Role of Ego in the Weightroom

TAGS: thoughts, The Role of the Ego: No Self in the Weight Room, reality, internal vs. external, discipline, Chaz Franke, goals, control, mind, focus

“People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is great irony in considering the term "ego.” This irony is born in the multiplicity the term has given birth to, despite its normal acceptance as a concrete concept. Normally, the ego is something that, when acted upon, becomes a part of us that we protect. It becomes something that we consider to be always present and always constant. And it is this concept of constancy that tends to create a facet of our life that gets stuck, or worse...self-destructive. This leads to isolation, and in the strength sports, injury. The ironic part comes into play when you look at the diversity of the term. If asked, many people would give a totally different definition of the word. Some consider it a part of ourselves that is deluded with its specialness. Some, on the other hand, see it as the balancing point between our extreme morality and our constant search for pleasure. Some even categorize it as a simple sense of self. The fluid nature of the word will be reflected in this writing, for it is not the definition that affects us but our tendency to place this part of ourselves on an unshakable pedestal without investigation.

When reading this article, make sure that you are asking yourself about any part of personality or self that is seen as concrete and unmoving—that is the part of us which is blocking our goals and preventing our freedom. Here we will investigate the role of the ego in the weight room. Through this investigation, we can start the process of freeing ourselves from the habits that have been keeping us grounded for far too long. The ego convinces us of its importance and insults us when we insist on questioning its place. That does not mean that it is under attack in this writing. Through strength training we can invite our ego into our new-found flexibility and fluid nature. Here we are working to discover the way that we can become so open to our experience that we do not need a concrete part of self to protect us from the reality of failure. There is no greater skill than being able to accept failure as an opportunity for learning and to see comparison as completely unnecessary. Here we will embark on the part of the journey that invites our ego to gain a little openness while allowing for new definitions of success and progress.

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Let us start with some ideas of what counts as ego in strength sports. Some are more obvious, such as choosing not to improve upon poor technique that has proven to display "strength" rather than correcting the technique and briefly losing totals. Other times, our ego is slightly more subtle. These are the times when we ignore injury, prevent recovery, or forfeit integrity to sooth a part of us that is afraid of suddenly failing. It is when this aspect of self is present that we create bad habits while denying the reality of the pattern. The initial key to “checking our ego at the door” is not to challenge, attack, or criticize our way into good habits. This has not been an effective course of action in any realm (despite what your former high school coaches would tell you while shouting at you that you were worthless). To be effective, we have to be more empathetic in our planning and approach.

In initializing this approach, let's utilize a trick from my other primary passion: psychotherapy. Many times as humans, our initial approach is to push things away or ignore them. This is how most of us unwittingly create bad habits. A lack of self-awareness is the birthplace of bad habits and self-destructive patterns. A much more fruitful approach is to attempt to identify the initial purpose of the behavior. Our mind is not actively attempting to harm us because it has found a way to turn on us. Our mind actually encourages behaviors in an attempt to be helpful or protective. This is why we begin by trying to find where our specific mindset was created and its initial purpose.

In therapy, all sorts of otherwise harmful behaviors present themselves as helpful guides to protect people from vulnerability, hurt, isolation, and rejection. In the name of being honest, this is usually a good place to start. The application of this process to the strength sports is not as ill-fitting as we would initially like to believe. Many of us have habits in our particular sport that were born out of a fear of rejection, isolation, shame, or vulnerability. I will utilize the sport I am most familiar with to illustrate this point. In Strongman, diversity is the name of the game. In order to be an advanced Strongman, it is important to be comfortable with literally dozens of events.

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The positive side, for our ego, is that in all of those events, we are bound to find something we are good at. The so-called negative side is that we are much more likely to find many events where we show little skill. I have trained with athletes countless times who would find any way possible to keep from having to do an event that would identify a weakness. (I have often been that athlete). These are not moments motivated by the emotionless automatons we were taught to be. These are moments that are motivated by the same part of our mind that would lose sleep over being picked last at recess. If the part of our mind that creates this resistance was born in the annals of our youth, it is not a part of us that is deserving of anger or rejection. It is a part of us that has been awaiting the opportunity to hear that it does not have to be so scared anymore.

Here we come to the point in the process where we can alter this course—where we can refuse to turn to old habits that kept us good at only a few events. We have to develop a dialogue with our ego. We have to learn and develop the ability to see if we are being motivated by goal setting or if we are reacting to some old, ridiculous fear. We are not checking our ego at the door. Instead, we are inviting our ego to learn how to enjoy the moment without its normal rigidity. Upon exploration and process, it is important to ask yourself what it is like to be "you” in the weight room. Reflect on your experience after a contest, a training session, or any time you can find the solitude to be truly contemplative. This will allow you to discover if you were completely in the moment or if you were distracted by the fear of failure or the paralysis that comes from comparison. As the old saying goes, “Compare and Despair.” Upon that reflection, have some questions ready to which you can give a genuine answer.

Did I know my intention for my workout today?

Was I truly present?

Was I true to my genuine nature…or was I acting out of fear?

