3 September 2020
Will I Ever Be Satisfied? The Curse of ‘Progress’
Have you ever questioned whether you’ll ever, one day, finally reach a point where you are satisfied with your physique, fitness or strength? It’s extremely common for fitness enthusiasts to never feel content with their progress. As humans, it is rooted deeply into our DNA to seek better outcomes and therefore, we are forever chasing…
Have you ever questioned whether you’ll ever, one day, finally reach a point where you are satisfied with your physique, fitness or strength? It’s extremely common for fitness enthusiasts to never feel content with their progress. As humans, it is rooted deeply into our DNA to seek better outcomes and therefore, we are forever chasing more and more progress. This can be our greatest asset at times. However, it can also be our greatest downfall.
When talking about satisfaction, it is important to define what this actually means. So, when I mention being ‘satisfied’, I am referring to the “fulfilment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this.”
Satisfaction can be conceptualised as the difference or ‘gap’ between what one wants and what one has. The smaller the gap between the ideal and reality, the greater the satisfaction, and visa versa. As our satisfaction is largely subjective, our judgment is used to dictate how certain aspects of our life measure up against our own personal standards and expectations. (1) Personality and environment can determine satisfaction. Thus, with ever-changing fitness and body standards (typically presented by the media) one’s satisfaction with their performance and physique can be easily influenced by the fluidity of what society deems ‘the norm’. Unfavourable social comparisons, especially when unmet, can create feelings of hostility & envy towards others and accentuate body dissatisfaction.
Ultimately our personal values are derived from various sources such as culture, religion, family, friends and other social environments. These values are what motivate our behaviour and serve as guiding principles throughout our lives. They can be defined as broad trans-situational goals and mirror what we deem important and worthy to us. We all have a unique hierarchy of personal values. The higher the value on the hierarchy, the greater influence this value has on guiding us through life. The Shwartz theory of basic human values states there are a set of 19 values. (2) Here are some relevant values that help to explain why we always seek more progress.
Stimulation: (the desire for novelty, stimulating experiences and challenge). Now for those who have been lifting for years – you’d know that it’s a rather monotonous project of chipping away for years on end doing the same thing. I would, however, argue that the desire to change and alter our physical appearance and performance could stem from our yearning for something novel and greater than what one already has. Although we are all faced with challenges in life, some may go out of their way to actively seek for ways that they can be challenged. Crafting the process of evolution via adaptation, overcoming and growth.
Self Direction: (autonomy of thought & action – choosing one’s goals/purpose, curiosity & creativity). Physique and Strength sports being individual in nature enhances the ability for one’s own autonomy of thought & action.
Achievement: (successful in achieving goals, ambitious and competent.) Many value a sense of achievement through not only an ability to demonstrate competence but to express mastery! Sports & the gym act as a vehicle to create new & exciting goals as well as providing the opportunity to succeed or excel.
Power: (promoting own interests through control, social power and authority over others, wealth or material possessions, social recognition and preserving our public image.) The Power value underpins our behaviour to not only take control of certain aspects of our own lives but to also gain power and social gratification through achievement. Chasing a particular physique or number could be seen as a materialistic covet. This conveys that one’s actions may be driven by the desire to gain social admiration or power via possessing a particular appearance or body.
Conformity: (complying with expectations, expressing compliance, self-discipline). Conformity to not only societal expectations but the expectations that one sets out for themselves. We know that the endeavour of chasing a physique or performance goal is only achieved if compliance and self-discipline are present long term. (2)
Now that we have explored the nature of human values, let’s take a look at how this applies to our fitness goals and ideals…
Our Fitness Values in operation
The current state of the fitness industry has seen rapid growth in training and diet interventions for aesthetics and body composition change. Sports such as bodybuilding, weight lifting, powerlifting, Crossfit amongst the other modalities such as F45, body transformations, boot camps and HIIT group training have all become highly sought after, and there is an overwhelmingly large number of people striving to look, perform and feel better. Although these outlets have the ability to enhance our health, fitness and appearance, there has been an enormous opportunity for athletes at the top of their sport and individuals who possess the socially ‘ideal physique’ to share their experiences online. This has allowed the fitness industry to expand, paving the way for ‘fitness influencers’ to use their social media platforms (Instagram, YouTube etc) to help, support and inspire their following. In addition to influencing their following, the ‘genetically elite’ can use their platform to cultivate a career in the fitness industry.
