The Pernicious Appeal of Wanting to Quit

This post is part of my effort to tell the story of my recent health journey.

In the interest of full disclosure, getting myself back to health wasn’t as straightforward or as easy as my last posts make it sound. I faced crises on the path—several, actually, at several points in the process. Maybe it would help to share one of those crises here.

The following is something I wrote two-and-half years ago, about a month after I’d started going to the gym on a regular basis. I’d spent the previous few years slowly reversing my inertia of inactivity and had finally reached a point that going to the gym for more serious exercise was something I genuinely wanted to do.

Even then, even with all my new motivation to get healthy, I still found myself close to giving up…

It was inevitable that I’d reach this point. Every time in the past two decades that I’ve joined a gym or attempted to maintain an ongoing exercise regimen, I’ve always hit a point where I just want to quit. Sometimes, it happened after a couple months; more often, it happened after only a couple of weeks.

Every time I’ve hit this point in the past two decades, I’ve quit. I’ve been swimming 3 days a week at the gym for the past few weeks now and I want to quit.

I resent the time and effort I have to put into it. I’ve never really seen exercise as time to myself—it feels too much like an obligation, something I have to do whether I like it or not. I see it as something that takes away from my me-time.

Exercising embarrasses me, to be honest. Right now, I can barely manage 10 lengths of a 25 meter pool (5 laps)—walking some of that distance, too, I’m not even swimming it all—and it takes me almost 15 minutes because I have to stop and rest so often. It makes me ashamed. I don’t care what other people at gym think of me, as they watch me pathetically flail around in the water and gasp for breath, but it means that I have no choice but to be completely aware of just how out of shape I am right now. Even with all the progress I’ve made over the past few years, I’m still horribly out of shape. It makes me sad. It’s frustrating.

Overwhelmingly, though, it’s the fear of doing this. I’m not sure why doing this scares me. I can’t honestly say that it’s not a fear of failure, and I can’t honestly say that it’s not a fear of success. It’s just that getting back in shape is big thing to do—it requires massive lifestyle changes, and big things are just plain scary.

  • The easiest way for me to not resent the time and energy sacrificed for exercise is to not exercise.
  • The easiest way for me to not be embarrassed and sad about my state of health is to ignore it.
  • The easiest way for me to not be afraid is to stop doing the thing that scares me.

And all of those are the most pathetic excuses I’ve ever heard. I need to change the way I think of it:

  • The time I spend in the pool, lifting weights, stretching, walking is some of the best time I can spend with myself. This is me-time.
  • The only way to guarantee that I won’t ever need to be ashamed or sad about the state of my physical well-being is to get myself fit again.
  • The best way to stop being afraid is to do the thing that scares me and learn that it’s really not that bad. And even if it is, I can choose not to let it stop me.

I know I’m not going to quit this time. I don’t exactly know how I’m not going to quit, I can’t actually see the path I’ll take to not quit—but I know I won’t.

I have faith in myself now, and that feels really good. This faith is what I’ve built over the past few years of work.

Honestly, all those years spent doing mindless hourly wage desk-jockey office temp work helps here, too. It trained me that sometimes you have do stuff even if you don’t want to. There’s no trick, really—you just… do it. Or, maybe more accurately, you just… don’t let yourself not do it. You make it so you don’t have a choice.

You have a job to do, so you buckle down and do it.

This wasn’t the first such crisis I had on my health journey, and it certainly wasn’t the last. I’ve learned that it’s normal to feel this way sometimes.

Every single person you see who manages to maintain an ongoing health and fitness regimen, everyone you know who has successfully managed to improve their health—every one of these people has faced crises just like this, more than once, along their path.

Every one of them has wanted to quit.

Success means that you don’t quit. It doesn’t mean that you won’t want to.

It’s a tricky thing, though—merely wanting to quit feels like a failure. Wanting to quit makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Those feelings—failure, wrongness—are the things that are most likely to make you quit.

Wanting to quit isn’t what makes you quit. The belief that wanting to quit means you’ve already failed in some way is what makes you quit.

Know this: Everyone wants to quit sometimes.

It’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to quit. The most successful people probably want to quit more often than anyone else. You haven’t failed if you find yourself wanting to quit.

Just don’t quit.

(And if you do quit, please don’t beat yourself up about it. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It probably just means you tried to step up your regimen too soon. Beating yourself up about it will only make it harder to get back up and try it again later.)

* FYI—I ended up switching from swimming to stationary bike shortly after I had this crisis. I got swimmer’s shoulder. I’ve had issues with recurring tendonitis in my arms (a legacy of my years of manual labor in the theatrical arts) so I couldn’t risk doing permanent damage. I don’t know how many laps of the pool I could do now, but I can say that I’ve managed to sustain and average of 20 mph for a full half hour on the bike a few times. I just kept at it—slow and steady—and things got better.

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