factors comprise the nature/nurture one-two punch that makes us each who we are.  Just as our DNA plays a significant role in who we become, our relationships with our primary caregivers dictate much about who we are as adults.  For some of us, loosening the reigns of childhood experience is a relatively easy task—these are cases in which parenting was “good enough” and psychological insults were minimal.  We may trip up from time to time, but we are generally able to function in the world in ways that allow us to move forward.  On the other end of the spectrum are childhoods where environmental challenges were significant, where basic needs were not met, where psychological stressors dominated, and the trajectory of life was bleak from the start.  Somewhere in between lie most of us: with a background of basic love and support, with normal challenges to overcome, we are doing our best as adults to propel our lives in positive ways as we move forward.

My message this week is to encourage thinking about how to accept the reality of our history while writing our own current and future story.  As I’ve written before, we all have a story to tell.  If we allow our story to be a simple replication of our past, we are relinquishing authorship rights and allowing someone else’s story (our parents, grandparents, teachers, etc.) to become our own.  Forever.  For example, if we hold ourselves back in relationships because our father was stoic and cold, he is forever the author and we are forever the character, victim, and perpetrator.  If we mistreat our children because we were mistreated as children, we are giving more power to the original perpetrators and doing damage to innocent victims.  We must break the cycle, take ownership of the problem, and work to fix it.  In the world of sport, as in life, we can also be tracked and defined by our past. Ever have a soccer coach tell you you’ll never be a starter, based on your performance in a previous season?  Ever work your tail off to prove him wrong and eventually earn that spot?

While we can understand behavior in light of past experience, at some point our lives need to become our own.  If you’re living your life the way someone else wrote it and you’re unhappy, perhaps it’s time to seek help to figure out some meaningful strategies moving forward.  Just as you might call a coach to help with training for your sport, or you might seek a class to learn a foreign language, the time may be right to consult a therapist to explore negative behavior patterns that you’ve always blamed on your mother.  She doesn’t drive your bus any more: take the wheel and forge ahead.

There’s a fine line between acknowledging our past and allowing it to dictate the present and future.  Just as the barbell won’t get any lighter after your margarita splurge last night; or the hills on your trail run won’t flatten out in response to your limited sleep; the people in your life won’t forever excuse your bad behavior, difficult personality, or poor decision making because of your dysfunctional childhood. Buckle up.  Writing your own story takes time and is hard work but is well worth the effort.  You’re a grown-up now—and you need to remember to bring your gym clothes, too.

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Reflections on 9/11 and Connection

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By Dr. Allison Belger

This has been one of those weeks for me: an unexpected and negative life intrusion for a close friend, the first week of school for my kids, a new gym in the final phases of construction, and my younger daughter’s birthday.  It’s been exhausting, stressful, and busy–new beginnings and excitement tempered by concern.

This has also been a week of reflection—not just for me, but for all of us.  Wednesday was September 11th, a day that for many will never come around without conjuring darkness and doubt—much like December 7, 1941, for past generations–a day that will live in infamy.  As I read posts on Facebook from people inviting us to remember and reaching out to those who lost loved ones, I got to thinking about how this kind of tragedy, with its shared suffering and loss, brings people together from all backgrounds and walks of life.  9/11 moved us in ways that cross divides—racial and ethnic, educational, economic and social.

As we are touched in our hearts and souls, we do not differentiate between victims who are black or white, rich or poor, bankers or janitors. True, the first responders hold a special place in our hearts with the magnitude of their sacrifice and loss of life trying to save others.  What we share as a nation is the collective experience of horror, sadness, shock, and mourning.  In the aftermath, we also share the simple desire to live in peace, with the conviction and psychological containment that we and our loved ones are safe and out of harm’s way.

There is nothing I can say about September 11th that hasn’t already been said.  My focus for today is about capturing something from that powerful, shared experience to connect us across the divides described above.  One of the most liberating aspects of growing up, in my mind, is the ability to understand those who are different from us, with increasing freedom from judgment and fear. Despite some great progress in our education system, which now attempts to enlighten our young people and teach them to embrace diversity, the bottom line is that we are a species prone to categorization, trying to define and fit into our own tribes.  Perhaps adolescence is the peak period for such “us” and “them” struggles.  The tumultuous years of adolescent emotional insecurity are marked by a need to identify and bond with a group as an insider, which is often accompanied by an aversion to those who are designated as outsiders.

