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Push the Sled!

Helping others foster emotional resilience

By Yvonne Castaneda

Long before I entered the field of mental health, I worked in the fitness industry. As a personal trainer, I quite literally tortured people, and I did this by making them lift, push, and pull very heavy weights. By the end of my 12-year career in the fitness industry, I’d grown comfortable with clients swearing at me, and had come to appreciate hearing things like, “you are mean,” “you are cruel” and my personal favorite, “I hate you.”

I’d shrug off their threats, maintain calm, and wait patiently for the tantrum to end, a neutral look on my face as I’d say, “Okay, are you done? Great, now push the weight sled.”

It hadn’t always been easy for me to be a target of someone’s frustration and anger, and certainly not in the beginning of my career. One of my first clients was a 47-year-old man who’d hired me to help him improve his overall health and mobility. At first, I was cautious because I didn’t know of what he was capable. We worked on basic exercises to lay a foundation, just like I’d been taught, while we developed rapport and got comfortable with each other. After about 6 weeks, it was time for him to be challenged, to break him out of his comfort zone.

I asked him to push the weight sled down a piece of AstroTurf to the other end of the gym, after I’d added a few 45 lb. plates. This new “challenge” posed no immediate threat to my client. “That’s it?” he said with a confident smile. “That’s all it is?” “Yep,” I nodded, “that’s all you have to do.”

He bent down into his legs as I’d instructed him to do and placed both hands on the bars, a loud grunt coming out of his mouth as he pushed the sled a few feet, and then stopped. “Dang!” He said. “That’s freakin’ heavy!”. He tried again and pushed it another three feet.

After the third push, he threw up his hands and gave me an angry look that stopped my heart. “What the hell, Yvonne! This is too heavy! I’m barely making any progress.”

His reaction terrified me, so much so that I overlooked how far he’d been able to push it. Instead, I worried that in anger, he would dump me as his trainer. I was still new in my career, and losing a client meant losing a lot of money I needed badly to pay my bills. I also needed desperately for him to like me.

I caved in, and I lightened the load by removing a few plates from the sled. He got it all the way to the other end of the gym and felt triumphant, but in making it easier for him, I completely ignored a fundamental principal of strength training.

According to Medical News Today, “muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers of the muscles sustain damage or injury. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases the mass and size of the muscles.

Our physical bodies need to meet resistance in order to tear, repair and grow, and I’d learned this concept early on in my career, but it would take me quite some time to accept that by making things easy for my clients, I was doing them a great disservice. I had to get comfortable with their physical discomfort if I wanted my clients to make progress and meet their fitness goals, and although it was a slow process, eventually I came to appreciate the words, “I hate you!” 

Letting someone work through physical discomfort became second nature but allowing someone to work through emotional discomfort was a whole other talk show. I couldn’t handle seeing someone in any kind of internal distress, my own discomfort often resulting in me stepping in to “lighten the load”, much like I’d once done with my personal training clients. Rather than allow my friends, family members or clients to work through their own emotions, I’d say any number of things to make them feel better and distract them from their suffering.

“Don’t be sad. I’m sure it’s all going to be okay.”

“Don’t cry. You have to be strong.”

“Don’t be upset. You need to look at the bright side.”

“Don’t let yourself get down; you need to be more positive.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re in a better place now.”

“Your relationship fell apart? Move on. I’m sure you deserve better.”

“Here’s what I would do…”

I truly believed my intentions were good and that my approach was helpful, and that I could, with a few choice words, lift another person’s spirits in a moment of crisis. But what I never imagined, and what I didn’t learn until I entered the field of mental health was that by not allowing others to fully experience their emotions, I was getting in the way of an important process for us humans.

We need to tear, repair, and grow.

We are slowly getting better at allowing ourselves to experience sadness or hurt or fear, to be vulnerable and accept that alas, we are not superhuman and devoid of internal suffering. But we need to be better at getting out of the way when others are pushing their own internal weight sled of emotions, provided they are not having thoughts of hurting themselves or another person.

Here are some ways you can support a family member, friend or partner who is having a difficult time.

Be mindful of your assumptions. How you handled a tough situation is your unique way, and it is based on your own experiences, beliefs, and values. Be careful not to assume that what worked for you will work for another person. 

Ask them what they need from you. Again, we can’t assume we know what someone needs, so it’s okay to ask, “How can I support you? Would you like me to just listen, or would you like guidance?”

Validate them. Rather than encourage them to stop feeling a certain kind of way, validate their experience. “I can understand why you feel this way.” “I can see that this is very difficult for you.”

Be honest. If someone asks you for your opinion or thoughts on a matter, and they’ve asked you for guidance, be honest, even if this causes the “tear” to widen.

Trust them. Give them the space to work things out for themselves, and trust that they will figure things out on their own and find a path forward, even, and especially when their way of doing things is not what you would do.  

Allowing someone to work through their own distress may feel counterintuitive if you’re someone who has always jumped in to save the day or offer words to distract them from their suffering. It was incredibly difficult for me, and it continues to be so regardless of how much experience I have as a clinician. My instinct is to immediately alleviate their suffering by lightening the load, but I constantly refer back to my 47-year-old client and remind myself that I need to let them push the sled.

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