How We Brake Ourselves

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It was a beautiful day for a bike ride on Seabrook Island. Our church women’s retreat, which I’ve attended for several years now, always includes several optional activities on Saturday afternoon. One of them is usually a group bike ride along the trails of Seabrook and Kiawah Islands. We were a small group this year, just four of us, and almost as soon as we started the ride, I could tell something was wrong.

I was lagging behind the other three riders from the moment we left the retreat center, even pedaling as hard as I could. Before we had completed the first mile, my over-pedaling while I shifted gears caused my chain to come loose. I felt guilty that the others had to stop and help me fix the bike. And though I had hoped that might make pedaling easier, it did not. My mind changed gears more easily than the bike, and I quickly shifted into self-blame.

It had been weeks since I’d ridden, and I began silently berating myself for getting so out of shape so quickly. As my friends got further and further ahead, I pushed my legs past the point of pain, and still only managed to get up to a little over 8 miles per hour. On past rides, a speed of 12 or 15 hadn’t been unusual for me. Wheezing and sweating, I mentally cursed my overweight body for not maintaining some level of fitness even for a few weeks, for not being able to keep up even though I was the youngest person in the group. I was angry with myself, embarrassed, ashamed.

After 4.5 miles, we came to a good stopping point at Freshfields Village, and I told the others to go on without me, that I would turn around and go back to the retreat center. I felt guilty for holding them back, and apologized again. They said that someone should stay with me, in case my chain came off again or some other calamity befell me. Just as I was about to argue, my friend Lynne noticed something amiss with my back tire.

She and the others had heard a sort of dragging, scraping noise when I rode near them. I had noticed it, too, but not given it much thought. Now Lynne found the source of the sound, and the problem. A tiny piece of wire had been pulled out of place, probably when I was unloading the bike from my car, and the result was that the back brake was making constant contact with the back wheel on one side. I had ridden four and a half miles with the brake on.

Once we moved the wire to where it was supposed to be, the brake pad was held the proper distance away from the tire, and I felt like I could fly. On the second half of the ride, I was speeding ahead of the others, looking over my shoulder every now and then to make sure they were still there. When they yelled ahead to see if I wanted to extend our ride by making a lap around the lake pictured above, I yelled back, “Sure! I feel great now!” And I did. I felt lighter, stronger, able to do anything.

When we returned to our cabins at the retreat center, I took a shower to wash off the sweat I had accumulated over-exerting myself on the first few miles of our ride. Feeling refreshed and invigorated, I made it back to our meeting room just in time to hear my friend Marjorie teach a session on Brené Brown‘s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. It was a perfect convergence of events. As Marjorie talked to us about the damaging effects of shame and self-blame, it was all I could do not to say aloud to the heavens, “Okay, God, I get it.”

How much more quickly could I have solved the problem with my bike if I hadn’t just assumed that there was something wrong with me instead? Why is that my first instinct? Almost anytime someone doesn’t like something I’ve said or done, I ask myself not, “What’s their problem?” but “What’s wrong with me?” I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this. I’m successful in my chosen career. I have family and friends who love me. I’m a responsible dog parent. I just had my first book published, for crying out loud! And yet, feelings of inadequacy are never far from the forefront of my mind.

I wonder how many times we have been held back by our self-blame. How often have we been delayed in solving a problem because we wasted time thinking that we were the problem? I suspect that way too many of us have been riding around with the brakes on, unaware of the needless extra effort we’re expending just to keep moving forward. We don’t realize how strong we are. We don’t know that if we only trust ourselves enough to find what’s really holding us back, then we can fly.

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