This opens you up to truly learn how to value the authenticity of the moment without the blasting noise of shame, fear, or completely fabricated competition. Our ego is a part of our mind that creates a story for the experience. The unfortunate truth is that the accuracy of this story is not always complete. The tricky part of a concrete view of self or an overactive ego is that it still has a very centralized view of itself. Therefore, outside of initiating a dialogue of understanding with our ego, we must be prepared to learn how to truly manage reality. This leads us to the next part of our journey...

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In the Sufi tradition, the mind is known as the slayer of the real. It is what gets between us and a true experience of reality. Our mind organizes chaos for us at every turn. Imagine where we would be if someone hooked a harness to us and told us to pull a fire truck and we did not have our trusty prefrontal cortex and hippocampus to identify and organize that this was happening. Without that organization, we would quickly become overwhelmed and struggle to thrive. Where the mind becomes more suspect is when it is overactive in its control. Our mind attempts to have a full working knowledge and control over our surroundings, and it will stop at nothing to create that control. (That is unless we learn how to have a more mindful relationship with our environment).

There are parts of our ego that were born very early in our lives, and there are two major pitfalls to these aspects of self that affect our pursuit of strength. One is often called “Organizing Principles.” Organizing principles are simply the initial way we would have made sense of a difficult or emotional situation. These are the ways that we took otherwise difficult to control information and allowed it to "make sense.” Organizing principles are problematic at times because they were created at a time in which our ego is on full blast. As we develop through our youth, we tend to see the world as being affected by us to a significant degree. We pattern our thoughts based on the idea that everything happening around us has been influenced by us. This is the same mechanism that causes a young child to feel that his/her parents are divorcing because of something he/she did. It is the overpowering nature of the ego that creates these principles and affects their accuracy.

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The second aspect of self that is problematic is this basic egocentricity. This is the part of our mind that convinces us that people really are paying us mind or focused on us. This is the part of our mind that truly believes we are a central tenet in the universe. Do not interpret this as saying that you have to learn that you are nobody or unimportant. This is simply pointing out that any time we start believing that our actions are being scrutinized and noticed to a great extent, that we are most likely in our ego and losing accuracy. This is the number one killer of good programming and training. Any aspect of ourselves that could be this detrimental must have an enormous upside if harnessed.

There is no greater asset in our training than our potential relationship with reality. Our ability to stay present, keep intention, put the work in, and continue on our journey is the greatest skill we could ever develop. Our belief in a concrete version of ourselves, however, slays that reality. Our ego creates a view that we are consistently one thing; therefore, any time we leave that one thing we are "harming ourselves" in one way or another. Fortunately, when we start to practice acceptance, we can learn to create positive and consistent intentions. As we have noted, acceptance is regarded as the ability to tolerate discomfort long enough to find a productive solution. In this case, our tendency to focus on a concrete sense of self is creating our discomfort. We start to believe that if we are not capable of a certain number, then we are failing. Yet, when we accomplish that number, the only flexible part of us becomes the part of us that quickly creates more evidence that we are failing. This is the product of our ego preventing reality. Reality is simply the moment. The moment passes without asking and stays neutral regardless of our controlling nature.

In coping with this need, we find ourselves with an opportunity to create an ally with ourselves. We can create a relationship with ourselves that is stronger than ever. We can suddenly find ourselves befriending this ego and asking it for the opportunity to help with a push towards a goal. We can ask our ego if it would allow for some neutrality in order to create a relationship with the current reality. Finally, we help ourselves see that we do not have to be motivated by fear or shame, and we do not have to protect a view of ourselves that believes there is happiness in an external reality. This becomes our opportunity to see that we were in our own way the entire time, and now we can do something about it.

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What a wonderful relief it is to know that the only barrier to our comfort was ourselves the entire time. The only person worried about whether or not we were strong enough was our own sense of self. Part of us was simply scared of not being enough, and therefore deserves our comfort—not our criticism. That is a true gift. So here is where we truly make gains in our sport—when we allow ourselves to back off on any pressure motivated by our perception of external forces. We simply give in to the reality that this is our own training and competing. It does not belong to anyone else. We can start to see each rep as a chance for growth without responding to the old parts of us that fear that others will think we are not enough. There is no time for those in the short time we have on this earth, and there's even less time in the career of a strength athlete. Let us ask ourselves a final tough question on this topic:

Have I ever pursued a goal in (fill in your particular sport) that was motivated by external forces?

There is a rhetorical nature to this question, but it is important to our growth nonetheless. This is the ego that pursues these goals out of hopes of accolades, recognition, or even simple approval. The ego and the concrete concept of self are simply parts of us that want to be liked and approved, and they have acted in ways thought to be the best possible avenue for that approval. Here is our opportunity to interrupt that process. We can simply see goals as benchmarks without the albatross that is the pursuit of accolades. Accolades and the goals of the ego are fleeting. Our true authentic nature and experiences are limitless, and they are available to us every minute of every training session.

At any moment we can find comfort in the reality that we are present, disciplined, hard-working, flexible, and truly aware. There is no substitute for growing that immense skill set. We can shift to this process of contemplation in our training immediately, and without the weight of fear and ego, we can find new height in our training.

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