“You’re so much stronger than you think,” Mandy, a Pure Barre instructor, says, in the middle of every Pure Barre class. (Pure Barre is a 55-minute workout class that combines ballet and isometric movements to target your core, seat, arms and thighs.)
Every class, those words surprise me.
I’m always about to give up—about to forget that last push-up or to rest for the last ten seconds of plank, or to put my leg down during the last thigh sprint. And then she says it: “You’re so much stronger than you think.”
My first reaction? “Screw you. I’m tired.” (In my head, of course.)
But then, immediately, my second thought is, “Wait, am I stronger than I think?” I begin to think, “Do I want to give up now because I’m truly tired, or because I think I am? Do I think I’m not strong enough?”
And then, just like that, I do the last push-up. I hold the last ten seconds of plank. I finish the thigh sprint.
I started going to Pure Barre the summer after my freshman year of college. My mom had tried to convince me to go in high school, but I laughed at the idea. I told her, repeatedly, “There’s no way I’m doing that. I’m not going to waste an hour of my day doing a pointless workout when I could work out harder, and more effectively, myself.”
For some context, working out is extremely important to me. I can’t think of a single day in the last five years—at least—that I haven’t worked out. It’s essential to my day. I don’t take days off. When I’m sick, I still work out. When I’m exhausted, I still work out. When I’m on vacation, I absolutely still work out. I’ve run in some bizarre places, have done abs in the middle of the woods and gone to ridiculous lengths to get at least a 30-minute work-out, ideally an hour work-out, in every single day. I’ve run 11 half marathons, and I plan to run one in every US state.
I also used to be very busy, so the idea of going to some “fitness trendy” class like Pure Barre for an hour, instead of doing my own workout, seemed like a waste of time. Besides, I reasoned, I work out every day. There’s no way the class would be hard enough for me, as I was sure most of the women who went to the classes “hated fitness” and “wanted something more fun,” as all the trendy fitness class slogans say. I don’t need fun, I thought. I need sweat. I need intensity.
Well, at the end of my freshman year, I came home for summer and had definitely noticed I had gained the freshman fifteen. I didn’t understand why, honestly, because I was still working out every day.
I called some old fitness mentors—a woman who has run a few half marathons with me, an old neighbor who’s a trainer, a guy from my hometown gym—about what I was doing wrong. They all said, essentially, the same thing: Aside from probably eating too much from the freshman cafeteria, I probably wasn’t working out the right way for MY body. I was doing the same kind of workout every day, and it clearly wasn’t effective.
It turns out, friends, that we’re all different.
I know, shocking. Let that huge realization sit in for a minute. I know, I know, MAN do I have wisdom!
Because we’re all different, we all need different exercises and different fitness routines to truly stay our own version of healthy and toned. Just running didn’t work for me, or just doing the same five ab exercises wasn’t working, because we have to change it up, or do different exercises to target more specific muscles. We have to tailor workouts to our different body types.
[Don’t believe me? You can read this New York Times article, the literature on “targeted fitness,” or any fitness magazine.]
So, I decided to listen to my mom and try out the Pure Barre class. I felt like I had nothing to lose, and maybe this was the “different” fitness routine I needed.
I walked in the first day, confident as ever. The women in the class that day looked too chill, like they were about to have way too much fun, and some of them were even wearing makeup. What a joke, I thought.
The class kicked my butt.
Pure Barre is really, really, really, really difficult.
I went to Pure Barre every single day for the entire rest of the summer, and I got abs. I lost fifteen pounds. I could run the fastest mile I had ever run. I could hike for hours. I had muscles in places I didn’t know I could have muscles.
But it was about way more than that. Pure Barre made me believe in myself and helped me redefine what strong means. Pure Barre made me confident in having an athletic build, in having muscle. The class, and the community of people who go to Pure Barre day in and day out, made me feel beautiful, capable, unstoppable. Pure Barre became an hour every day where I could work out, but also feel healthy, rejuvenated, and inspired.
Two years later, I still go to Pure Barre almost every day. But, still, in the middle of every class, I convince myself that I want to give up earlier than I should. And every class, Mandy surprises me with her, “You’re so much stronger than you think” comment.
A few days ago, I had woken up late, was a bit thrown off because my pants felt tight and that’s never a good feeling, and I just wasn’t in the mood to work out. In the middle of Pure Barre that day, Mandy practically yelled, “you’re so much stronger than you think!” It caught me off guard, as usual, and I took a second to let that comment sink in. I realized that comment is exactly why I keep coming to class every day. It’s exactly why I keep pushing on when the going gets tough in life. I am so much stronger than I think.
