How a Barbell Helped Me Confront the Harsh Voice Inside my Head

Relaxation

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” ~Elbert Hubbard

I’m breathing fast; my heart rate is off the scale. I close my eyes and try to fill my lungs with air. My pulse starts slowing down.

Still forty seconds of rest left, my timekeeper shows. A single drop of sweat is running down my back, tickling me. I open my eyes again and drink a sip of lukewarm water, then I get ready for the next series.

Six down, four to go. This is a good day, I think while watching the seconds pass.

They called me gifted when I was a kid, but it often felt more like a curse because I never believed a single good word people said about me. It was imposter syndrome at its finest, because it was rooted in me since childhood. 

I didn’t just get good grades in primary school; I got straight A’s. I remember my English teacher telling my mom that I was the daughter everyone dreamed to have. Mom shrugged it off and answered that that was not the case.

In a way, I’m grateful that my parents were never particularly impressed by my performances. Otherwise, they would have probably pushed me until I broke down, or inflated my ego and made matters worse. Instead, they were just perplexed by a kid that seemed to effortlessly excel.

And that was what confused me. Even at seven years old, it was clear to me that I did not need to put in so much effort to reach those accomplishments.

I was critical toward my own schoolwork. Sometimes, I could spot imperfections in the assignments I turned in, but the teachers would either not notice or give me the highest possible grade all the same, because the work was already off the scale with respect to the rest of the class. I started to feel like a fraud, and any time I tried to point out that I wasn’t that good, my words were mistaken for modesty, or even worse, humble brag.

In a sense, I was right: the game was rigged. I knew nothing about the subtleties of the school grading system. To me, an A was not a judgement of the work I had done compared to my classmates, or to the average level of someone my age.

To me, an A just meant perfect, and I knew that wasn’t me. That made me grow wary of the compliments and trophies. I felt like they were not demanding enough of me.

On the other hand, an ever-growing fear was starting to quench my thirst for knowledge. When your entire personality is based on a vague ability to give the correct answer to random questions, you start to dread the day you’ll be asked a question you don’t know the answer to.

But see, this is a lose-lose situation. Because every time I managed to stand out without putting in much effort, I just thought the assignment was too simple to deserve such praise. And every time it wasn’t, and I really needed to do my best and then some, I started to think that I couldn’t be as gifted as they said, because otherwise that would not have been so hard.

I know that my words sound pretentious to most. I can only imagine how hideous I sound to all the people who spent their afternoons studying as kids, and their families who had to pay for tutoring and extra help, only for their kids to barely reach a passing grade. The achievements I’m dismissing are the ones they so intensely yearned for.

My classmates never believed me when I told them that I admired them as much as they admired me. That they were better than me in so many things. And they really were.

To complete the painful stereotype of the teacher’s pet, I was a shy, goofy, chubby kid. I had few friends and even fewer hobbies. While I was home reading, expanding my vocabulary, and translating foreign song lyrics to kill the time and to appease my curiosity, they played football, took part in summer camps, and went out for dinner and on holidays with their families.

Later on, they learned to drive a car and french kiss, while I felt even clumsier and avoided parties. But no one put grades on those life skills, so they kept being envious of me for the only thing I was good at.

Then came the university, and the only thing I was good at got hard. Turns out you’re not that gifted after all, the voice in my head gloated. See, we were right to doubt it from the start.

I managed to get my physics degree, but it cost me every single ounce of the scarce supply of self-confidence I’d put together during all those years. So, there I was, feeling even worse: studying was all I was able to do, and yet I had struggled with calculus. Definitely not the daughter anyone would want, Mrs. English teacher.

That was the idea I had of myself when I first stepped foot in my boyfriend’s home gym at twenty-eight. An imposter, with the constant fear of getting busted. A perfectionist, with no confidence in her body and mind.

I’d never lifted a single weight before in my life, and I would never even have considered trying, if it weren’t for that boy who seemed so determined to believe in me. We’d been together for a couple months. I didn’t want him to give up his daily workouts, but I also wanted to spend every waking minute with him, so the best arrangement was for me to find something to do in that scary place.

Flash-forward to a few months later, and weightlifting had already become my drug of election. I had unsuccessfully tried meditation before, and this was the closest thing I could find. The repetitions, the short recovery intervals between sets, the regularity and simple logic of it all were like fresh water for my brain, abused by years of harsh thoughts and self-doubt that had left their mark like a burning scar.