The increased global interest for fitness and aesthetics has been built upon the growth of social media. Fitness expositions such as the Arnold’s Sports Festival or the Aus Fitness show have more attendees than ever flooding their doors, gaining a lot of traction to let’s say – the artificial side of the fitness industry. Allowing gym junkies to congregate and allow an opportunity for fans of the best physiques and athletes in the world to meet their idols. What was once taboo and unique, has now been propelled into the mainstream and forever changed our ideals and perceptions of what is healthy, strong and aesthetic.
This has helped to introduce and promote the idea that anything is possible, and has normalised some of the bizarre nuances of ‘fitness’. Getting half-naked on stage in some pretty shocking fake tan is no longer seen as an obscure endeavour. The pursuit of getting as jacked and lean as possible has spread and been undertaken by many, solidifying the idea that people’s actions are often driven by their desire to ‘conform’, as well as to gain power or social admiration.
Unrealistic ideals and expectations
Despite the positive effect that these changes in the fitness industry may have on the population to inspire, motivate and provoke change, they do not come short of their downfalls.
Unfortunately, people are being exposed to an artificial snapshot of a very curated highlight reel. One that displays idealistic bodies and lifestyles that are ever so enticing and desirable, however well out of reach for most people. Because of this, we are being conditioned to believe that satisfaction and happiness within ourselves and our lives stem from what we look like, how many followers we have and how glamorous our lifestyle is. This often leads to greater dissatisfaction due to a large gap between one’s perceived values and reality.
Although a lean and muscular physique is put on a pedestal and seen as the epitome of health, too many people are oblivious to the impact setting unrealistic standards has on their well-being. Looking up to professional athletes or fitness professionals may be inspiring, but it is generally not an attainable or desirable goal for most people. Most people are unaware of what goes on behind the scenes and are only limited to the publicly glamorised side of bodybuilding; the lean, strong, muscular physique, popping delts, glute and abs, the makeup, the tan, the glittery bikinis, smiles and dozens of physique shots. The dark side is typically riddled with drug use, body image/body dysmorphia issues, eating disorders, neglected relationships, social isolation, low sex drive and decline in hormone/health function. Would we all still idolise our favourite athletes if we knew what was involved?
It is well known and documented that bodybuilding (especially competitive bodybuilding) is not healthy – nor are most things when they are taken to the extreme. Although for most athletes, the risks involved in pushing the body to its limits are accepted and just a part of it. For any athlete, it’s fair to say that in order for one to be successful in their sport, they are positively driven by their feelings of inadequacy. The same cannot be said for the general lifter. In Bodybuilding and Powerlifting, the entire nature of the sport is to continually progress. Growth is governed by progressive overload, mastering technique, mind-muscle connection, optimising nutrition, perfecting a posing routine or working tirelessly for years on end to satisfy the judges’ feedback. A bodybuilder’s success depends on how well their physique and look fits the sports criteria, hence why it can be a challenge to differentiate between a healthy enthusiasm for the sport and possessing muscle/body dysmorphia. (3)
For quite some time, women’s body image has been negatively affected by the idealisation of thin and lean female bodies, so it is fantastic to watch the movement of strength training, desire to gain weight and no longer fear food gradually rising to the top. However, body image dissatisfaction is not limited to females anymore and the effects of an emphasis on appearance have become an increasing concern for males too. (4)
Body dissatisfaction is defined as negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body. (5) Muscle Dysmorphia Disorder (MDD) is an under-recognised disorder categorised by the delusional and distorted belief that one’s body is not muscular or lean enough and is too small and skinny. Despite being sufficiently muscular or lean, their perception does not align with reality. This is prevalent in both males and females, being most popular in males, bodybuilders, strength athletes and fitness practitioners. (6)
When improvement is made to our body composition, we experience a sense of accomplishment, which boosts self-esteem and confidence. This can also be accompanied by increased vanity, more cheeky mirror flexes, and the amount of fitspo accounts on your feed. It’s fair to say that a certain extent of body dysmorphia will most likely be present when trying to make specific changes to your body composition (i.e lose body fat or gain muscle.)
