Just this week it happened again. Someone asked about my next race (a safe-bet conversation topic these days) and then shook their head saying ‘I admire your self-discipline.’ The clear implication was one I hear both verbally and between the lines over and over again: ‘I could never do that.’ I gently pushed back, trying to clarify in a way that I’m sure just sounded like some warped version of humility, but let me try to state it more clearly here.
Perhaps you’re no good at self-discipline, but here’s the thing: neither am I.
Indulge me–I want to start with the word itself. The word discipline, according to The Online Etymology Dictionary, comes to us by way of the Old French and Latin. The Old French form of the word meant “physical punishment; teaching; suffering; martyrdom.” The Latin term meant something more like “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” The result was the English word that means a spanking, a list of possible college majors, and the ability to say no to the fourth cookie of the evening. Or, perhaps more than occasionally, all three of these things at once.
So when people say something about my “self-discipline” it’s usually a blend of admiring the intellectual work of creating a training schedule, validating some perceived self-control, and gently teasing about my obvious streak of masochism. While I’ll gladly take credit for the learning I’ve done (and brag endlessly about my teachers) and I clearly have some amount of influence over my behavior, I’m really not one to seek out pain for pain’s sake, nor am I particularly good at following ‘broccoli’ programs. (You know, the ones that are to be followed merely because someone thinks I should.) I’ve shared a number of my ‘secrets’ of successful training here on this blog: finding activities I enjoy, attaching the training to some larger (in my case, generally charitable) purpose, finding fun people to do it with me, etc. In looking across all of that, I don’t really see a pattern of self-discipline. I see a pattern of self-care. And there’s a huge difference.
Let’s start with a definition again. Care comes from Old English and Germanic roots that mean “be anxious, grieve; to feel concern or interest,” with the added sense of “wailing or lamenting.” Self-care then is being anxious over yourself. To grieve for the things that cause you harm. To take actions or maintain attitudes that show a concern or interest in your own well-being and development. And maybe even to get loud about it. There’s no sense of punishment or control or even intellectual prowess. Rather there’s a sense of every day decisions and attitude shifts made in favor of being good to you and making sure you can thrive. Self-discipline comes from a place of battling weaknesses. Self-care comes from a place of fostering strength. I don’t know how to tell anyone to be better at the former–honestly, I’m lousy at it. But I’m starting to learn more about the latter and whether you’re trying to start an exercise routine or pursue your art of choice more deliberately or eat healthier or any number of other things you might do to build yourself up, here’s the best advice I can give you:
Start small. Notice each victory along the way. Dance at every finish line. Go easy on yourself when you fall short of where you want to be. Try again. Give everyone you see doing self-care work of any kind a high five, hug, or fist bump. And just don’t stop. Even if the steps are smaller than an end-of-marathon shuffle, keep taking them until you’ve done everything you can to love, value, and care for the body and spirit you’ve been given. That’s all I’ve really learned and all I’ll continue to press into, whether that looks like triathlons or performance poetry or therapy or long baths or kale.
So here’s an explicit invitation, if you need one: Don’t worry about getting better at self-discipline or applauding others in self-deprecating ways. Figure out some small way forward in the direction of self-care–then tell me all about your journey so I can give you a great big virtual high five. (No really—comment below. I want to celebrate with you!)