During a conversation with friends the other night, I was asked what I thought was the difference between acceptance and complacency. It’s a good question, especially where fitness is concerned. I didn’t have a great answer at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I can feel it in my bones.
It’s the difference between joy and surrender. It’s the difference between wonder and disappointment. It’s the difference between discovery and expectation.
They can look similar, but are worlds apart.
As I write this, the idea that is in my mind is one of a long hike. You start at the bottom, there is a summit up there somewhere at the top. It could be a new hike to you, or one you’ve done many times. It doesn’t matter. The weather is nice, you have your dog with you (because it’s impossible for me to imagine hiking and not having a dog,) everything’s great as you set out. But something happens along the way, doesn’t matter what, and you can’t finish. You make it ¾ of the way up, you’re sitting at a favorite view spot, but know you have to turn down now.
That moment, that feeling in your gut at that moment, and how you will store your memory of that hike, is the difference between acceptance and complacency.
Acceptance is sitting there, looking out at the view, in the sun, talking with your dog about what a gorgeous day it is. How fortunate you are that you get to do these things, you have the time, the fitness, the place and space. It’s being able to feel good and joyful in that moment, even when it didn’t go according to plan.
Complacency seeps in around the edges of the moment, starting as disappointment when you’re just upset that you didn’t finish. It blossoms into full-blown complacency when you allow yourself to think that there’s not much point in bothering to hike like that, since you probably won’t make it again because you’re not good enough, in some way, anymore. So, fuck it, this is who I am now.
It’s a matter of perspective. It’s whether you choose to look at the light or the shadow in a situation.
I am a chronic optimist. Complacency is the sinkhole of chronic disappointment.
When thinking about this in terms of bodies and fitness, which is how I look at most things these days, it becomes a matter of focusing on what bodies can do, and how we feel in them. This matters enormously in terms of goal-setting, and checking in with ourselves about whether or not we’re making “progress.” It also makes it super important that we focus on the journey and the experience of our bodies, not on an external goal of what they should look like. Look, I’m post-menopausal at this point, and it is 99% awesome. Okay, 95% awesome, the hot flashes suck and I’m still not used to not being a size 4.
I never mention size and weight in my coaching, so why mention it here?
For two reasons. First, I’ve known my body my whole life. I am familiar and comfortable with it, I know how it works. (Or used to.) So, like that old hike that I return to, I know what it “should” be like. Which isn't a "should" so much as an expectation, which is kind of a trap. When it doesn’t live up to that expectation, it’s easy for me to feel like it’s wrong, or bad, or worse. That’s just a basic human sentinel of sameness. The mile-marker of familiarity.
So now that I’m suddenly bigger and softer than I’ve ever been, I have to fight against those voices of failure in my head. The same ones that would judge a hike as a failure if I didn’t make it to the top.
Instead, I need to look at what my body can do. The truth is, I’m still so strong. I have so much energy. There’s nothing that I want to DO in my life that I can’t do because of my body. As unfamiliar as the look of my body may be to me, it still works really well. It brings me joy. I eat well, I sleep well, I still have a partner who desires me as he always has. Those are the viewpoints along this lifelong hike, and they’re good.
That’s the optimism of acceptance, because I’ve decided that what matters is how I feel and what I can do, not what I look like.
The complacency side of that coin is always there too. It’s the side that’s focused on what I look like, and if I let it, it would allow me to say “fuck it, I’m getting fatter no matter what I do, why bother?” That’s complacency. Because if I decide that what matters is what I look like, there is, indeed, not much point. In order to maintain that size 4 that I knew most of my life, I would have to live my life in a way that any good doctor would call “disordered.” That’s not how I want to live. I don’t want to live a life focused on restriction, punishment and ultimately futility. I'm not willing to "give up" and just eat and drink anything even when it makes me feel bad (except as a trat,) but I'm also not gonna hurt myself just as much by doing extreme things to stay small.
I will do the things that I need to do in order to maintain health, without focusing on looks. Because people age, and our bodies change, I’m not likely to be the first person who manages to stop time and stay alive. That’s an either / or proposition.
I accept that my body is powerful and strong and changing.
So what does that mean in terms of goal-setting?
I’m a big fan of helping people set goals that have a few specific characteristics:
Things they can actually control. I can’t, really, control what size I am. Especially in this new body that I am totally unfamiliar with. So I choose, instead, to eat foods that I know make me feel better, in general. And to allow myself treats when they’re worth it. (That Starbucks Danish the other day, TOTALLY NOT WORTH IT.) I can’t necessarily control if I’m going to get that PR back squat again. But I can control that I keep working out, and always try to add a couple more pounds than the nagging voice of self-doubt tells me I can.
Things that have actual positive impact in their lives. This is where I really like to focus on behavioral change rather than “goals.” Because getting into the gym and working out, with my friends, 5 days a week does actually make me happier, and healthier and stronger. That’s a great goal, because the mere act of doing it has positive impact, outside of any extrinsic results. Focusing on what I actually can DO in the gym can get perilous, so I rarely do. I just ask myself “did I give everything I had today?” And what I “have” is always different, which is okay.
Things they can actually achieve. This is where we deal with things like “winning” competitions or things that have too many other variables. You can’t control how everyone else does, or how they feel. You can only control you. So “try my hardest and not make sloppy errors” is a better goal. Learn from the errors I do make is also a great goal.
Things that are about them, not external standards or validation, or arbitrary ideas. Lastly, I like to make sure that goals are actually about me, and not some external thing that I think I need to prove in order to be good enough, or that I believe will magically make me happy. So for me, things like focusing on sleep, making myself socialize, learning new things, are all about me. Being a size, or doing things that everyone else loves just to feel included? That’s not about me. That’s about the approval of others, and that’s always a losing game.
Ultimately, the difference between acceptance and complacency for me is a constant process of getting to know myself and understanding how things make me feel. It means approaching life with a spirit of curiosity. So that rather than saying “I need to do X in order to feel good,” it’s “I wonder what will happen if I do X.” And then allowing myself the space to honestly assess if X was a good idea or not.
If X was a good idea, because it made me feel good, then I am responsible for continuing to do that. If X turns out to have not felt good, then I have to learn from that, and not do it again. But it’s not a “failure,” because I didn’t set out with the expectation of something magical happen, I was simply curious and set out to find out what would happen. (Side note, this was also how I approached dating post-divorce. There were no bad dates, only people I never wanted to see again who helped me hone what I was looking for so that I would recognize it when I found it.)
I think that complacency sets in quickly when we create situations in which we constantly feel like failures. I think acceptance is a lot easier when we are on a path of curious discovery and joy. That's the difference between setting out to "win" vs. just setting out to "do."
In both cases, honest self-assessment and a keen ability to not give a fuck what other people think is probably the key to happiness.
No probably about it, actually.
If being “that old lady” has taught me anything, it’s that my life is my journey and I don’t have to carry anyone else’s baggage for them.
And eating ice-cream before bed means I won’t sleep and I shouldn’t do that if I want to be awake and cheerful the next day.