You know those moments in life when you realize that how you see you is totally at odds with how others see you?
Last summer, I was assigned to an obstetrics and gynecology floor at a community hospital outside Toronto. I was working with an OB in her late 40s, Dr. E. Steely yet kind, wearing scrubs that billowed on her. She was a triathlete. She was a boss. Dr. E took a liking to me because I work hard and am above no task in the service of learning.
One morning, we were closing on a C-section and I was second assist. The first assist had to leave to take care of something else, so Dr. E and I stood across from each other as she showed me how to tamponade the uterine wall on itself with very strong sutures. Near the end of the procedure, she said, "you know, you'd be a great triathlete."
Umm. Ok. Not a chance.
I won't lie, I remember watching Simon Whitfield win the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and was totally inspired. I have run a few 5k for charity. Very slowly with all sorts of wobbly bits and discomfort. I can swim long distances at a snail's pace. And I love to cycle. My road bike, Cora, and I went most places together until I moved to Afghanistan.
Dr. E didn't know any of that and I certainly don't look like a triathlete. I am soft bodied these days. Tall - which many people take to mean athletic - but soft. I wear nerd glasses and look like I might be someone who sits a lot, even though I am way into healthy lifestyles. People ask me if I am pregnant three to four times per year. By the way, never ask that.
But Dr. E thought I could be a triathlete. And I took that to heart the same way I took to heart all of the times people told me I wouldn't get into medical school (third time's a charm!), that I wouldn't make it to OFSSA (6th place in the 80kg category in 2003), that I wouldn't be a varsity athlete (rowed for Mac for 2.5 seasons, stroked the pair at Canadians in 2006) and that I was undate-able, too slow, too large, too needy, too all the things.
I hear it all and take it all in. Often, this has served to totally crowd out my own voice and it also sometimes makes my brain a soupy grog of contradiction.
People told me I was smart when I was a kid. So I never shied away at an academic challenge. People told me I was a good person who cared about fairness. So I have become a member of the service professions.
I did well. I have been successful. But because I take in ALL the criticisms, I often feel like a big giant faker. Even if I am really proud of work that I know is good.
I've been told that I am not very professional, I lack empathy, I am flippant, I am not a very strong mathematician. And I believed them. So my brain becomes a contradiction because I am constantly afraid someone is going to find out that I am not the next great thing. I am just muddling along like the rest of humanity.
It's totally confusing to feel like an imposter and to also feel accomplished and good all at the same time. It's totally confusing to feel kind of out of shape and also feel like maybe you're also still an athlete.
One of the reasons for the contradictions lies with our cultural moment. I was searching for stock photos of an overweight person exercising on Canva. I could find overweight people eating and standing, but only thin people exercising. I will write to Canva about this problem. Another of the reasons is the human aversion to accepting multiple simultaneous truths and being comfortable with a spectrum of perception. In some people's eyes, I am a triathlete. In other people's eyes, I am not.
The point is that no one else matters, even when they're telling you really nice things.
I often feel that I need to settle in on my own voice and declutter my own self-image, set it free from all of the times I've been told what I am and am not, should and should not be, can and cannot do.
Maybe my own voice would be really encouraging in the morning when it's time to get up and exercise. Maybe I wouldn't hear "oh god, this is so slow, you're so terrible, just quit" and I would hear "just one foot in front of the other, there is nothing to prove, just move."