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Lessons from the Pool – recognizing the limitations of childhood thinking

Last week I went on a two day retreat with 300 other women.  I had a wonderful time and some powerful moments of growth and awareness. Since they were so personal I wasn’t going to share about them but I was strongly encouraged to do it by someone who told me it would be of service to others.   Here is one blinding moment of clarity and light that I experienced.

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When we got to the hotel in the north where we were staying, the pool was open and it seemed almost everyone opted to go in!

I held back for a bit, since I don’t particularly enjoy being in a crowded pool. After a while it thinned out a bit and I went in. I looked around and realized that although there were a lot of women there, they were mostly clustered in groups around the edges of the pool. If I were to swim across the width of the pool, I would mostly be able to do that. So I set off for the other side, and the deep pleasure of swimming surged through me as I sliced through the water. I went back and forth, thinking all the time how amazing it was to be in the water, feeling one with myself and my movement through the water. I haven’t swum in fifteen years and it felt so, so good to be swimming again.

At one point, I thought to myself how nice it was that I can enjoy swimming even though I might not look like a very good swimmer to someone watching. I was feeling good to be fine with myself regardless of what others might think.

And then I got to the end of the lane and someone said to me, “You swim beautifully!” “Thank you”, I said, while I thought “hmm..”  Why is someone in a pool full of women singling me out to tell me how well I swim but my mind is telling me that I’m a sloppy swimmer? Cognitive dissonance.

I was pondering this as I continued my laps, wondering who was right – me or the outside observer?  It’s strange that I had this negative self-assessment as a swimmer when I love swimming and the only feedback I could remember was positive and took place when I was 12. At that time I was assessed in camp to determine what level group I would be in. The instructor, who was a kind of tough drill instructor type woman not given to praise, exclaimed about me: “Wow, she has power!!!”  And almost as an aside added, “But her technique needs a bit of work.”

This women was impressed by me! I always thought back on that comment as a positive memory. So how if I’ve only had positive feedback on my swimming, I wondered, had I somehow internalized that comment to mean I was a lousy swimmer?  When it was clear to me and everyone standing around that she was very impressed?

All of a sudden, I realized that it was ME who gave myself that definition. Me, who found the tiny possibility of negativity in her comment and blew it up larger than life; me, who created that image in my mind of myself. Me, who continued to unquestioningly own that definition three decades later.

‘If my swimming form could use some work, obviously I was a sloppy swimmer,’ I had somehow reasoned. Is that what she said? Was that the truth? No. It wasn’t based on anything in reality. Just my inability as a twelve year old to allow myself to completely accept wholehearted praise for what it was.

“How many other times and in how many other ways have I done this to myself?” I wondered.

As I had that thought, I was suddenly I was so overcome with emotion that I just started crying right there in the pool.

I can’t describe to you the power of that moment, realizing with stark clarity that I had limited myself for so long without even being aware of it.

This wasn’t about my swimming. In my world, how well I do or don’t swim has very little significance.

It was the power of deeply recognizing how our thinking patterns as children carry into adulthood. If unchallenged, they continue to run our lives behind the scenes. I’ve consciously changed so much of the scripting of my younger self, and this has benefited my life enormously. But I never could change this scripting because it wasn’t until that moment that I had a deep gut level realization that this  way of thinking had been a subtle and pervasive part of me.

It can be painful to let the spotlight shine on our inner workings and imperfections, but it can also be so powerful and freeing. For me this was an extremely expansive and illuminating experience, allowing me to start to see and move away from a limitation that was invisible to me until that moment.

And oh – I can now recognize without reservations that I’m a good swimmer and I have been for many, many years.

Avivah

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Pool – recognizing the limitations of childhood thinking

  1. A glimpse to the thoughts that pass all of our minds, 24 hours a day.
    Crazy how you managed to realize how much of an impact our very thoughts contribute to our self worth.

    1. It really is amazing how we all have these programs running constantly in our minds, and we’re usually not even aware of it!

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