Life after college seems to offer the space for a more open-minded existence.  With maturity and a more relaxed internal state, we are usually better able to accept and welcome differences; we may be less fearful of being judged and less likely to judge others.  Increasingly, there are powerful moments and experiences in our lives that drive us toward connections crossing categories of difference.  Connecting in these ways without the catalyst of a universal tragedy is the ideal.

Here’s where the sport and life part comes in:  As I sit waiting for my daughter’s soccer game to begin, I think about the psychological function of being part of a team and playing other teams, and how that interaction can bring together kids of diverse backgrounds—both as teammates and competitors.  As adults, we have fewer opportunities to participate in team sport, but there are possibilities.  The CrossFit movement is known for bringing people together from vastly different backgrounds. In my recent book, you can find an exploration of this and other forums of connection through group effort, exercise, movement, and sport.   There is a huge variety of affinity groups out there—including bikers and hikers, running communities, backpacking clubs and more—and each can offer connection and shared experiences that feed our souls along with our bodies.

Other opportunities abound, if we are open to them.  The goal is to find ways of tapping into our souls via sustained effort with others, harnessing a drive or desire that moves us on some meaningful level and allows us to experience a common ground we might not otherwise share.  We will be better people, a better species, if we can connect in the present–beyond 9/11 and other shared losses–and allow for the possibility of letting others, no matter our differences, enter our lives.  Is this all too contrived, sentimental or trite?  Could be.  But maybe not.   It’s a risk I’m willing to take this week.

The Importance of Being More than Just a CrossFit Athlete or Climber or Triathlete: Don’t Bore Your Friends and Family

momandgirlshugBy Dr. Allison Belger

Pure Joy: 2008 visit from Grandma. Happy Mother’s Day to my wonderful Mom, who taught me, among other things, how to write. 

Since I’m posting this article on Mother’s Day, here’s the tie-in:

1.  As a gift to your Mom, don’t bore her today with talk of your latest PR, unless of course she wants to talk to you about hers.

2.  If you’re a parent, yourself, thank your Mom for being one of maybe three other people in the world who truly care about the tiniest details of your kids’ lives.  Save those details for your Mom and spare your friends.

When I ask people at our gyms to name some of the challenges of being a CrossFit athlete, nine times out of ten a common theme surfaces: how to manage when a partner or good friend doesn’t also do CrossFit, and, therefore, doesn’t relate to one’s passion, commitment, and focus.  CrossFit involves some unique elements that make it especially seductive and potential all-consuming, but it is not necessarily different from any other pursuit in which a person might be fully engaged.  Some of the factors of CrossFit that make it attract one’s full-time interest include regular attendance at the gym, changes in lifestyle choices (bed times, diet, alcohol intake), and a new-found interest in aspects of exercise previously irrelevant to one’s life (think 42-year-old mom of three with no formal sports background suddenly tracking her clean-and-jerk PR’s).  All of these factors can have a profound effect on a person, to whom those closest can’t help but notice.  If your drinking buddy stops going to bars, your relationship is bound to change.  If your best girlfriend stops going to your Pilates classes with you and starts going to pilates in Atlanta instead and starts talking about a movement called a snatch, you might get bored, and your friendship might change.  If your Italian wife no longer cooks your favorite pasta for you and your kids, you might be annoyed.  Now throw into that mix the fact that the friend/wife/partner/buddy also talks incessantly about a whole new group of people who shares his/her interest interests and choices, while you hang on the sidelines, unable to relate to this new and awesome “community.”  It’s easy to see how an unshared passion about, and commitment to, something like CrossFit could slowly but surely create a divide in a relationship, despite everyone’s best intentions.

As I mentioned, CrossFit is not alone in its capacity to absorb a participant’s attention.  Talk to triathletes—especially Ironmen and Ironwomen–about the effects of their training and focus on their close relationships with people who don’t also train.  How about someone who takes on a new position as CEO of a large company and starts traveling for business, necessarily becoming immersed in the company culture and the industry at large?  Might that impact his/her availability for status-quo relating?  How about the ultimate transformation when people go from being non-parents to parents?  Perhaps nothing changes one’s lifestyle, availability for chill time, or capacity to talk about anything remotely interesting to a non-parent more than having a baby.  What, then, happens to friendships with non-parents?  How often do they survive when one party crosses over to the dark side of parental preoccupation?

Life is filled with transitions.  High school ends and friends disperse to colleges.  College ends and friends scatter the country–even the globe–in pursuit of career dreams, graduate school, or to benefit a long-term relationship.  Post-college life often involves the burgeoning of new interests and exploration of various activities, some of which require a great deal of focus and investment of personal resources.  Friendships don’t always weather the storms of change.

