I was in the swimming pool last week; it is something I do weekly – every Friday. At 6am I arrive at the gym full of spark and anticipation. It is my last exercise session of the week. Except of course the family run and bike ride, which I have taken to no longer wearing my heart rate monitor for. With my children there seems to be more stop than start during our stop start session. I found the red strap I wrap around my chest that gives me encouragement and praise, was considering giving me negative points for the family experience.
I love the changing rooms at the gym. We have a membership at the local “health, sport and leisure” facility. I cannot deny that a huge part of my reason for membership is the changing rooms. They feel pleasant rather than dingy. I have changing room friends. These friendships have not ever made it outside the changing room door but the familiarity of seeing the same person a few times a week for years gives a sense of security and whilst some chats are superficial others are deep and meaningful … hey I’ve even cuddled a changing room friend as she cried!
The doors to happiness and anxiety
There are two doors to get in and out of the changing room. The first is the happy door, the one that leads you in and out of the changing room. Excitement about entering, who might I see, the familiar smell that reminds me of a posh hotel. The ‘raring to go’ type feeling. Of course, the exit through this door is powerful, I am so ready for the day after exercising.
Then there is the door into the unknown. It opens onto the swimming pool. Before it opens, I have no idea what decisions I will have to make on the other side. On occasion I open the door to an empty pool. It is quiet, the pool is still. The lights twinkle. Silence.
There is something lovely about swimming, the ability to create complete calm in such a simple way. Every time my head goes under water it is like the world disappears. So much so that when I was in labour with my first daughter, I had midwives nearly diving into the pool. “What is she doing?” I heard them exclaim as I continually let myself sink under the water. Rising only a small amount to take a breath before going back down again. Hopefully more graceful dolphin than whale, but probably not!
On Friday I opened the door to a busy pool. Split by lanes there is a choice of three. If you are brave enough you can go off-piste and choose the free-swimming area, which is the same size as another couple of lanes but is really for the children to go wild. In the morning we all take ourselves very seriously. People have all the gear, athletes, I spoke to my lane predecessor who was going for a run after his swim…. What?!
Panic #1 of being seen
My first panic was about which lane to pick, I was going to have to burden someone. Until I noticed swim-runner appeared to be finishing his swim. He was staring at his Garmin watch with deep interest. I am wondering what it was telling him, I imagine him receiving the same praise as I receive from red strap. I tentatively asked him whether he had finished. This was not a ploy to get him to stop hogging the lane and get out. With three lanes designated to fast, medium, or slow swimmers, more a checking I was not going to be swum over every thirty seconds because the lane he would have been leading was… the fast lane.
Cue anxiety number two. Swim runner was finishing, this meant that I could take the only free lane. Everyone else in the pool could continue to swim without another swimmer on their toes – or fingertips. However, it also meant that I was defining myself as a fast swimmer. In some circumstances I am, in a family race for example. In the early morning, alongside the athletes with all the gear I am not a fast swimmer. Once the clock ticks past 9am I am rarely slow, I am not sure I would ever categorise as fast though.
So, there I was, Friday morning, alongside the athletes, in the fast lane. However, I had not impinged on anyone else, so this was ok. Until halfway into my swim when another woman joined us. She had all the gear, flippers, floats, those hand paddle things.
The thought process of being seen
My first thought; “urmagawd … she’s a fast swimmer. And I’m in the fast lane”. Panic. A space had become available in this time, but it was in the off-piste section. The one designed for the kids. Not even in the slow lane. I decided this part of the pool is a lower rank to the slow lane. This was the space, super-fast woman with all the gear was left to swim. She took it.
I wasted too much of my time worrying about this. Until we were both doing the same kind of thing. Kicking our legs, not using our arms, and trying to get to the other side. That is what I looked like – due to covid the overpriced leisure club no longer provide floats for this type of thing. Which means I stretch my arms out in front of me, put my head down and do a funny treading water type thing every time I want to get my head up to breathe. Super-fast woman pulled on her flippers, took her float out of her bag, and smoothly glided away from the edge of the pool. Only she did not really overtake me, maybe her float was a little further down the pool than my fingertips, but she did not fly past me as I imagined her to. It turned out that even with all the gear, super-fast woman was just-about-making-it-to-medium woman a bit like me. She must not have filed me as an imposter taking up space in the fast lane that was rightfully hers.
Experience of others
Thank goodness I have the experience of my work to prevent me from being troubled by these thoughts. Rather I can use them as a learning tool. I question what it is that triggers them. I explore the psychology behind it and further my knowledge of human traits to help the people with life debilitating anxiety who come and see me.
Most people believe that they are the only person experiencing thoughts like this. My first anxiety was of being too present. Hindering others by my mere presence. There is a line we should not cross. The line begins when we start dismissing ourselves to ensure others feel untouched. Feeling afraid of being too much for others and attempting to become smaller so that others feel more comfortable. When we think like this, we decide that we are more capable of suffering discomfort than others. We take on the responsibility of the feelings of others and do whatever we can to make life more convenient for other people.
When I break this down I notice that what I am actually saying is that other people are not capable of managing their own feelings of discomfort, being as capable as I am, I take them on…. Say what?!
When I view it like that, I find it much easier to be kind and respectful BUT to myself too. Other people are as accomplished as me, have successfully managed their own malaise throughout their life and do not need me to take it on for them.
On second thought
My second, completely different anxiety was the fear that someone else must be better than me. The only justification I can give myself for having this fear was all the gear. Many people can recognise that all the gear demonstrates commitment, motivation, determination but not ability. I rationalised this in my mind. Had my swim neighbour been faster than me that would have been ok with me. So, it reverts to the original anxiety, a fear of her needing to swim faster than she was able to, due to me taking up too much space.
On Friday I learnt that to make a choice based on prioritising the perceived needs of others is no good. Because when the next person walks in, with a different need you get in all kinds of muddles. When we are kind and respectful to others whilst making decisions that prioritise our own needs there is less of a muddle to untangle.