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How I felt: like a weak calf, unsecure of everything, even standing up

On weakness

  • Reading time:15 mins read

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Otto von Bismark

Warning: this post is self-therapy more than anything. It is a way for me to process. I hope it resonates for you and you learn from my mistakes. But if it does not, feel free to ignore it.

I must be strong.

It is who I am. 

I am the guy who does not complain. After doing a 30 day no-complaining challenge, I now must never fall into that whining trap again.

I am the guy who does not slow down or ask for a break during sports. I say that limits are only in your head. “I cannot” is overcome if you ignore it and push on. I must always keep up and be strong when I go out running, ski touring, biking, hiking. I can never ask to slow down or take a break.

I am the guy who does not back down from a challenge. I don’t show fear. I admit fear exists, but it is an erroneous survival adaptation. It disappears when you do the thing you are scared of. I must overcome all fears, I can never back down.

I am the guy who always keeps his word. No matter what. I must always do what I promise. I can never be lazy or shrink responsibility.

I am the guy who says willpower is irrelevant. You can do anything if you create the right environment. You can have complete focus. You can avoid all distractions and instant gratifications. You can get sh*t done. I must always get things done, pursue my goals, choose the right path for the long term. I can never waste time or lose myself in instant gratification.

I am the guy who says any problem is a challenge. It’s an opportunity to learn. I must be positive and constructive about any setback and failure. I cannot give in. I cannot give up.

I am the guy who solves problems. People come complaining and I push them to a constructive direction or find a solution. I must find a solution to anything and everything. I cannot be stumped by a problem or complain about it. I cannot be helpless or need help.

I am the guy who has scientifically proven choices about food. I have lengthy, well thought-out arguments for what we should eat and why. I must always eat right. I cannot ever eat outside my own recommendations.

This is who I say I am. This is who I strive to be. This is who I work to be. And it’s great. The opposite of it is a victim mentality. A worldview where things happen to you and you make the easy, convenient choice. This always leads to misery, disease, suffering. Often it leads to you becoming a burden on others, while I want to help others. 

I am writing a book on how to improve your life after all. How could I do that if I was a burden to others? Or if I was not living up to my own recommendations for a better life? What do I do if I am weak and I cannot do what I must?

What happens when I am weak?

This winter I started ski touring. I have been wanting to do this for several years. This summer we moved in a house at the foothills of the mountains and I started working remote. It was the perfect timing. 

At first it was great. Fun exercise. Exciting downhill. Explored the mountains in winter which are marvelous, exciting and wondrous. Learned about avalanches and reading the terrain which is super-interesting. Learned ski touring technique. Took my skiing to a whole new level. I always liked winter and the cold, so the negative temperatures where not an issue.

But then it started being less great. I kept feeling more tired than I should. Each time it seemed like I had to work a little harder to keep pace with my buddies. I thought they were having good days. And maybe I had some bad days. But it kept repeating. So much so, that I started being less enthusiastic about going ski touring. I started finding reasons not to go. The more I avoid doing it, the more I wanted to avoid it more.

I was weak when it came to ski-touring.

This fatigue was not only when ski touring. I had feelings of weakness and slight dizziness spells often. I have a slight astigmatism. Before being diagnosed this brought on dizziness and headaches when I worked at the laptop or drove long periods. So I thought maybe this was the cause and I have to change my glasses prescription. Went to the doctor. He made a very small tweak to the prescription. I bought new glasses feeling confident they will make all the malaise go away. The make believe worked for about two days. Then it came back.

Most of the time it was nothing clearly perceptible. I could not say I had a specific pain or anything. It was just a feeling of ‘meh’. Like I did not really feel like doing anything. And a feeling of unwell after spending time working on the computer. But it affected everything in my life.

I am writing a book. To write it, I have committed to write at least 750 words each day. I do this in the morning before the job. It’s very important for me to do it every day because this makes it a habit. Otherwise I find it unlikely I could ever finish it.