When an interest like CrossFit enters the mix and becomes all-consuming, the athlete’s ability to remain available to friends, partners, and even co-workers is often tested.  It seems it is all too easy for the one involved to blame any rift that follows on the other person’s inability to relate to a new-found passion.  I don’t think this is fair or helpful most of the time.  The truth is that a bit of self-reflection might make one realize that one’s involvement with CrossFit or other endeavor is all-consuming and has, in fact, become a barrier of entry to the old version of oneself.  This may be insurmountable to friends and family who were there before.

We all run the risk of becoming absorbed in our current pursuits and friendships, and it behooves us to check in with ourselves to make sure we aren’t so consumed by our passion for what we are doing that we can no longer effectively relate to those who don’t share it.  We are all multifaceted individuals—some more dynamic than others, no doubt, but we can make the most of all aspects of ourselves if we keep all dimensions in check and don’t give our entire beings solely to one pursuit.  Finding the delicate balance between commitment to, and immersion in, a sport or job or other activity on the one hand, and balance and availability for other interests and people on the other hand, is often hard fought.  But it’s well worth the effort.  I can assure you that people who don’t do CrossFit have as little interest in your daily updates about your snatch PR or your muscle-up technique as you might have in the latest developments in crampon gear that enthrall your mountaineer friend.  And that’s exactly how it should be.  If you can’t talk about anything other than one activity, don’t blame your friends’ lack of interest on their inability to relate to your passion.  One person’s passion is another’s source of boredom.  Sensitivity to that is critical if you’re going to be an effective member of any community or relationship for that matter.  If you do CrossFit and only have friends who do CrossFit, or you’re a climber who can only have a conversation with other climbers, or you’re a Vegan and your Vegan lifestyle is simply all there is to talk about, it’s probably time to diversify a bit.

On the flip side, there is also the reality that some people have a hard time supporting friends or partners in pursuits that are new and involve changes.  This phenomenon is multi-determined.  Of course, there is commonly a bit of jealousy that a friend or partner has found something new, exciting, and transformational.  There can also be a simple feeling of being left out or left behind.  Then there are some more complex forces at work.  For example, I often hear of friends mocking more restrictive nutrition choices or calling their friends “boring” or “uptight” because they now choose to avoid alcohol.  It is often the case that when a friend or partner chooses a path of discipline and refined lifestyle choices, the one left behind condescends, as a way of making himself/herself feel better about his/her own choices.  It seems that eating pie in front of someone who no longer eats wheat and sugar might make the pie eater feel inferior or less disciplined, consciously or not.  Having a few drinks with a buddy who no longer imbibes might make the drinker feel self-conscious in ways he/she might not otherwise.  It may inadvertently force the drinker to reckon with his/her own need/desire to drink.  Judgments about a friend or family member’s chosen restrictions may actually be an attempt to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings of self-doubt about one’s own choices—a way of ejecting the feeling that one might be somehow inferior for not choosing to follow the same dietary restrictions or wellness lifestyle choices.

So how can you handle friends and family members who don’t support your choices or question your new behaviors?  With sensitivity, grace, and tact.  Simple and periodic acknowledgments that the changes you have made via your pursuit, be it CrossFit or something else, can do wonders for relationship stability.  Recognizing that you have changed your behaviors but not necessarily who you are can be a helpful reminder to others that your relationship with them can continue.  Careful attention to how frequently you talk about CrossFit or climbing or your new job can stave off the shut-down mechanism in friends who don’t share your experiences.  Being careful to ask about their lives and to maintain a genuine interest in continuing to spend time with them is critical to ongoing relationships.  If you really care about someone, you will respect their indifference to the minutiae of your sport, and you will take care to address their interests with as much zeal as you do your own training.

Of course the cold, harsh reality is that some relationships won’t stand the test of ebbs and flows, especially when one party becomes fully immersed in an interest or pursuit.  This is part of life, but it’s a good idea to be darn sure that something you’re doing in the moment, even if you plan for it to be a long-term endeavor, doesn’t end up losing you more than you’re gaining, as far as relationships go.  As always, introspection and thoughtful attention is critical along these lines.  So, enjoy yourself and revel in your dedication to training or to a job or a certain way of eating.  Just don’t lose hold on other aspects of yourself; surely others will follow suit if you do!