Recently, I joined a gym to try and work on my fitness. My boyfriend, a seasoned gym goer, offered to guide me through the process. We spent a few days warming up with cardio and some mild strength exercises, then moved to squats.
What followed was a nightmarish experience as I repeatedly tried but failed to achieve the form required to do a squat. And as most conventional gyms follow the ‘No excuses, push yourself’ approach, people started encouraging me to try harder. There were people around me constantly telling me to stop my knees from moving inward and not lift my heels. In the middle of all that encouragement, my protests of ‘I am unable to physically execute what you are suggesting’ was lost. In a few minutes, people started making fun of me for making excuses instead of trying to get better. After fifteen minutes of these uncomfortable taunts, I burst into tears and walked away to the locker room where I bawled my eyes out.
My boyfriend followed me, surprised by my reaction, and asked why I seemed so bothered. In response, I shared, “I understand you’re encouraging me to try harder, and believe me, I am giving it my all. But I think there’s something wrong with my joints.”
To humour me, my boyfriend checked my lower limbs for mobility restrictions. And to his surprise, he found movement restrictions in almost every joint. My ankles were immobile, my hamstrings were tight and so were my hips. It was not that I was not trying. But my underlying mobility issues did not allow me to translate that effort into results. These things had to be straightened out before I could do a squat. My boyfriend apologised profusely for making me feel uncomfortable – pushing me to do things without addressing my concerns. We got to work immediately with a few days of intense stretching. And by the end of the week, I was 70% there in form.
After the incident, I spent a lot of time thinking about all the times I did not get the results I wanted because of technical errors. The issues were probably easily fixable, if only they were timely identified. However, my failures mostly got blamed on laziness and lack of intent. When I tried harder and harder but did not succeed, I told myself that I am generally not good at things. And stopped trying.
‘She has potential but will not apply herself’ has been the soundtrack to my entire academic career. Eventually, I internalised that I am not good enough instead of figuring out what to work on and how to work on it.
I’ve heard the advice to try harder from people all my life for many things. I heard it when I was a seven-year-old kid who struggled to follow lessons as she could not see the blackboard in school because of undiagnosed myopia. I heard it repeatedly from many sources until a teacher noticed me squinting and got me spectacled. I heard it more recently when I was telling a friend that my stethoscope was not good and I could not clearly hear stuff when my friend cut me short, ‘Oh wow, blame the stethoscope for you not knowing how to use it.’
But by now, I’ve learnt how to field this allegation of not having tried enough. I’ve rephrased the words. “It is not one more thing to blame. It is one more obstacle to fix.”
Trying harder is overrated. I will never fall for that again.
I now think how different my life so far could have been if people were to see the tangible problems I had while doing certain things and helped me with them instead of constantly invalidating me. However, that is not the easiest thing to do. “Try harder” is the easiest thing to do. It is also nothing more than an absolute cop-out when it comes from people who are meant to love or help you. Your teacher calls you lazy because it is easier than spending an extra period to understand what you are struggling with. Your parents call you lazy because it is easier than doing the mental labour of challenging their biases for you. Society heaps the ‘doesn’t apply herself’ muck on you because it is easier than making accommodations to help you on your journey towards betterment.
I realise how irrational it is to internalise the voices of other people who do not see my struggles but only my failure. They have only half the picture. They are telling me untruths about myself. I am not broken. It is the mirror in which I see myself that is broken. I hope to remember that my flaws and mistakes are just that – flaws and mistakes. They are not moral failings. I hope to look at myself with kinder eyes moving forward from this.
Christianez Ratna Kiruba
“I am a 28 year old doctor from a conservative Indian family, who by virtue of being a feminist and bisexual, and simply asserting my agency, have stirred uncomfortable emotions within my family. The fact that I am still unmarried only amplifies their unease.”