Updated: Jan 18
As humans we love being able to put things, including peple, into neat little boxes. Often having two to choose from. You are ether this or that. It is either black or white. This binary-centred pigeonholing seems to apply to every area of life. Children are good or bad, naughty or nice. We are either introverted or extroverted, happy or sad. Life is either high or low.
Having transitioned away from professional sport a good few years ago I have invested a lot of time thinking about myself, my traits, my characteristics, my behaviours. When looking at the factors that underpin success or ‘high performance’ we like to think that these are immutable. That we are motivated, we are organised, we are driven, we are confident, we are physically indestructible. This might be true, but how then can you explain that there are times when we lack confidence, when we don’t have the will power to stop biting our nails, when we are chaotic in our thoughts and actions, when we struggle to motivate ourselves to get out of the door? This is when a binary based foundation – a propensity to pigeon hole ourselves (and others) - starts to crumble.
Further, our identity and character are not just shaped by what we think of ourselves. Increasingly, especially with the rise in social media, we are defined by others. Who we are is less a function of what is within, and much more a reflection of another person’s – even a stranger’s - belief about who and what you are. This varies depending on the audience and the context.
For a long time, I struggled to understand how I could be so motivated in one context, yet not in others. How could I be confident yet also riddled with doubt at other times? How could I be the life and soul of a social gathering, yet desperately crave solitude and need my own space? Why is it that I can have the patience of a saint when racing, but be quick to temper when our daughter draws on the walls with a crayon? And what about the times when I have generosity of spirit, yet also be gripped with envy? How can someone be extraordinary in one area of life, but distinctly ordinary in every other?
And so, faced with these complexities and different and often contradictory sides to my personality, I get confused, frustrated and often berating of myself. it goes something like this. “You are motivated and driven. You’ve won XYZ race. Why on earth can’t you withstand the urge to sit on the sofa and eat crisps instead of doing strength work that you know needs doing?” You’ve let yourself down. You’ve changed. You’ve failed.
But what if I saw myself in a different way? Instead of adopting a binary lens, what if I accepted and not only accepted, embraced the fact that I am a complex, messy interplay of contradictions? And moreover that, whilst I have agency, I am actually a product of my environment. That many of my thoughts, characters, behaviours are not fixed, but mutable and manifest in different ways depending on the world around me – the people, the place, the space that I am in. So perhaps a key influencer of the self is in fact our ability to curate and manipulate an environment with makes constructive behaviours more likely to manifest?
Instead of adopting a good/bad narrative, I try to think of myself as a complex mix of traits and qualities, which might come to the fore in different ways depending on the situation I am in, and the world that I inhabit at that one time. Likewise, I can then define my identity as not singular or narrow, and attached to one specific achievement, but more spacious and informed by that complex array of interests and behaviours.
The key is to develop, hone and apply strategies and tools that enable me to harness the more constructive traits or ways of being; the so-called strengths that facilitate rather than those that hamper or hinder me from pursing a chosen path. Maybe the 'how’ is a subject for a another blog.
Adopting this narrative and perspective has helped me be kinder to myself, accepting that this complex, messy interplay of often contradictory traits is not only normal and natural, but also not fixed; and that it is in this complexity and dynamism that personal brilliance and opportunity lie for all of us.