This winter I started failing this commitment. On some full-day ski-touring trips I skipped in the morning because I got up too late and went out early. On (many) other days I felt too tired and wasted time online instead of writing in the morning. On other days I wrote only a little. 

The more I failed, the more I procrastinated instead of writing. On top of this, the laptop screen gave me slight headaches and dizziness. I started to develop a feeling of dread in relation to writing. And a feeling that I was not able to write a decent book.

I was weak in relation to writing.

At work I had the fortune nothing really difficult happened. I could do less and less well without any impact. But I knew I was doing work at a lower quality. I knew I was doing the less than I could.

I was weak in relation to work.

At the same time I was in the middle of making a long-term complicated decision. But I felt like I was barely holding on. I felt like no matter what I chose, I would be discovered for an incapable fraud. So I avoided making any decision, while consuming myself with worry about possible scenarios of the future.

I was weak in relation to decisions.

I have a bad history with food. I spend my first 25 years eating to feel good emotionally. This meant eating junk food and tons of sugar. Now I have clear rules about food. These rules keep me healthy and fit. 

As I felt more tired, I started eating to compensate. I was trying to get the missing energy. It did not work, except in the moment. I felt better while eating, but not afterwards. I overate. I started eating comfort food because I was not eating for hunger, I was eating for pleasure. I did not eat sugar or anything that drastic. But I ate packaged food, chips, all sorts of foods which I felt were somewhat close to what I should eat. They were not.

I was weak in relation to food.

I had made many daily habits which were beneficial, such as a morning stretching routine, meditation, push-up breaks, no notifications, closed email and messaging while focusing, focus on one task at a time. I broke these habits more and more as I felt unwell. They felt like too much work. Instead I sought instant gratification. I installed a mobile game after years of not gaming to provide distraction. I browsed websites for distracting content. I scrolled social media like I had not done in ages. I tried to distract myself from what was going on, instead of confronting it.

I was weak in relation to my habits and attention.

I try to see other people’s point of view. I aim to not lose my temper, and to avoid being ruled by emotions and impulses. I think of others’ needs. As I felt unwell, I became grumpy and sour. I saw the bad in everything. And I interpreted negative intent in what people did. I was bitchy, critical and negative. I became less pleasant to be around.

I was weak in relation to other people and who I wanted to be.

I was weak.

It was awful not just because I felt crappy. It was awful because it felt like my identity was unraveling. Don’t imagine this was some big meltdown or dramatic failures. Most people did not even notice a change. My inner story was the one that was catastrophic. The outer behaviour was 90% the same as before. But I felt like the small slips were the first leaks in a dam. They are small but signal it will soon burst completely.

This was because my identity revolved around being strong. As soon as I was behaving incongruent with it, it meant I was not actually strong as I thought. I did not think my malaise was responsible. After all if I could not remain who I was when feeling a little unwell, then I was not as strong as I thought I was.

This is a classic case of a Fixed Mindset. Carol Dweck’s brilliant book ‘Mindset’ talks about how some people have a Fixed Mindset and other people have a Growth Mindset. The Fixed Mindset is when you want to maintain an image of yourself in others’ perception. You worry about who you are. Any attribute is a part of your permanent identity. The Growth Mindset is when you don’t think your every action reflects your immutable identity. You think about what you do, instead of who you are.

In case of a failure, the Fixed Mindset wants to hide it because it degrades his image. People with the Fixed Mindset will have a worse image of themselves as a result. The Growth Mindset will examine the failure to see what is to be learned from it. People with this mindset don’t think that the failure reflects anything about themselves, but rather is data to learn how to do things better.

It is quite obvious the Growth Mindset would lead to success. That is what Carol Dweck’s data revealed for school children. 

I had been telling people about this concept for years. I prided myself of striving to have a Growth Mindset. I thought I achieved it often. Until writing this post, I did not even realize my behaviour from the weakness this winter reflected a Fixed Mindset.

If I had realized this during that time, I would have taken it as another sign I was in fact weak. 

Was I really weak?

Yes, and no. 