Although in some cases this can be negative as explained above, there is actually nothing inherently wrong with wanting to intentionally change or alter your body composition, or create and chase new goals in life. It doesn’t have to stem from self-loathing beliefs. We are forever changing human beings, on a dynamic path. And altering your body composition has its purpose within context – improving health and wellbeing, performance, or hell, looking good naked. However, when pursuing this goal, it needs to be accompanied by an awareness of the impact of societal influences, and how they dictate the way we see ourselves, as well as how we view others’ status and value. We need to challenge, and reject the narrative that our physical appearance is a measure of our worth as well as the same self-deprecating notion of “I will never be satisfied, or good enough.”
Personally, my body image improved immensely when I stopped attributing the entirety of my self worth on my physical appearance, and I dedicated more energy and focus towards other meaningful things like relationships, social life, family, my education, my business and my clients. You can have the best body in the world, but if you add little value to those around you, what do you have at the end of the day? Sometimes these things can be put on the back burner for a while, and you don’t realise how important they are once you fulfil these needs again.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as seen above is a pyramid that conceptualises our priorities and basic needs as human beings – invented by a famous psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. (6) There are 5 different tiers – we have the non-negotiables like our physiological needs such as food, water, warmth, sex and rest, moving up to Self Actualisation at the top of the pyramid. Self Actualisation is our need for personal growth and the strive to reach our highest potential. Interestingly, when we pursue body composition goals to the extreme, we may end up depriving ourselves of some very basic needs such as our close relationships, social life, food (obviously) or sex life. Therefore, it is important to nurture all needs, not at the expense of other needs. Keeping in mind, that sometimes when someone wants to achieve excellence in a particular domain, there will always be sacrifices having to be made.
So, Will I ever be Satisfied?
As humans, we have an evolutionary desire to hunt for more. It seems that in most domains of life, no matter how far we have come along the years, we can tend to discount our progress and instead look at what we don’t possess. Our flaws, our weak or unfavourable body parts and how we compare against someone else who is bigger, leaner, stronger, richer, funnier or cooler. There is always something lacking. We tell ourselves that we will be happy once we reach “x” or have “x”. Then we achieve the goal that we so desperately longed for, the goal that we swore would give us complete and utter happiness and satisfaction. But.. once you’ve reached that goal, you’re already looking ahead to the future, to the next goal.
I’ll use myself as an example…
I wanted a 120kg deadlift and a 90kg squat really, really bad. I worked tirelessly for a year to build my skills on these lifts, built muscle and worked towards getting stronger.
A year rolled around and I finally got it.
The excitement and happiness I had built up in my head as to what it would feel like didn’t compare to what it actually felt like. Yes, I was happy, but still not satisfied. I already had my sights set on 130kg deadlift and a 100kg squat.
The cliche quote “Enjoy the process” is constantly drilled into us yet the majority are unable to adopt a mindset that elicits our ability to understand that all we ever have is “now”. Satisfaction is, in fact, in abundance, rather than only at the “end goal”.
The Journey is the Destination.
So my answer to the question “Will I ever be Satisfied?” is simple. You will be satisfied, over and over again. The key to being able to constantly be satisfied is positive recognition of your progress along the way, celebrating & embracing the process instead of being fixated on the end goal.
