On learning to enjoy things

I never really considered myself an athletic person at all. This goes back as far as I can remember, when kindergarten-me was regularly picked last for "casual" games of kickball at recess. Once I was out of school and there were no more mandatory PE classes, this didn't bother me at all. Being athletic simply wasn't a part of my identity, and I was fine with that.

Then, 6 weeks ago, I had surgery and wasn't allowed to work out for a while during recovery. I didn't even realize just how much this was impacting me until a month or so afterwards. I knew I felt out of sorts, but I couldn't put a finger on why. Then, during a particularly rough mental health day I lamented this to my girlfriend and she pointed out that I'd gone from hitting them gym 3+ times a week to basically being completely sedentary. Because I never considered myself an athlete, it had never occurred to me that missing those workouts would negatively impact me. Looking back, I've been doing fairly athletic activities (cycling, rock climbing, powerlifting) regularly for nearly the last decade of my adult life, yet I'd never really thought of them as being important to me until I wasn't allowed to do them for a while.

I think a large part of this is because I never learned to enjoy using my body for things. None of my friends or family were particularly athletic, so I never learned as a child that physical activity could bring me joy. Years of unpleasant experiences in school taught me that physical activity was painful, both physically and emotionally. PE in the schools I went to was all about "the school district says you must do this many chin-ups AND WE WILL YELL AT YOU UNTIL YOU DO THEM" rather than teaching children how to find ways to be active that they enjoyed. In my mind, athletics had always been closer to punishment than enjoyment.

Looking back on things through that lens, I realized just how much of my life had been spent figuring out how to be good at things rather than how to enjoy them. I was good at school, but I didn't like school. I could get "good" enough to pass PE classes but I hated every second of them. Sometimes I got enjoyment as well - there were years when I really loved playing violin in orchestras, but the enjoyment was always secondary to the accomplishments.

It's perhaps harder to recover from burnout when you don't have much experience simply enjoying things. As long as I can remember, my hobbies have always been things that I pushed myself to be better and better at, which inevitably led to them feeling like obligations rather than things I enjoyed until I resented the (self-imposed) obligation so much that I quit. It's not a great pattern, and certainly not one that seems to lend itself well to improving my mental health. In talking about dealing with burnout over this past year, people would often suggest that I do something "just for fun" and it was surprising to me how hard it was to do that.

Something I learned from my girlfriend that has helped is the idea of explicitly giving yourself permission to be bad at something. To deliberately say, this is something that I don't have to be good at, don't have to compete at, this is something that I'm allowed to do just for the sake of enjoying it. It hasn't been an easy adjustment to make, after a couple decades of pushing myself to be competitive at everything I've done. But I've discovered that giving myself room to be bad at some things frees up a lot of mental energy that I can use for the things I really do want to be good at. I spent so much time in my past worrying that if I let myself be bad at anything then I'd end up being bad at everything, but by not giving myself any space to just enjoy things I ended up burning out instead.

When I started powerlifting, I didn't care if I was any good at it. It seemed fun, I hoped it would help my back hurt less, but the idea of me ever being a competitive lifter was laughable, because of my lifelong mental model that I was "not athletic". I assumed that this was never going to be "my thing" and so unconsciously gave myself permission to be bad at it, which ended up allowing me to enjoy it much more than I would have otherwise. Not caring about how "good" I am has freed up mental energy, making lifting a hobby that only energizes me, rather than becoming something that ends up draining energy from me.

I don't know how broadly applicable this advice might be, as everyone has different ways that they motivate and recharge themselves. But overall for me, learning how to explicitly give myself permission to be bad at a couple things has done wonders for letting me actually enjoy them, as well as to be more balanced with how I spend my energy.