I had the inspiration to seek medical investigation on my feelings of unwell. My pride opposed this. I felt like medical investigations were also a sign of weakness. But on the other hand, I realized that I was scared of it becoming worse. I had to confront it.

Turns out I had severe vitamin D deficiency. Something I would have never guessed. When the doctor added it to the tests, I even wanted to say it’s not needed. I spend much more time outside than the average so I thought I had enough sun exposure. 

But it turns out you can get a deficiency even in this case. My skin complexion is darker than most people where I live. I guess I have ancestors near the Ecuator. This prevents me from getting burned, but has downsides.

The darker your skin, the less vitamin D you absorb from the sun. This is why you tan in the summer. When there is a lot of sun (and UV), the tan limits the vitamin D. And allows for folate levels to remain stable as folate can be destroyed in the blood from sunlight.

It turns out in winter where I live, with my skin complexion, I could spend all day outside on a sunny day and still not get enough vitamin D.

Vitamin D severe deficiency causes dizziness, severe fatigue, headaches, muscle pain. It also makes the immune system less efficient. People vitamin D deficiency for example are more likely to suffer more severe form of COVID-19.

Problem diagnosed, I started taking vitamin D supplements. But it was not over. The supplements work slowly. And there is some debate about their effectiveness. So I had to take it easy. It would be at least three months until my levels would improve. Even then, they might not yet be at a healthy level.

I had to see myself as weak physically to dose my energy. If I did anything strenuous physically I knew I had no energy left for anything else on that day, and most of the next day. And I could do maybe 50% of what I did before physically. I also had less energy emotionally and cognitively. I could not push myself as hard as I would have liked.

So I took it easy. Instead of ski touring, I went skiing on the slopes. Even this felt too hard at times. I was lucky my girlfriend developed a skiing obsession so she insisted we go very often.

Outside of sports, I gave myself more leeway. I ate less healthy food on occasion. I was less ambitious when it came to habits and what I wanted to achieve. I forgave myself for when I was ‘weak’ and chose the easy (but unproductive or slightly harmful) path.

Because I had a medical diagnosis, my worldview changed. Instead of seeing myself as weak as a moral failing, I saw myself in recovery. I allowed myself ‘moments of weakness’ as part of the recovery. 

Gradually, I felt better and better physically. Now it’s Spring. I spend as much time outside when it is sunny as possible. I don’t think I am back to where I was physically before winter but I am improving. In terms of habits and discipline, they are coming back. I am back to myself, with energy and initiative and drive.

I still have bad days. This week there were three days of rain and overcast. I felt weak and unfriendly during this time. I had to remind myself it might be the health problem and I should be lenient with myself. 

So what?

You might think this is irrelevant. This dude (me) had an identity crisis but it turned out he had a small medical issue. Seems absurd. But for me it was quite profound.

I had an identity crisis from a medical problem and learned something in the process

Ten years ago I thought I was special and that success comes from mind over matter. If you have willpower you can do anything. Failure is a sign you are weak. 

This mindset led me to an ‘early-life crisis’ as I was in fact failing at life on most dimensions. My revelation then was that we are all human. You cannot win by fighting human nature. You win by embracing human nature and setting yourself up to make the right choices. You set up the right environment to make choices that then change your unconscious model towards good choices in the future.

What I found out now is that I have not really gotten rid of that special snowflake mentality. As soon as the going got tough and I made mistakes, I went back to thinking I was a weakling with low willpower. 

Mind over matter is great. You achieve a lot. But you are not supernatural. You cannot walk on water. You cannot cure a physical health problem by believing you are strong. I could not cure vitamin D deficiency no matter how much willpower I put into pretending to feel strong.

Long story short, what I learned:

  1. Mind over matter. But sometimes body over mind.
  2. It’s ok to be weak. Let it go and try again
  3. I don’t know everything. I will be wrong and that’s learning
  4. I cannot have too much sun

This was a really personal post for me. If you got this far, it resonated for you. So hit that share button down below, let your friends know.