Every fitness effort starts from an ember deep within you. Something about the way your body looks and feels doesn’t jive with how you know it should look and feel, and you want to change it. This small ember needs to be stoked into a fire if you want to see results.
There are two approaches to stoking this ember. One is with self-hostility, the other is with self-love.
Hostility-based motivation looks something like the aggressive, no-excuses, get-off-your-ass bootcamp style that you see espoused by a lot of trainers with a tough-guy persona. With this approach, doubts and weakness are ruthlessly exposed and berated. This berating can be done by a third party, or with internal dialogue.
“Look at yourself, you lazy good-for-nothing piece of trash. Lace up those shoes and get to work!”
The mind doesn’t like being called lazy and worthless, and the response to this hostility is anger and aggression. This creates energy in the system which can then be put to use. You say “I’ll show you!” and go knock out a tough workout, that angry ember burning inside the whole time.
This approach is very attractive to a lot of people. Motivational professionals like Jocko Willink and David Goggins have made careers of it. The self-hostility method tends to stoke the ember quickly, like using a bellows to create a big, hot fire. For some people, it’s exactly the slap on the face they need to break out of their habit loops and enter a new phase of fitness.
There are a few major weaknesses with the self-hostility approach however.
First, it’s a very male-oriented training technique. In my experience, young men respond well to it, but it gets diminishing returns with everyone else. That’s why most of the thought leaders in this space are male and often ex-military. For an unsure, confused young man, having someone take away all doubts and give them THE answer is a potent method.
The second weakness is that self-hostility is a dangerous game. Let’s say you’ve been engaging in self-talk along the lines of, “You’re so weak and pathetic, throw away the cookies and stop being such a loser.” This can motivate you to toss the cookies and eat a salad during that moment, but what happens later that week when you’re tempted and have a bite of cookie at a cafe? The implication is “I guess all those horrible things I said about myself were right. I really am a loser.” This creates a lot of internal stress which usually results in unhelpful coping mechanisms that make the fitness situation worse. Self-hostility has little room for error and forgiveness. It works really well, until you slip up and then it doesn’t work much at all.
The third weakness of the hostile approach is that it’s hard to find an off-ramp. Let’s say you’ve berated yourself into losing some fat. You’re looking good and have achieved your goal. But the self-hostile thoughts don’t just turn off, especially if you’ve used them so much that they become habitual neural patterns. The hostility will instead shift to some other part of your life. You could trim even more fat. You could run a mile faster. You could lift more weight. There’s always something to beat yourself up about.
When we started Kenzai, we made a conscious choice to avoid the aggressive, hostile, bootcamp approach. For most people, it doesn’t produce sustainable results and creates a negative vibe for both trainer and trainee.
Instead, we have a philosophy that could be called “big-picture self-love.”
The term self-love comes with a lot of baggage. It sounds like feel-good, new-age hippie lingo. But all it means is that you have the core belief that you’re a good person who’s worthy of love and respect. You aren’t perfect. You make mistakes and missteps. But nothing that you do takes away from the fact that the world is a better place with you in it.
But self-love alone isn’t the solution. If it goes unbridled you can talk yourself into all kinds of trouble. Why not eat the cookie? You deserve it. Why not stay on the sofa all day? You’ve had a tough week and the “loving” thing to do would be to take it easy, right?
This is why self-love needs to be grounded in reality. Your goal as a human is to have a rich life, full of meaningful experiences. True self-love is making choices that allow that to happen. In the moment, having that cookie may feel like self-care, but if it’s your 1000th cookie and you’re carrying so much excess body fat that you can’t comfortably move around, then that cookie is most definitely not an act of self-love. In the same way, if sitting on the couch and binging Netflix leaves you feeling lethargic, groggy and depressed, then it wasn’t the right, loving choice.
Big picture self-love sometimes means doing things you don’t like to do. You need to eat right, you need to exercise, and you need to stick with it for long periods of time. On any given day this can be a major bummer, but through it all you keep the larger perspective in mind. Yes, a cookie would be nice, but you have bigger self-love goals in mind. You want energy and vitality. You want to keep up with the kids. You want to say “yes” to hikes and outdoor adventures. You want to look in the mirror and see a strong, trim body that matches your internal image of yourself. You want to do your part to be free of disease and have a long, healthy life.
Approaching wellness in this way leads to sustainable results and less neuroses around fitness. It might not be the hot, fiery flash of self-hostility, but it allows you to cultivate that ember of change into a steady fire that will light the way for years to come.
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder