Amazing stuff, muscle tissue. Work it to the point where it’s hard-pressed to go any further, and it responds by repairing itself and getting more powerful. Like our minds, hearts and spirits, our bodies feel best and happiest when they are being challenged to grow and get stronger, not when they are atrophying from disuse.
OK, sure, after a particularly grueling workout or challenging new adventure, we may complain a little about stiff, sore muscles, but nothing beats the feeling of hypertrophy — that feeling of being reminded, with each movement, that we actually did something at the edge of our abilities, and that our bodies rose to the occasion to help us do something bigger and better than we could do before.
The temporarily tender sensation that results from such efforts is, in my view, the confirming sensation of being alive, active, engaged. It hurts good. It’s easy to forget, though, when we’re not fully engaged in one or more parts of our lives (physical, emotional, creative, social), what that “sore muscle” sensation feels like.
Both literally and figuratively, if we go long enough without making muscle — that is, without challenging ourselves to learn and grow in some way — we risk a disconnection with those parts of ourselves that naturally yearn to stretch, explore and evolve. And very often, that disconnection manifests as boredom, apathy, depression — or, perhaps worse, as addiction and destructive thrill
With self-challenge, as with most things, moderation counts for a lot.
Type A personalities like me tend to challenge themselves in every waking moment, and we often ignore the signs of fatigue. This, too, can lead to all kinds of problems, from burnout to back pain. For inveterate overdoers, the real challenge lies in knowing when to stop — or at least when to ease up, reflect, and maybe just smell the roses now and then.
Getting too caught up in an unconscious, competitive, perfectionist frenzy has the potential to rip apart our health and our relationships and to leave behind a wake of destruction. I liken this to a muscle worked too hard and too frequently, one that never has a chance to fully repair itself and thus never achieves its full potential.
If you fall somewhere between these two extremes, or alternate between them, you’ve probably experienced the beneficial results of finding the self-challenge sweet spot and the decidedly unsatisfying results of both atrophy and overuse. And that’s the way it should be. Life, they say, is for learning, and as long as we’re getting wiser from our experiments and mistakes, it’s probably best to be gentle with ourselves about the bloopers of the past.
When it comes to considering your present and future, however, it’s important to remember that nothing of greatness was ever achieved without a certain amount of challenge. Even those inventors and artists who say that their best ideas came in an effortless flash of inspiration still had to develop the skills and creative awareness required to capture those ideas when they came.
If you’re a person for whom hardcore ambition, motivation and self-challenge don’t come naturally, that’s fine. Goodness knows, a world made up exclusively of Type A individuals would be a scary place. Just keep in mind that even laid-back personalities can experience deep satisfaction from pursuing meaningful goals and challenging themselves in the ways that feel right to them. While they may not live for that “sore muscle” feeling the way we Type A folks do, so-called Type Bs may actually experience it more richly — particularly if the sensation triggers a deeper sense of self-awareness.
Whatever your personality type, and whatever your chosen area of challenge, if you want some help defining goals and priorities that are meaningful to you (or if the resolutions you set back in January just aren’t cutting it), I suggest you spend some time with this issue, and then check out the Resolution Workshops archived here at experiencelife.com. We’re already halfway through the year, after all, and there’s no time like the present.