Pure Barre has taught me that I am strong. Realizing your own inner strength helps you realize all the walls you build so that you don’t have to unleash that strength. We create these defense mechanisms so we can hide from the tough parts of life, of ourselves. But when you realize just how strong you are, you realize you don’t need those walls, those defense mechanisms. I don’t have to do so many things out of the fear of disappointment, check all the right boxes for the right amount of approval so that I can be liked by society, spend time with all the right people so I can have the right connections and a good future. I don’t have to hide myself from who I really am and instead portray myself as perfect, having it all together, not a worry in the world. I don’t have to be emotionally cold, pretending that nothing fazes me, not letting anyone in. I don’t have to shy away from deep, meaningful connection. I don’t have to be afraid of who I am, or think that I can’t do something or, worse, that I won’t be okay unless I do something. Because I am STRONG!!!!!!
Shauna Niequist writes in her book, Present Over Perfect, “When you start to understand how strong you are, you realize that you don’t need a shell at all. The inside is strong and secure, and doesn’t need to be shielded by all those other things—performance, proving, busyness. There is nothing to be shed, and at the center is strength, gratitude, Jesus.”
Pure Barre gave me abs (for, like, three months before I went back to enjoying chocolate and other fun things of life that do not involve calorie counting, which you can read more about in older posts), arm muscles, endurance, flexibility, confidence, determination, motivation, inspiration.
But more than all of that, Pure Barre gave me an entirely new outlook on life, where life is about using your inner strength to be your best self and to help others be their best selves, too.
And, not coincidentally, that is exactly the fundamental message I’m always preaching on this blog.
Inner strength is really the courage to be yourself. Not the self you want to be, or the self you were, or the self you ought to be, or the self you know how to be, or the self others want you to be, or the self you’re told you’re capable of being, but the self you actually are.
Being your real self is f***ing scary. You want me to show all my bumps and bruises???? Expose all my srew-ups???? Be my authentic and vulnerable self even when that means crying and screaming????? You want me to tell you I failed—let you SEE my failure??? You want me to admit I’m not perfect????
ARE YOU CRAZY???????
Yes, I am crazy.
But, friends, I am so happy. I am so joyful. I am so free. I am so brave. I am so STRONG.
Because I am learning the courage to be myself.
Being yourself doesn’t just mean doing what you truly love to do, or saying no to things that aren’t you. Being yourself means sitting down with your friend asking her how she’s really doing. It means telling that friend how YOU are really doing, too. It means coming to people with your brokenness, walking and owning up to your failures, insecurities. It means admitting that you can’t do everything, because, well, you can’t. It means you stop pretending and you start living.
Do you know what it’s like to live like that? To live knowing that you have so much inner strength? That you are loved just by existing? That there is nothing you can do to be loved any more or any less than you already are? That you are loved equally, unconditionally, and infinitely no matter how much you do—or don’t do?
Do you live in the freedom that you can be you, and that is enough?
If you’re living in that freedom, relationships are of the upmost importance to you. If you’re living in that freedom, people have seen you cry. People have seen you laugh. People have seen you angry. People have seen you fail. And people haven’t just seen those things; they’ve admired those things. They’ve loved you for those things. They’ve held you in their arms for those things. They’ve lived alongside you. They’ve cheered for you and been amazed by you as you find the strength to keep going, to keep being you.
If you’re living in that freedom, your life is so different from this world. You don’t care if your activities are taking you to success. You don’t care if you have to take ten minutes out of your scheduled day to be there for a friend, to reflect on the day, to visit your grandmother. Because life isn’t about reaching some unattainable level of success. Life is about reveling, and making the most of, the freedom that there is nothing we can do to be loved any more or any less than we already are.
At our core, we all just want to be known and loved. But who the world knows is not always the real me. The world knows that I am capable, that I am smart, that I am hardworking, creative, a writer, an achiever.
But that’s not me at my core.
My inner strength is screaming for the real Hope to come out. The girl who is thoughtful, brave, confident, loving, generous, spontaneous, risk-taking, adventurous, empathetic. And my inner strength is so strong, so unshakeable, that it is tearing down the walls I’ve built. It’s tearing down my superficial relationships, my to-do lists, my extreme achievement mentality that keeps me going-going-going instead of stopping-listening-reflecting.
My inner strength is reminding me, “You are so much stronger than you think,” and the real Hope is starting to shine through.
I desperately want you all to know that you are so much stronger than you think. You are braver, wiser, deeper, more emotionally capable than you think. When you tap into that strength, when you embrace it, you realize how many walls you’ve built up. And though those can be hard to tear down, when you do tear them down, a life of freedom and joy will beautifully unfold.
