How many times in your life have you heard the story of the Gym Hopeful? The one where the well-meaning person signs up for a gym membership with the intent on getting more physically healthy. They’re ready to be better! They prepare nutritious meals and pack them with protein and veggies. They buy new workout clothes. They might even set accountability expectations with gym friends and start collecting inspirational quotes.
Then a month passes; the motivation fades. All of a sudden that once-committed individual isn’t putting quite so much effort into their workouts, and the meal prep and protein shakes have dropped to the back of the fridge to make room for the take out boxes again. Those fitness goals? They’re certainly not a priority any more.
And ultimately, nobody is confused by that. Fitness goals are pretty black and white: You put in the work, you get the results. You don’t put in the work, you don’t get the results. When we hear the story of the Gym Hopeful falling off track, we aren’t surprised at all that their physical health didn’t improve.
But what about with mental health?
In the workout world we have this term called “sandbagging,” where you show up but you don’t actually try hard. And guess what? You can sandbag your mental health just like you can sandbag your physical health.
First, I want to define therapy as it is used in this article. For this particular article I define therapy the same way my Psychology 101 professor did: Therapy is receiving support and mentorship from another human being in a way that improves mental health. That means therapy can include conversations with a licensed healthcare professional, therapy can include AA or NA, therapy can include working with a coach or trusted mentor, and therapy can even include talking with a spiritual advisor.
Therapy is wonderful, but therapy is to mental health what the gym is to physical health. Signing up is only the first step. You can show up to therapy and not disclose your true struggles. You can sit across from a doctor and hear their suggestions, but then fail to wholeheartedly implement those suggestions. Therapy, just like nutrition and exercise, is not the key.
You are the key. When it comes to health, any kind of health, the healing lives in the work. First steps are commendable. Knowledge is power. Unfortunately, knowledge doesn’t replace effort. You then need to take the skills you are learning and implement those skills into your life. You have to train hard to get closer to your goals. Nobody gets to the end of the race by just reading the race instructions.
As an extra slice of evidence, there are countless therapists who have emotional and social and substance abuse issues. There are also countless people with personal training or athletic licenses who are overweight and out of shape. The ultimate determiner or your mental or physical health is not your knowledge, or the initial steps that you take on the path to health, the determiner is always the work.
Meal prepping the healthy dinners doesn’t help you lose weight – eating them does.
Walking into a therapist’s office doesn’t heal your trauma – getting vulnerable in therapy and taking your therapist’s guidance does.
Paying for a gym membership doesn’t automatically give you muscles – lifting the weights inside of that gym does.
Telling a mentor that you want better coping skills doesn’t instantly give you those skills – taking the time to practice and develop new skills does.
The solid, consistent, habitual work is what makes you healthy. Not the gyms, not the therapists, not the leafy greens, not the spiritual advisors, but the work. The person with the most power over your results is you.
And that’s a good thing.
Because it means that you get to be in the driver’s seat.
In this world of unknowns and uncertainty, this is one thing you do have control over.
You get to choose whether or not you sandbag.
You get to choose whether or not you put in the work.