The Power of the Persona You Give Yourself

By Deane Barker tags: health, life

In any driving course, when learning how to recover from a skid, the instructor will always hammer the same thing into you: “Look where you want to go because you tend to go where you look.” it’s good advice, and I can vouch that it works (seriously).

The same thing is true of your self-image, I’m learning. You tend to act how you see yourself. You will live up to the image you see in the mirror.

In the last 13 months, I have lost between 80 and 90 pounds. It started on January 3, 2011 as a classic New Years resolution. Since then, I’ve been more or less obsessed with nutrition and exercise. My diet is fantastic, by any measure, and I exercise six days a week.

But, unbeknownst to me, the most important thing I’ve done is shifted my self-image. I think of myself as an athlete now. Everything is relative, of course, and I know that compared to your average NFL player, I’m not much. However, compared to your average 40-year-old suburban father, I do really well.

What I’ve learned is that since this is the persona I’ve given myself, I tend to live up to it. I get up at 5:30 a.m every weekday and go to the gym. Why? Because I’m an athlete, and this is what athletes do. I run five-miles in 15-degree weather, because this is what athletes do. I don’t eat just because I’m hungry, because this is what athletes do.

More than just my actions is my attitude – I look forward, and I enjoy the challenge. I constantly think about my next workout, and I can’t wait to keep moving incrementally forward. The gym or the bike trail seems like a second home to me. I see myself as a continual work in progress and I love the journey.

But I’m just now coming to this realization, and all because I went to Europe for a week.

In the beginning of February, I was speaking at a conference in Lisbon. On the way home, I got stuck for a day in Paris for a day, and then went to Las Vegas to watch a rugby tournament with my Dad for a couple days. I was gone for over a week.

During this time, I tried to workout, but it didn’t go well. I was on the move all the time. I tried to run in Lisbon, but the hotel was in a bad spot and there was no obvious place to run (the sidewalks in Lisbon have the smoothness of a minefield). I did get a short run in Paris, but when I tried to workout in Vegas, the Rio wanted $22 to use the gym. So, I went for a run on The Strip, which was a disaster because it was about 4 p.m. and the crowds were just ridiculous.

On top of this, I ate a lot. No one told me about Portuguese bakeries – wow. The pastries were just crazy (these things especially)…and then I got to Paris. Holy cats. I had a croissant at an otherwise nondescript hotel buffet that almost made me cry. Throw in a couple Las Vegas buffets, and you have a significant calorie imbalance.

When I finally got back to Sioux Falls, I felt out of shape. I hadn’t had a meaningful workout in 10 days, and I had gained about five pounds.

So, you’d think I’d instantly go running back to the gym, right? Uh, no. I made excuses not to go. And I kept eating. There was something keeping me from starting back up, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I got back home on a Monday night, and I finally got off my ass and went back to the gym on Friday morning.

When I finally went back to the gym in Friday, it seemed…foreign. I remember standing in the gym thinking, “What the hell am I doing here at six in the morning?” I felt out of place. It wasn’t home anymore, it was a place that other people went to. A place where athletes went.

And there was the problem:I had stopped thinking of myself as an athlete. I had let myself slip out of the persona. Instead of an athlete, I now saw myself as a couch potato. And, like a powerslide on a slippery road, you tend to go where you look, and I wasn’t looking in the right direction anymore. Couch potatoes don’t go to the gym at six in the morning – they sleep in. And they don’t eat well – they stuff themselves every chance they get. I was living up to my persona.

On Saturday (today), I went for my weekly five-mile run on the bike trails. I’ve been chasing the U.S. Army Ranger test for a few months now, and my pace has been steadily coming down. Two days before leaving for Europe, I clocked in my best time yet. But I approached today’s run with dread. I wasn’t an athlete anymore, I was a couch potato, so the run was going to hurt, and I was going to have to watch my hard-earned pace backslide.

But, amazingly enough, my pace dropped by two seconds. I don’t know why – perhaps my body had been beaten up for the last year and it enjoyed the rest. But 42-some-odd minutes after I started, as I was walking off my run in the parking lot, I felt…elated. I was on top of the world. I felt like I was heading back in the right direction. I felt…like an athlete again.

And now, as I write this, I’m looking forward. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s workout, or Monday’s run. I know that next week, I’m going to take a few more seconds off my time. Every workout is another chance to get better, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Why? Because that’s what athletes do, and when I look in the mirror, I’m an athlete again.

The fact is, you go where you look. And you look in the direction you see yourself. See yourself as a couch potato, and you’ll act like one. Likewise if you see yourself as an athlete. Or an addict. Or a successful professional. Or a Christian. Or a sleazebag.

How do you see yourself?

Update: My friend Greg from CrossFit Sioux Falls commented below, partially in response in an email exchange he and I had about CrossFit. We discussed the fact that something CrossFit does really well (aside from apparently being a great workout in general), is that it teaches people to think of themselves as athletes. I know of no other organized workout program that does this – that pays attention to the persona that its participants have for themselves. I honestly think this is a huge part of the exercise equation, and one that few programs other than CrossFit are paying attention to. (Disclaimer: I do not CrossFit.)

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