There’s no thinking when you’re under the barbell: you need to focus on the movements, the range, the technique, and the strain. To be able to assess the right amount of discomfort, the effort that leads to growth and not to damage. You need to be in the present moment completely.

Leg day was a whole different story. While all the other training sessions seemed to be just fine, this one I could not handle.

Glutes and quads are big muscles, and they need a heavier weight to be properly stimulated. The whole body has to engage in the movement, and when you reach the bottom of your squat, just for a moment, you feel you’re not sure you’ll be able to get up again. You have to gather all your strength and focus on your breathing in order to bring that weight back up.

You have to trust your body to do it, and trust your spotter or rack to support you if you can’t. You have to come to terms with the feeling of your legs burning and your heart racing, and remind yourself that the air is there, that you’re not going to asphyxiate. At least, that’s what I felt.

I protested every time my boyfriend added another plate on my barbell.

“It’s too heavy. I won’t be able to lift it up.”

“You will. I’m here to help you.”

“What if I can’t lift it up?”

“Then don’t. Just let it fall to the ground.”

“But what’s the point in trying if I already know I can’t do that?”

“Don’t you get it? You’re supposed to fail. That’s how your body learns. That’s how you’ll be able to do one more rep next time.”

I had been terrified of failing all my life. But now, someone was telling me that he would love me all the same if I let go. That it was okay to let go.

Even if it was only a stupid iron bar on my shoulders, it felt like all the weight I’d always carried with me. The weight of perfection, of praises I never thought I deserved, of achievements I’d never been proud of. I could just let it fall to the ground.

I cried. A lot. I cried during sets; I cried in between sets.

I cried because I was afraid to fall and be crushed under the weight of the barbell—although my boyfriend was there to help me all the time, and the weighted barbell was not even heavy enough to harm me. I cried because I felt there was no air to breathe—although he had taught me to move slowly, to pause every time I needed to. I cried because I felt weak and miserable, and at some point, I cried just because I felt like crying.

He was worried about me.

“If it makes you feel so bad, you can just give it up.”

I had never been one to push through hardships, because to me it was all about being good straight away or not good enough, but this was something I didn’t want to lose. I liked how I felt after completing the workout. I liked how I felt when the weight I had not been able to lift two weeks before suddenly became lighter, and I could add another small plate.

It wasn’t even about losing weight or being toned or impressing my boyfriend—it was about that feeling I had been chasing all my life: the feeling of not making it. It was the thing I had always feared the most, and now I could look it straight in the eyes, and finally find out that nothing happens if you fail.

Just like a kid learning to walk, I needed to let the barbell fall again and again and again and see that the world wouldn’t stop spinning on its axis if I failed. That I had permission to try again next time, and improve. Most of all, I needed to see that he would still want to love me, even when I was messy and tearful, even when I was weak.

“Have you seen it? I made it!”

“Why are you so surprised? Didn’t you expect to grow stronger?”

No, I didn’t. I wasn’t familiar with progress and improvement, just with failure and shame, as opposed to instant success I never truly enjoyed.

And slowly, slowly, the voice in my head started to sound different. A feeble light began to filter through the cracks, among all the petty and cruel things I whispered to myself. A light that sounded just like him, that rooted for me instead of working against me.

For the first time in my life, I was actually proud of me—and it had nothing to do with how much I could lift, or how much weight I’d lost, or how much better I looked. It had never had nothing to do with results and praises and accomplishments, after all. It had to do with patience and perseverance, with the confidence to suck it up and show up, even though it scared me, every single week.

And to know when not to show up and give my body the rest it needed, without feeling like a loser. To learn that I could skip a workout if I was ill, or tired, or too busy, and the barbell would still be there for me the following week. To learn to cheer myself up, instead of bringing myself down.

To do it, even though I was not strong enough, until I finally was.

Three years later, I married that boy—and the topper on our wedding cake had the shape of two little guys under a barbell.

About Federica Minozzi

Federica Minozzi lives in Italy. She is a physicist and teaches mathematics and physics in high school. She is also passionate about science education and communication, weightlifting, writing, learning and teaching languages, and self-development. She is looking for opportunities to become a freelance writer.

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