A man takes off his shirt and stares in the mirror. He takes a deep breath, and flexes.

Every muscle fiber is chiseled. His form is more statuesque than human. He’s an up-and-coming bodybuilder, and one of the largest guys at his gym. Yet he doesn’t feel that way.

He focuses intently on his chest. He desperately sighs, and switches to another flexing position.

“I could critique myself all day in this mirror. And the thing is, I haven’t even turned to the back.

He nervously eyes himself…

“I always feel small. Already I already feel like I’m spending too much time in front in the mirror…”

Pradeep Bala is a sufferer of muscle dysmorphia, the emerging body image disorder characterized by physique anxiety and the desire to become muscularly bigger. Experts estimate it affects 1 in 10 gym going men. 1

Pradeep Bala Flexes - Bigorexia
“Why is my waist so thick?” says Pradeep. Source: BBC

Despite his progress and discipline, he berates his current self. He recognizes the illogical conclusions he makes about his body (especially relative to “the average”), but he can’t shake the feeling that he’s got a long way to go before he’s happy.

About his body, he says, “I’ve analyzed every single part. It’s more than neurotic. Its a detriment to my mental state… How can anyone else likes this if I don’t like it?”

The Ways We Compare Ourselves

We don’t want to be “average”.

It’s not built into our genes. We want to be better, achieve more. We pursue. And that’s not a bad thing. Achievement and growth are critical parts of the human experience, and this pursuit of “better” is scientifically in line with people who feel the most fulfilled in life. 2

How do you feel when you meet the biggest celebrity of your field?

We feel inspired, seeing them as a goal. They worked their butts off, and look how amazing they are on stage. We get excited. We ask ourselves the question, “What can I do to get there?”

That’s the good side. Other times, we feel discouraged. We look at where we are now. We sigh. We say, “How could we ever get there?”

I follow bodybuilders, the elite group of fitness icons that work tirelessly to look like statues. It’s a literal image of a person’s mental discipline becoming physical. It takes years of training, diet, recovery, and habit to reach a point where you can perform on stage.

When I saw them in person at my first competition, I first felt inspired. Then, I felt weak, small, and a little insecure.

I’ve taught people how to work out and reach their goals. People in the gym ask me for help. And I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. As soon as I see someone substantially more accomplished than I am, I freeze up.

Why would this affect us so much?

When we see someone doing things in an even bigger way, self-doubt and fear fill our heads. If we put their success in comparison to our own, we wonder about our own abilities.

That feeling crept up on me at the competition. I felt fake. I felt like I had no place telling people how to train, when I clearly wasn’t like them. They had mastered this science in ways I couldn’t even comprehend.

There was an inner voice that questioned whether I should feel accomplished at all.

When I got back home, a friend pinged me on my phone.

“Hey dude, I wanna train like you. Can you show me how to workout?”

Then, I had a realization.

Climbing The Big Ladder

When I got the text, I realized something.

Ever since I started working out, I’ve been looking up. Up to the next rung in the ladder. I see all the places I want to be, and all the others who were already there.

These are people with expertise, years of training, and huge discipline. Looking up and seeing that hard work, my confidence falters.

But then, I look down.

I see people climbing up towards where I am. I imagine all the thoughts going through their head. I feel their respect, their confidence in me.

Instead of arrogance or shame, I’m filled with hope.

I have reason to be confident. I see where I was before and am proud of my progress. I am still climbing. I am still striving. And I can enjoy this.

There’s so much more I’d like to accomplish.

But there’s also a lot I have already done.

The Perspective From The Middle

I call this the Big Ladder Perspective.

Because for any field, there are many people better than you, and many people worse than you.

You can fixate on those above you and feel fear. Or you can find hope and passion.

You can fixate on those below you and feel arrogance. Or you can find confidence and compassion.

For those above you: allow yourself the time to look up to the experts. Give respect to their work, and appreciate their own climb. Find inspiration in their progress.

For those below you: recognize the progress you have made, and take pride in it. You are not a fraud. You are not an imposter. You are somebody’s hero, and somebody’s goal. Don’t seek to kick them down, unless you want the person above you doing the same.

Put in the work. Make big plans. And most importantly, appreciate the view as you climb.

Footnotes

  1. From BBC’s “Bigorexia” Video
  2. As supported by Ryff’s 6 psychological dimensions of well-being. There are other studies I’ll dive into in later posts!
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