When's the last time you did something you were objectively bad at? The older you get, the harder it is to answer that question—and it makes sense. Part of aging and adulthood is protecting yourself from failure, embarrassment, and discomfort. It’s a biological, built-in survival tactic to keep ourselves safe. But the longer you go without doing something you’re bad at, the harder it is to try again. When I started going to workout classes at reformer pilates studio SLT (otherwise known as Strengthen, Lengthen, Tone) a month ago, I thought I knew what I was in for. I bought the introductory pack of three classes with the goal of adding strength training into my regular (and very basic) workout routine. It had been years since I had taken my first (and only ever) pilates class or done any sort of exercise outside of an occasional run. I was prepared for it to be difficult (I read all the stories about how intense it is), but what I wasn’t prepared for was just how bad I would be at it. Because when I say I am bad at pilates, I mean I am truly, objectively terrible.
The Case for Continuing an Activity You're Bad At
To be fair, the class itself does have a built-in learning curve, and if you read any review you’ll note quickly that almost every single one says that it takes a handful of classes to get the swing of it—how the reformer and moves work at all. After one month and four classes, I can confirm this is true. But when I say my lack of pilates skill goes far beyond just the learning curve, I am not being self-deprecating or exaggerating for the sake of this story. As someone who is not flexible or graceful and has the overall core strength of a sea cucumber, SLT has been a challenge for me each and every time, and I’m completely aware of it.
The first time I went, it turned out it was me, someone who had taken the class 300 times, and the instructor in attendance. It was my nightmare workout class scenario, but I survived it. I was so sore in the days after that I could barely sit up or sit down without groaning, but I survived it. By my third class, I thought I was starting to get it (hey, I could actually do a plank for a few seconds this time). In my fourth class, which was the most difficult of them all, I felt like I was going back to square one. Throughout it all, I felt embarrassed that it was so hard for me and ashamed it had been so long since I did anything to build up my strength, but I survived that, too. And after all of that, I signed up for another class. Why? Because it feels like character work as much as physical work.
And How it Can Be Empowering
After each class, yes, I feel physically stronger, but I also feel more emotionally and mentally tough, too. As someone who is both incredibly sensitive to criticism from others (pisces, here!) and overly self-critical all at once, each class takes a whole set of mental work that doesn’t exist in many other places of my life. For starters: I have to ask for help, which is a character exercise in and of itself for someone who is stubbornly independent. I often spend most of the class in my own head, with statements like I’m the biggest one here, I’m the weakest one here, or I’m the only one here who can’t hold this pose more than five seconds floating around. During each move, I have to try my best to get it right (or, more realistically, a modified version of it), but I also have to be in a constant dialogue with myself. I have to tell myself I have permission to feel all those things that make me want to leave, yet I’m going to stay. I’m nervous, self-conscious, and objectively terrible at this group activity where you can’t ever hide in the back corner, but I show up for myself anyway. Every single time, I leave feeling empowered.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m not expecting anyone to praise me because I’ve been to an expensive studio pilates class a handful of times (I’m fully aware that it’s a privilege to even afford such a class) and lived to tell the tale. I’m simply making the case for doing things you’re bad at and following through on something you don’t get the hang of right away—that you might never really get the hang of completely. I can't tell you for sure if I’ll still be taking one SLT class per week by the end of 2020, but as of right now, I intend to stick with it. And this isn’t just in spite of the fact I will probably never be the best student in the class—it’s because of it.