To overcome a compromised mental state and an eternal feeling of dissatisfaction, assessing your progress objectively via a collective use of measurements, photos, scale weight and training performance becomes incredibly important. The qualitative measures such as how you feel, how your clothes fit and most importantly, how your beliefs, attitudes and behaviours have evolved shouldn’t go unnoticed either. Ultimately it is the development of your beliefs surrounding not only your abilities and self-worth, but it is your beliefs around training and nutrition that dictate your progress and physical and emotional evolution. It can be difficult to observe progress at any given moment because we see ourselves every day. This makes it easier to overlook the small changes we have made and instead, we tend to bias our vision towards the gap between where we are now and where we want to be in the future, regardless of if we are standing at the endpoint of our newly accomplished goal. It’s important to notice this, to avoid getting stuck in this cycle of constant dissatisfaction.
Stopping to smell the roses to look at the accumulation of success will allow you to fuel the fire to an even greater degree to continue to squeeze every little bit of your capabilities.
Progress is like a drug. You set goals, you achieve them and then get a great sensation of achievement, you want to do it again. It’s addictive and enjoyable. There’s a reason why everyone is so strung up on never being satisfied, it’s because we KNOW that we have more to offer ourselves.
The key is to find a healthy balance between feeling satisfied and feeling dissatisfied in order for continual improvement. This is harder than it sounds, but if you respect yourself enough and hold yourself to high expectations, you will always want to push yourself to achieve more and see what you are capable of.
Understand that self-development will look different to everyone. There is a spectrum at which people are on in regards to their body image and want to change. Body neutrality or feeling no desire to change one’s self – almost like a disconnection with your body towards your being may be at one end. As Sohee Lee described her body image when she was young – her body was just a vehicle that allowed her to embrace and share the love with loved ones. A vehicle that allowed her to carry her school books, and run around with her friends. (7) The pure innocence of this statement is refreshing. Somewhere in the middle comes a state of appreciation of your body, whilst wanting to achieve further goals, whether it be health or body comp related. Then on the other end is the extreme dissatisfaction and lack of self-love, whereby behaviours or beliefs of body dysmorphia is present, and or, the person is stagnated, and extremely dissatisfied with their body.
As humans, our hunger for more will always be embedded within us. Our values are the groundwork that propels us to chase more. Our satisfaction is easily influenced by society’s expectations and ideals, therefore it is important to challenge our values and be cautious of comparisons made with anyone but ourselves to minimise eternal dissatisfaction. It is imperative to acknowledge that our journey extends for as long as we live. If we have a mindset that there’s a destination or an ‘end goal’, we are most definitely limiting ourselves in several different ways. Once you learn to feel gratitude for the satisfaction that is abundantly evident throughout the process, you will be satisfied, over and over again.
- Campbell A. Subjective measures of well-being. American Psychologist: 31, 1976.
- Schwartz S, Cieciuch J, Vecchione M, Davidov E, Fischer R, Beierlein C et al. Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 2-8, 2012.
- Mosley P. Bigorexia: bodybuilding and muscle dysmorphia. European Eating Disorders Review. 2009.
- Olivardia R, Pope H, Borowiecki J, Cohane G. Biceps and Body Image: The Relationship Between Muscularity and Self-Esteem, Depression, and Eating Disorder Symptoms. Psychology of Men & Masculinity: 5, 2004.
- Quittkat H, Hartmann A, Düsing R, Buhlmann U, Vocks S. Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 2019.
- Cerea S, Bottesi G, Pacelli Q, Paoli A, Ghisi M. Muscle Dysmorphia and its Associated Psychological Features in Three Groups of Recreational Athletes. Scientific Reports: 2018.
- Maslow A. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 1943.
- Lee S. Body Dysmorphia in the Fitness Industry – Sohee Fit [Internet]. Sohee Fit. 2020 [cited 26 August 2020]. Available from: https://soheefit.com/body-dysmorphia/