Eye of the Beholder

I had two unexpected experiences today that have left me feeling a little inspired to share.  Two totally different people, at different locations, came up to me and chose to share their impressions.  The first person approached me while I was warming up a little bit, waiting for a friend. I wasn’t doing anything particularly ‘interesting’, but she asked me if I’m able and willing to do personal training because – to put it the way she put it – she wanted to ‘look like me’.  ‘Strong, and fit’. Sadly, I’m nowhere near having any of the necessary credentials for something like that, but I was really surprised and – yes – flattered by her honesty.  I pointed her in the right direction for finding someone who *can* help her achieve her goals, and we parted ways.

The second encounter was similar.  A man approached my friend and I while she was taking pictures for me and stuck up a conversation (initially about photography).  When he realized I was doing parkour, his face lit up and he suddenly got super excited. He said he hadn’t seen anyone doing it since he’d lived in France, and asked if he could stay and watch.  I told him he was very welcome to, but warned him to not get his expectations up too high, because I’m not ‘particularly good at it yet’. I continued doing what I was doing and experimenting with this new spot I recently found and, again, to my surprise, he was wildly enthusiastic.  I really didn’t think the vast majority of what I was doing was really all that impressive as far as it goes and was honestly surprised by his reaction. He stayed with us the entire time, chatted with us, and cheered me on as I conquered a particularly intimidating jump. He was legitimately impressed by all of these things that I, myself, perceive as ‘basic’ and ‘unimpressive’.

Those encounters have stuck with me through the entire rest of the day, and as my evening draws to a close, I’ve had to sit down and think, not about why these two people reacted as >they< did, but why >I< reacted as >I< did.  Why was I so surprised to receive such genuinely positive feedback from total strangers? I know I’ve gained pretty tremendous amounts of strength in the last year. I can absolutely see that, and it does make me feel really, really good.  But I often still think of myself as being kind of ‘bottom rung’ as far as other traceurs go. There’s a lot that I still haven’t achieved that I, and probably at least some others, consider to be pretty basic stuff and I’m sometimes [literally] painfully aware of where my strength limits are.  But that one woman’s willingness to step forward and point out how much my hard work visibly shows did a great job of reminding me how far I’ve already come, and to maybe take a second look at myself and my current achievements. And that one man’s open admiration did an even better job of pointing out that I need to re-calibrate my perspective on my current skill set and abilities.

I regularly train (in both parkour AND rapier) with and around a whole lot of people who are significantly more advanced than I am.  Sometimes dramatically so. When I wake up in the morning and check my social media feeds, I nearly drown in a torrent of beautiful, professional stunt-grade runs, flips, and tricking sequences.  Meanwhile, I have yet to actually land a front flip as an adult and haven’t actually ever achieved a ‘proper’ climb-up (one that comes from a hang, rather than a running pop up). I’m also still struggling to get up most walls taller than me when there isn’t something else present for me to jump or tac off of.  Where rapier is concerned; I’ve never been even vaguely close to winning any tournaments, and I’ve been doing that for FIVE YEARS. But surely I HAVE made progress. I must have. Right? The progress is a lot harder to pinpoint with rapier, but with parkour it’s extremely obvious. It’s obvious every time you master a new movement, or achieve a challenge you couldn’t navigate before.  So why did today’s encounters surprise me?

Some of it is, I think, a matter of my own personal inner dialog.  I’m still struggling to break free from undermining self-talk that wants me to believe that whatever I’m doing isn’t [good] enough.  It isn’t enough unless it’s 200% and perfect. It’s not that I think >I’m< perfect, just that I’ve been hardwired to believe I >have< to be.  But there’s something else at play here, too. My local SCA rapier friends and I call it the ‘White Scarf effect’. It’s the distortion of one’s own perspective and self-image that inevitably occurs when we consistently practice and train something – anything at all – around other people who are significantly more advanced than we are.  If all we see around us is how much ‘better’ everyone else is, we’ll inevitably begin to think of ourselves as inferior. We start to forget, or even lose the ability to see how far we’ve come. We >feel< as though we must be doing poorly, because everyone else is already so very much better. If that line of thought sinks in far enough, it might start to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which I can personally confirm leads to absolutely nothing other than frustration.  That’s what caused me to burn out and withdraw from rapier. I’ve now learned that I’m a person who needs to be able to clearly see my own progress. I need there to be benchmarks and, occasionally, moments like today that remind me to check my self-criticism meter for proper calibration. My parkour skills might not be competition, or even YouTube-worthy, but when viewed from the outside by people who can more easily look on them without a judgmental eye, it’s sometimes still pretty impressive.

So, if you’re reading this and find that any of what I’ve written here sounds familiar, take a moment to think about how much context matters.  You might think you’re terrible at something, but reflect for a moment on where you started, about the challenges you’ve faced or are still facing, and about the things you >have< achieved.  If you see someone else doing something you think is really cool, or impressive, or just generally awesome – particularly if it’s a trained skill – consider letting them know! Your positive reinforcement might just be the boost of validation that person needs.

Today it put just the right amount of wind beneath my wings and helped me crush a boundary.

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