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The Pursuit Of ‘Perfection’ Led To Losing My Identity

I’ve always been a bit of a worrier. Looking back throughout my entire life, I’ve always been afraid of “bad things” happening, or thinking “what if this happens?” It could easily have been “what if this amazing thing happens” or “wouldn’t it be great if…”, but our human nature tends to gravitate towards the negative. It’s a natural thing that has been hard-wired into us from as far back as the cavemen era. I’m sure our ancestors would rather be overly cautious and worry “what if there is a predator over the other side of that ridge?” than ‘’ahh come on troops, what’s the worst thing that can happen?” In that scenario I’d much rather be the cautious survivor, alive with my paranoia, than be the nonchalant dead guy in the tiger’s belly! What I’m getting at is that we all naturally overthink, catastrophize and worry. Even in primary school when I was a little kid, I can remember worrying about being liked, accepted, making the school football team, getting a girlfriend, and being thought of as cool. You name it, I’ve worried about it. This theme of inferiority or “imposter syndrome” as it has since been coined continued to reappear intermittently throughout my adolescence. When I got an unconditional offer to attend Edinburgh University to study teaching, I genuinely didn’t believe I would accept it and make the switch to the east coast. When I did, my next defeatist thought was that I wouldn’t accrue enough credits to pass my first year. And so on it went all the way up to, and including, my graduation. I honestly felt like at the very last minute someone was going to pop up and say, “right Eddie, you’ve had your fun, now grab your bags, head back to the Shire and leave the academia to the rest of us clever people.”

* Above: Eddie Leahy, pictured right, with his brother Martin. Unfortunately this feeling of insecurity lives in all of us to some extent, and I feel we are all frantically trying to fill this void with the concept of more. More status, more money, more power, more acceptance. How many times have you told yourself “if I could only get this job then I would be happy”? “If I was with that person then I would be complete.” “Once I lose a stone, I’ll be happier.” I have fallen victim to this way of thinking many times in my life. For me though the most profound and awakening realisations of them all was my time spent exploring and competing within the UK fitness industry and my time bodybuilding. Now, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am in no way disrespecting or discrediting anyone who still competes or works within this industry. To this day, I continue to apply much of the knowledge and understanding that I have gained over these years towards my own and my clients’ health, wellbeing and fitness goals. I’ll forever be grateful for the lessons that this discipline has taught me both on a pragmatic level towards my everyday life and what it has taught me about myself on a deeper, more spiritual level. The most profound and life-changing lesson of all for me was what becoming aware of what Eckhart Tolle describes as “the illusory sense of self” – or more commonly known as the ego.

It was December 2013 and I was setting some New Year’s resolutions and goals for the year ahead.

For years I’d toyed with the idea of getting into my best shape and entering a bodybuilding contest.

I’d always talked myself out of it but for whatever reason this year the voice of opportunity and growth was shouting louder than the self-deprecating one I had become so accustomed to.

In 2014 that was my goal: to compete in the UKBFF men’s physique category. In the beginning I genuinely didn’t care if I placed or not let alone won. I just wanted to do it.

One for the bucket list and, if I placed, what an absolute bonus that would be. I set my goals, 10 weeks out from the show day and put the wheels in motion.

I’ll fast forward through the weeks of training, food weighing, calorie tracking, macro crunching, Tupperware containers, board shorts and take you to the finish line.

I placed third out of 24 other competitors from my class and earned myself an invite to the British finals in the November of the same year.

I was blown away! The feeling on stage at that exact moment was nothing short of euphoric. It was the ultimate validation and acceptance of all the hard work and graft that I’d put in over the years of training.

Everything I’d worked for leading up to this moment was realised. It created in me a surge in confidence, of identity, and a deep feeling of connectedness…

Or so it seemed on the surface.

The next five months were a blur of regimented training schedules, timed meals and food prepping. I had taken this to the next level and was now fully committed to the cause. Every ounce of my being was invested in this.

No alcohol, 6am fasted cardio runs followed by gruelling weight sessions that evening. Alongside the demands I was placing on my body, this contest soon began to dominate my thoughts.

Daily social media progress posts and updates on my #journeytothefinals. It was all going to be worth it. I had already began to project into the future about how my life might look if and when I managed to place at the British finals.

I had picked up a couple of sponsors by this point and found a new sense of identity with the sport. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t committed more time and effort sooner.

I was getting more attention, more status, more admiration. The only thing left to do was to go and win the thing.

Fast forward to November 2014 in Nottingham to the Theatre Royal – the venue for the big day. The atmosphere I was expecting and had visualised in my head so many hundreds of times until that moment was somewhat different.

There was a scene of quiet, or introspection and solitude, with everyone keeping themselves to themselves and not sharing as much as a smile with their fellow competitors.

Whether this was all part of some unspoken and elaborate mind game I’m not sure, but either way it was a glaring contrast to the feeling of connectedness and comradery I’d envisioned.

I spent the day waiting. Waiting to take the stage. Waiting to be told yet again you are enough.

That evening my world collapsed and something inside me died. Out of a hugely competitive and busy class of 27 athletes, I failed to make the top six.

In my mind, the mere action of standing on stage was going to be a formality of sorts. My ego had gripped so tightly to the belief that I would do well and be validated further that anything outwith that realisation seemed baffling and alien to me.

I realise there is an underlying arrogance here and I don’t think that I should have done any better than I did. The athletes who placed above me deserved to and I congratulate them.

What shook me so badly was the harsh realisation that I wasn’t a bodybuilder anymore. I hadn’t made the cut.

This lead me to the more scathing realisation as I asked myself: “If I’m not a bodybuilder, then who am I?”

I genuinely didn’t know who I was anymore. What was my purpose? What would I do now?

I went into a slump, a loss of drive, or direction. I hit a depression of sorts as I struggled over the next few months to come to terms with where my place was in the world.

I had invested so much time and energy into this pursuit that I had become it – and without that acceptance and validation I was lost.

This may sound like a sad story, yet it has been one of the most liberating and empowering realisations that I have ever experienced. What happened next was remarkable.

Through my ‘pain and suffering, through my death of this illusion, I found a spaciousness. This might sound a little out there, but stay with me.

I realised that it didn’t matter anymore if I was a bodybuilder, a teacher, a rocket scientist or whatever.

These are all just stories to be identified with. A mental position in which to invest happiness and false sense of identity in.

It’s the ego personified. I think we are all guilty of this at times. We tend to associate our sense of self with our jobs, our cars, our bank statements and our possessions.

The voice in our head tells us we are this person. This status. This power. If we fully believe it, like I did, then what happens if that thing is taken away? (Which it inevitability will at some point).

All positions jobs, possessions, and even relationships are finite. If we invest solely in ourselves through these identities then we will never feel enough and never truly feel a connectedness with one another.

To hold a position of power, authority or status must, by definition, mean you have some form of superiority over another. This again feeds into “the story of you”.

What happens when you lose the job or when you stop looking in the mirror and seeing a muscle-bound athlete looking back at you? This day will come whether you accept it or not.

So why not “die before you die” and become liberated and alive now? Die to the idea of identification with ego. Die to the illusion of self. Find connectedness in what we all are rather than what we all aspire to become.

Looking externally for happiness only leads to further investment in this. I’m not saying that our jobs, homes, relationships and goals aren’t important.

What I am saying is that if you base your sense of purpose and self solely on these positions then you are setting yourself up for an inevitable fall and a lifetime of discontent.

Like a hamster on a wheel, you’ll never arrive at that destination of happiness. Happiness is here and now with you. The only place that truly exists.

“If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within; secondary reality without.” Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now.

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