The first thing that sends many people to the gym is feelings of insecurity. Whether the goal is to get bigger or to get smaller, something is telling us that we’re not good enough as we are and only by changing ourselves can we become better.
In general, this characterizes extrinsic motivation, or motivation that starts outside of ourselves, like with a friend or family-member’s comment, a billboard or other advertisement, or the physical appearance of an admired public figure.
There is nothing wrong with this thought process on the face of it. It happens to be true that improvement is a form of change; therefore, it can only come with change, just as a fear can only be overcome by facing it, whether in increments or all at once.
The question is, then, how to maintain the improvement so that it becomes a part of you: the gym habit, the healthier diet, the better overall outlook. Most of us have experienced this firsthand; no matter how much we know we SHOULD do a thing, we watch ourselves not doing it, from time to time and then, regrettably, for indefinite periods.
It is a distressing feeling, but the emotional burden can be ameliorated with another feeling, one that should always accompany it: acceptance.
To me, acceptance is more than just the act of acknowledging something. It also involves the ability to move on from that thing, to move forward towards a goal.
In the context of deviating from an exercise habit, then, acceptance is acknowledging that you slipped up on your original plan, but also deciding that you’re going to continue towards the goal for which the plan was conceived, or at least a version of it, regardless of this shortcoming.
In other words, you learn about yourself from it and use that information as a reason to move forward, and this time more wisely, rather than as an excuse to give up.
Perhaps, in analyzing the source of the slip-up, you realize that your original goal and plan were unrealistic or poorly conceived. Perhaps they were created for someone else with different goals, or at a different level of knowledge. Perhaps too many other things in your life were in flux for you to readily sustain a big life change, and some of those things need to be at least partially dealt with first.
In any event, some modification is required, and part of your acceptance—part of your moving on from this setback—is deciding to make the necessary modifications.
After enough trials-and-error, you reach a happy medium; you find what works for you in terms of effectiveness, enjoyment, safety, and manageability. You start to reap the benefits of the improvement upon which you originally embarked.
And how? How did you do it? By accepting yourself, accepting that you make mistakes, that you take missteps, but deciding you are worth improving upon, and not giving up on. This feeling forms the basis of your future improvements.
In the future, you may have to struggle to hold onto that feeling when you fail again, which you probably will; any worthwhile endeavor brings with it the possibility of failure. But there is now a foundation of self-esteem upon which to base your decision to carry on and improve even more.
No more, or at least less and less, must that decision to improve originate in insecurity. It will originate in the knowledge that you overcame one challenge—your own fear and insecurity—and you can overcome another. And another. And another.
This forms the basis of true intrinsic motivation, or motivation that starts from within: the love of being challenged, and the firsthand knowledge of its rewards. Of course, there are also the obvious health and well-being benefits associated with exercise and good nutrition. To say nothing of endorphin addiction.
But one of the greatest benefits—“greatest” in the sense that it can affect your entire life and your attitudes—is the love of a challenge: to become a better person with each passing day, not just in your health but in your actions, in your compassion, in your desire to improve and to help the world improve, to see the rest of the world as deserving of positive feelings, the type that only come with acceptance of who you are and the subsequent overcoming of your fears, starting from within, and working your way outward.