Becoming Strong Again

This week, I’ve decided to take a break from the gym. As I write this post I’m eating a hearty breakfast and not feeling guilty about it, even if I did eat two-thirds of a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, by myself, after work last night (bless my parents, who surprised me after a month of daily donut cravings).

And I feel good. I’m feeling calm, content and no anxiety to ‘compensate’ for indulging: a state of being which I wouldn’t have imagined possible a mere three weeks ago.

Because three weeks ago, things were very different. After coming home from Brazil, I was itching to do a lot of things I’d wished to do during our last month of routine-less travel: I wanted to try ‘tracking my macros’ as I’d seen people do online, I wanted to go to the gym on a regular schedule, and I just wanted to feel more comfortable in my own skin.

There’s a really powerful Sylvia Plath quote that goes as follows:

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at once, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

In a nutshell, I’m pretty damn neurotic when it comes to my body. Sometimes I think I don’t have enough muscle (which is somewhat true — I don’t have much of it), in which case I want to build myself up. But at other times I think I’m too ‘big’ and wonder if that’s why I can’t see the (non-existent) muscle to begin with. And so I cut myself down.

At the beginning of the summer, I was in the ‘cut myself down’ kinda mood. Like really, really intensely in that mood. And being the kind of person who is very goal-oriented, I gave myself a numbers-based goal to reach before I started college.

And thus began a process that, although regretful, has led me to where I am today.

In the beginning, I used macros as a fun tool that helped me great creative. I’d come up with different recipes and foods that I liked making and I’d know all about their macronutrient content. Going to the gym was something I genuinely enjoyed, and craved — there’s something wonderful about the endorphins that come when you move a lot and lift heavy things, and the calm you feel after you’re done.

I continued doing pretty much the same thing, sans the macro counting, when I got to Korea. The macros were gone not because I wanted to stop tracking, but rather because I couldn’t when the weighing scale was on a boat heading my way. I continued to mentally count calories and macronutrients however, and also experimented with something called ‘intermittent fasting’: I wouldn’t eat either breakfast or dinner to make sure I was falling into the ‘calorie range’ for my ‘goal’.

When the weighing scale arrived, the macros continued. When I ate communal Korean-style meals with my parents, I’d weigh out my banchan (side dishes) separately and get overly worked up about my bowl of rice. Sometimes my parents would start eating without me as I took too long to measure and track everything to the gram. Whenever I ate out I would always mentally calculate my macronutrients and calories, which meant that whenever I was eating something deemed too ‘calorie dense’ I’d get anxious and lose my appetite. The worst part was when I was eating with friends and family who mean a lot to me — I couldn’t bear the idea of not being emotionally and mentally present for a loved one because my mind space was too occupied by food anxiety.

Yup. The family contrast is real. (And not worth it, unless I’m really craving something fresh.)

Throughout it all, I was working out at the gym 4-5 times a week. In the beginning it was really great to get my body moving, but at one point I began to get, well, bored. And easily tired. I’d get dizzy whilst lifting weights lighter than what I’d lifted before, and I wouldn’t feel too good afterwards. I continued this all while struggling constantly with food-related anxieties, and the combination of the two just hit me one day — quite like a truck, one might say — and I realized that I was doing something very, very unhealthy.

I thought that a condition for me to ‘grow tough skin’ was to endure a demanding physical and mental process to help me reach an ideal goal. But I realized that regardless of how I looked, I’d always find something I wanted to change about myself. Part of it is because I am image-conscious, but I believe it goes deeper than that. As someone who’s a stickler for control, I wanted to prove to myself that there was one pillar in my life I could have total control over. Throughout the whirlwind of the transition to Korea, fitness and nutrition were two things that I knew how to tailor and tailor well.

Having this realization was perhaps the biggest eureka moment of my summer. I understood, for the first time, that the most beneficial thing was not to exercise discipline, but to let go of it. What would make me happy with my body — an ultimate goal — was not reaching a certain ‘look’, but rather not worrying about how I look at all. Eating intuitively as opposed to eating with anxiety. Working out because I want to, not because I ‘have’ to. If I could achieve this as a homeostasis of sorts, my default way of being, I knew I’d be a lot more content to be who I am — and not feel the need to always be ‘fixed’.

Besides, feeling terrible for the sake of looking good is really just not worth it. 

So for the past three weeks, I’ve been trying to achieve a greater sense of balance. I’ve used a food measuring scale maybe once. Bathroom scale? Never. I’ve eaten out as much as I wanted to, and I’ve let myself eat whatever and whenever. I decided to take advantage of the renovation happening at my apartment gym and take a week off.

Sure, some things are difficult: there are times when I get antsy because I feel like I’m missing something. Sometimes I still feel a little guilty after eating too much of something, or eating really late at night after I finish work. Calorie counts still filter in and out of my head, and I sometimes worry about whether or not my fitness journey — something that gives me a large sense of purpose — has pretty much come to a dead end.

But when I look at the big picture, I know I’m on the right track. This is the healthy, motivating goal I needed all along. When I went to visit my aunt in Gyeongju, food played a big part of our reunion — and I enjoyed all of it whilst being completely present for her and her husband and her beautiful home (not to mention, her adorable dogs). I’ve been going out to see friends for dinners or lunches where I’ve been focusing more on conversations and generally having a really good time.

My aunt, my uncle and their dog Hun at their local bingsu (shaved ice dessert) spot! It was delicious!

However quixotic this may sound, I think I’m becoming better at treating myself like I treat others. I’m a lot more patient with myself than I was before: one stressful evening, after eating a lot more snacks than I anticipated, I just told myself you should rest, cleaned up, promptly went to bed, and woke up the next morning and continued on as usual. In the past, this ‘slip-up’ would’ve left me paralyzed with guilt and the need to compensate for my lack of self-control. This time, however, I felt a strange, yet welcome, sense of calm. I knew that worrying about things wouldn’t make anything better — and that ultimately, my goal was to treat my body fairly. In this circumstance, I knew that I was going through a lot of stress and that my body was probably very, very tired, and for that reason I made a mental effort to not compensate, to not fast or go to the gym, and just be. 

Being is both physically and mentally liberating. After many, many years of struggling with food and body image, I know it’s time that I stop beating myself up for something that’s actually quite insignificant. The only significant part is the root of it all: the need for control. This is something I’m still struggling with, but by cutting off one unhealthy habit at a time I hope I’ll eventually get better.

I know that there are lots of people out there who can relate. And if you’re one of them, I just want to say this: that being interested in your health and fitness is great, but you should be wary of when you grow fatigued, unmotivated, and feel not-so-optimal. Remember, your health — both physical and mental — come first. You have the rest of your life to work hard on whatever goals you may have, but what matters before it all is getting into a healthy head-space that’ll make the process sustainable. We can do it together. 🙂


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