Admitting to insecurity isn’t really the sort of thing most internet tough guys are willing to do — by acknowledging that your capital-letter laden confidence waivers in the physical realm, people worry that their words will somehow carry less weight when arguing with strangers on the internet.
So allow me to clear something up: we’re all a little insecure sometimes.
If you’re like me, and you’ve devoted a fair portion of your adult life to fitness, you’ve probably noticed that those things you feel self-conscious about don’t simply evaporate as your fitness level increases. As you get better, your insecurities evolve with you. In my early twenties, when I could have eaten nothing but cream cheese with a spoon and still retained a six pack, I was self-conscious about how strong I was. When my friends threw two plates on each side of the bar to knock out reps of 225, I’d watch and wince, aware that I could only muster five or six reps at that weight.
I can sense some of you thinking to yourself sarcastically, “Wow, musta been really hard on you, not being able to bench press 300 pounds.” I get it — when you’re struggling to squat 205, it’s hard to feel bad for a guy that’s worried that he can only squat 300 — but that’s the nature of insecurity, folks. It’s not based in reason; it doesn’t dissipate once you cross an imaginary number on the bar or the clock. Insecurity exists on the mental plain, not the physical one, and as such, there’s very little you can do physically to mitigate it.
Sure, as the years wore on and I got stronger, I grew less insecure about the weights I loaded on the bar — in part because the numbers were growing and in part because I came to understand how unimportant those numbers truly were, but that didn’t cure me of insecurity. These days, I start my chest workouts by warming up with 255 on the bar and instead of worrying about what people think of that, I worry about what they think of the extra few pounds I now carry on my midsection.
“You’re supposed to be a fitness guy,” I can hear imaginary critics saying, “but that gut doesn’t look all that fit.”
That insecurity has, over the years, been an incredible motivator for me. In many ways, I’m less a fitness guy than I am a problem solver. When I feel self-conscious about something, I work to address it — but not everyone has that same unique combination of psychosis and passion for self-hazing, and in many, those insecurities manifest as something far less productive: inaction.
A recent survey of 1,000 women from across the country indicated that 65% of them had avoided the gym at one time or another for fear of being judged. While a 1,000 person sample size isn’t really big enough to qualify as a reasonable cross-section of the American public (in my opinion), that figure seems accurate based on my experience. What may come as a surprise to some, is that I’d be willing to bet that the figures would be similar for men if you could somehow rope them into answering honestly. I’d imagine many male athletes would be too insecure to admit that insecurity ever seeps past their powdered protein armor (only 36% of men self-reported as having avoided the gym for fear of judgment in the same survey).
The problem is, we all see ourselves as the protagonist in a movie about our lives. We’re the main character, navigating through the supporting cast of our worlds, and as such, we assume that supporting cast gives a shit about what we’re doing. When we walk into the gym, harboring our own insecurities (either deep down or close to the surface), we figure the whole gym is watching. Like “The Truman Show,” they’re playing their roles, pretending to busy themselves with their own workouts, but that doesn’t matter — they must be paying attention, watching, waiting for you to make a mistake and laughing at you when you’re not looking.
This is the part where most articles would tell you that you’re foolish to worry about that — that nobody in the gym cares about what you’re doing and you’re free just to be yourself. That’s not really true. Lots of people seem to go to the gym just to have a different environment to sit in while they stare at their phones, and as we’ve seen on the internet time and time again, lots of them seem to think secretly filming or taking pictures of others struggling is funny. I’m not sure if these sorts of folks have a name in the gym going community at large, but in my circles, we tend to refer to them as pieces of shit, and as a rule, we shouldn’t worry about what pieces of shit think.
Our awareness of gym-shaming lends credence to our personal fears about acceptance, though. If you’re anything like me, you tend to harbor not one, but two ideas of your outward facing self. I’m a confident guy, and when in my element, my skin is damn near impenetrable. I write about foreign policy, defense, and politics for a living, I’m no stranger to being called names, but there’s this other part of me — the one that hasn’t changed since I was growing up.
My family moved a lot. I was the “new kid” just about every year until high school, and as such, I became acutely aware of the things other kids would use to pick on me. Over time, I learned to mitigate some of them, others I simply couldn’t. My family was poor, and you just can’t fix that from a sixth-grade vantage point. Instead, you just take a deep breath, lace up your off-brand tennis shoes, adjust your ill-fitting hand-me-down pants and hope for the best, secretly wishing you could just be like the other kids. That nervous new guy is still a part of me, and he makes his presence known before I walk into important meetings with millionaire executives, high profile interviews with movie stars, or — as you may be surprised to learn — when I first enter new, crowded gyms.
Yeah, I’m a pretty big guy — sometimes even the biggest in the gym — and I still feel awkward and self-conscious sometimes in what, to be honest, is my natural habitat. The same free weights, the same machines that I’m accustomed to, but laid out in a different format? Well, that means I’ll have to look around a bit to find what the gear I want, and that means I’ll be “that big guy that looks like he’s lost.” Being the big guy doesn’t mean people stop looking at you, if anything, it ensures that some of them will. Some will judge, others will just acknowledge your presence as an obstacle in their own regimens, and because I was blessed with the male equivalent of “resting bitch face,” now adorned with a scraggly beard and a few scars, women will scatter to avoid the lunky monster that looks like the villain in every Lifetime original movie they’ve ever seen.
Lots of fitness folks will tell you that no one is looking at you and no one cares what you’re doing — I’ve even said it a number of times — but the truth is, they’re going to notice that you’re there, and they’ll probably make snap judgements about you just like humans do everywhere you go. The problem isn’t in knowing that, it’s in how we frame it. We all think we’re the protagonists in this movie. So when you notice someone glance at you, you see that as plot development. They’re assessing you and that in some way will inform this storyline — it matters somehow, right?
That person that just glanced at you is carrying they’re own baggage full of fear and insecurity. They glanced at you as they developed their own plotline and feared how your perception could affect it. Every one of us is playing a video game in a world full of NPCs (non-playable characters). They perceive you in the same ways that you perceive them. You’re hung up on what the room thinks of you, in a room full of people that are also hung up on what the room thinks of them.
And yeah, sometimes people are assholes, and they do judge but who cares? It doesn’t inform the plot of your life, it’s just an asshole being an asshole. You shouldn’t let them get to you in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, and you shouldn’t let them scare you away from improving yourself.
The secret to getting past your insecurities isn’t to fool yourself into thinking that no one in the world is watching, it’s to remind yourself that everyone in the world is playing the same game you are. In a past job, I often interviewed models and even the occasional porn star — and I remember once being asked if I ever felt uncomfortable sitting across a table from women that were beautiful for a living. I wasn’t — not because I’m handsome enough to sit with them as a peer in their domain, but because I was aware that being good looking for a living requires a keen level of self-awareness that’s often fueled by insecurity. Ugly as I am, those models weren’t judging my poorly maintained mug, they were quietly worried about what I thought of theirs. That’s the real secret — reminding yourself that people aren’t judging you from on high, they’re sizing you up to figure out how worried they should be about you judging them. Their job was to have their picture taken, my job was to write a story — they worried about their looks, I worried about my writing, and we didn’t really sweat the rest.
So remember, while you’re worrying about what those folks are thinking of you, they’re worried about what you’re thinking of them, and I’m in the corner, headphones in, hoodie up, pretending none of you are there at all.
And I welcome you to come join me there.
Modified feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force