There was a book sale at the local library a couple weeks back, and amidst the stacks an old book caught my attention. Not like really, old, but like mid 90’s old. The title of the book is When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. A book about Perfectionism. Even though this book is almost as old as me, I think it is extremely relevant today, especially in regards to health, fitness, and appearance. But first, what the frig is perfectionism anyway?
Perfectionism is a term we toss around a lot. We often describe people who are exceptionally driven, motivated, and hold high standards for themselves as perfectionists. “Becky got an A+ again, omg she’s such a perfectionist”. Now you may also think, well aren’t all successful people perfectionists? I would say yes. But, like with most things, the positive or negative influence of perfectionism lies on a bell-curve, or a spectrum. This means that not enough perfectionism results in very little getting done, and conversely, too much perfectionism can also lead to very little getting done, and a whole lot of mental stress/anxiety/depression. So, let’s just say that a healthy dose of perfectionism is beneficial and that most successful people lie somewhere on the spectrum, but too much is not good.
However, the point of this post is not to discuss or determine how much perfectionism is good or bad, but rather I want to share a term that popped up in the book that is extremely relevant to the world of fitness in general, a large reason why I deleted instagram, and something that pops up weekly in my coaching.
The term is Filtering. This is not filtering as in what hipsters do to their coffee, or what I do to my facebook feed during elections. This is filtering of relevant information to better support a self created narrative about oneself. That was kind of wordy… so it could also be described as focusing on/amplifying the negative while ignoring the good about oneself or performance. I see this all the time with my remote coaching clients, and can also frequently recognize this behaviour in myself. Filtering usually pops up in the comments section when clients send in their results, and often during testing week.
Here is an example of filtering….
Becky, who has been lifting for three years, has been following a new template for 3 months and has seen a consistent increase in her weights while training throughout that period. After a de-load period she goes through a test week. She tested five main lifts and saw an increase in three out of five lifts. As a coach, since she is no longer a beginner, 3/5 is pretty great, and I'd be happy. But, as far as Becky is concerned...
Rather than being proud of herself and happy that she increased her ability on three main lifts, she instead is distraught and wonders why she is still weak because all she can see is that she didn’t improve on two of the lifts.
“Why can’t I get any stronger” “Maybe I’m just not meant to be strong” “I need to train more” “If I am not always getting better why do I do it at all?” "Stacey did "x" and she got stronger, maybe I need that"
Even though her 1 rep max didn’t improve on one of the lifts, during the template her load at 3 and 5 rep sets increased significantly. But, Becky is choosing to focus on the negative and not the positive, and filtering out the good, and amplifying the bad.
It is really too bad that this is so common in fitness because the chances of a person always improving across all domains for years and years, is extremely unrealistic. In the world of Crossfit where there are umpteen things to be good at, you are really setting yourself up for mental disaster if you think that you can work towards a 300# Clean, a 500# Deadlift, 20 Unbroken Muscle-Ups, a 6:30 2K row, and 3:05 Marathon, all at the same time. I don’t think its a bad comparison to say that you will get similar results trying to learn 5 languages at the same time. You’ll know very little about five languages. Further to the point is that the longer you train the less likely it is that you’ll improve at anything unless you are also willing to increase the amount of time you spend on training/recovery/nutrition, etc.
So, to the Becky's of the world, please give yourself at least equal credit for the improvements you do make, and not allow yourself to define yourself based on your shortcomings alone. Having said that, I understand that this is a lot easier said, than done.
Personally I have done a lot of filtering in my life as well. In relationships, interactions, and performance in general, I have trouble giving myself a pat on the back. I know at least one other person struggles with this too (Becky), and it is my suspicion that we aren't the only two people doing this to ourselves. This topic has been rather poignant on a personal level lately and I have experience some synchronicity around this topic. While camping a couple weekends ago, I had an epiphany, and then just yesterday I read about filtering in the book. I won’t belabour the details but this teeny tiny insight has had me feeling a lot better about my life since.
I realized that for the past few years, on average, my narrative has been one of underachieving. I am always thinking/feeling that I am never doing enough, or fast enough, or consistent enough, or good enough, etc. This happens no matter what I achieve, etc. A good few years before, I always felt like I was overachieving. I felt I was always doing more than I was meant to, playing higher levels of sports than I should, doing better in school than I should, dating prettier girls than I should, etc. So, did my actual performance change (realistically very little and if anything I am doing much better in life now), or did my filtering change?
I’d say its the latter. I have been giving more attention to the hardships and shortcomings in my life, while ignoring all the great things about my life and what I do. And also, when did I suddenly become such an exemplary person that any achievement I make is expected/routine and not earned? Why is Becky upset about not being able to do something she has never done in her life before (If you've never back squatted a weight, or only have back squatted it a couple times, why would you expect to be able to do it at all? These are strange and harmful mental gymnastics that need to be checked. It is a lot more fun going through life overachieving than underachieving.
By simply returning my narrative from one of underachieving to overachieving I felt a great sense of relief about my path in life. Maybe instead of letting instagram decide what you should be able to do, or some ex-military prick from California, perhaps look at what you have actually done in life, and aim for just above that, reach that, and then look to the next level. That way you are going to be chipping away at realistic goals, can be proud of your progress, and don’t get stuck filtering out the good, and chronically underachieving.
And let's be honest, this time of year in Saskatchewan, Norway, and Nunavut, with the darkness staying longer in the morning and coming earlier in the night, it is easier for our thoughts to also become a little darker as well. With that in mind its important to keep those thoughts in check, or at least be aware of them. Heck, if you get up at 7:00 am in the pitch black, put on pants, brave -20 and below weather, and make it to work, then I'd say you already overachieved that day deserve a pat on the back. ;)
Seneca Strength (formerly known as Grit Human Performance, more on that later*)