I don’t know what that life of freedom and joy entails for you, but I can tell you what it’s looked like for me.
This semester has been the best one of college. Not because I have stellar grades (I do not), nor because I am involved in a lot (I am not), nor because I have some glowingly perfect reputation or some higher popularity status (I’m sure I do not), but because I am being myself.
I am tapping into my inner strength and living my own life. I am not living the life anyone else has told me to live, nor the life I am necessarily capable of living. I am just living a life that is a reflection of who I am at my core.
What does that look like? Well, I quit a lot of things. I quit some activities I was only doing because someone said I would be good at them, or because I felt obliged by “the checklist of graduate school acceptance” to do them. I stopped scheduling every minute of my life, because I am spontaneous, and where is the spontaneity in knowing what I am doing every second of every day? I started thinking about career paths different from the ones my resume are “leading” me towards. (Like opening up my own Pure Barre studio, actually, or being an author). I’ve stopped sacrificing my own sleep and the lengths of my workouts for studying, because health is important to me and perfect grades are not. I’ve started learning instead of achieving, because I am a nerd, not a perfectionist. I’ve started praying more, spending more time with Jesus, because my faith is central to me, and it helps me make huge decisions that I would otherwise make irrationally. I’ve started reminding myself that I am beautiful because I am strong and because I am me.
In taking these steps, I have found so much freedom. The freedom to sit down and relax every now and then (what a concept!), to eat dessert, to visit friends and family.
I love this life of watching the Oscars with a new friend while eating different kinds of M&M’s (the peanut butter ones are like mini Reese’s and I swear I could eat five bags in one sitting if that was socially acceptable and not unhealthy). And spontaneously driving home for the day to see my family because they love me unconditionally and life is short. And dragging friends to Pure Barre with me so I can show them what activities give me life. And praying instead of worrying. Writing instead of gossiping. Chilling instead of stressing.
I know who I am. But more importantly, with this inner strength, I know who I’m not. I’m not meant to race to the top. I’m not meant to try to attain a perfect body or a perfect image, perfect grades or a perfect career. I’m not meant for a fast-paced life, or emotionally detached, superficial relationships. I’m not meant to live life so busy that I can’t reflect. Or, worse, I’m not meant to live a life where I’m too scared to reflect, for fear that the girl in the reflection will be unrecognizable, a ghost, a robot.
A lot of people, and activities, helped me get here (family, friends, Pure Barre, Jesus, writing, traveling). If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you know I didn’t always know myself. You know I had really, really dark days. You know I was miserable at some points, unsure, even, if I wanted to live. You know I hated the environments I found myself in, that I hated Duke sometimes, too. You know that I was insecure, felt incapable, unworthy.
And I am not saying those feelings are entirely gone. But I am saying that when you commit to finding your inner strength, believing it’s there, you can use that strength to propel you through life. Life gets a lot easier, a lot happier, a lot simpler. When you commit to finding your inner strength, you find new passions. You do new, stupid, things. You find joy in the mundane. You find new purpose. You get confused all over again. And you become deeply, deeply grateful.
And so I will end with this: I am so thankful. I can’t imagine where I’d be without emotional vulnerability, the strength to stand up and be seen. I can’t imagine where I’d be without faith, the strength to put trust in the creator of the universe, the strength to rest in the peace that He loves you and is guiding you. I can’t imagine where I’d be without Pure Barre, a workout that preaches the importance of health over skinny, of strength over restriction. I can’t imagine where I’d be without a community of people who remind me that maybe I am insane, but I am not wrong. This life IS better. This life IS more fruitful. This life DOES bring freedom. I can’t imagine where I’d be without the space to write down all these crazy musings.
You are so much stronger than you think. You have so much to be grateful for. Are you living that way?
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If this blog post particularly spoke to you, I challenge you to dig deeper:
Read “Present Over Perfect” by Shauna Niequist (quoted in the post).
Read anything by Brene Brown.
Talk to me about faith, Pure Barre, emotional vulnerability. Talk to your community.
Strive for deeper relationships.
Reflect on who you really are, and make sure your life is reflecting that.
Seek guidance from trusted mentors.
Wrestle with your future – are you thinking about the future the same way you think about the present?
Feel free to reach out to me anytime. I pray you find freedom and that you live fully in it.
Read these verses: Isaiah 40:28-31; Romans 8:28; Romans 8:38-39; and 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. (Or, I mean, you could also read the whole Bible– that thing has some super good insight!)