Tough, Vulnerable, and Beautiful

Swim gogglesBeauty Is Embarrassing. This is the title of a film I saw recently at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The subject of the film is an artist, Wayne White, whose message is stay true to yourself, no matter how hard that is, stay true to yourself and your passion. All will fall into place. He suggests that our creative impulses will always lead us where we need to go.

The title of the film comes from White’s premise that when we see beauty, we often feel vulnerable, “Who am I to see this?” “Who am I to create this, what will others think?” A deep feeling wells up within us when faced with beauty and somehow we are embarrassed because of the vulnerability that is created. But in spite of this vulnerability, we forge ahead with the creative impulse that compels us to do so in endeavors that we love.

As compelling as the concept was for me, what I’d like to consider is how this relates to athletic performance. Do some athletes unknowingly stand down from their best performances because they are afraid of or embarrassed by their own potential for beauty? “Who am I to do this?” “Who am I to think I can…” Like the artist in the film, questions may arise like, “Am I good enough to do this sport” (make this art)? “What will people think?” But despite the doubts or questions, the conclusion is, “I have to play this sport, I love it, even if I might embarrass myself” (make this art and put it out there even if people don’t like it). There is desire and energy to follow the creative impulse expressed by sport.

I would further suggest that it requires mental toughness to continue to follow those creative impulses, especially when there is a lot of pressure to perform at a high level, such as in spectator sports or making art for a gallery show. Mental toughness can be defined by things such as the ability to focus on what’s important and tune all else out, staying in control under pressure, working on meaningful goals to maintain motivation, managing self-doubt, having a “fighting spirit,” rebounding from mistakes, and being resilient in the face of struggle. Mentally tough athletes are those who never resign to a certain outcome because of a past performance. They go in with renewed creative sport spirit and go for it, able to put aside doubts. I suggest that mental toughness stems from being able to embrace vulnerability, the idea that maybe I won’t succeed, but I’ll give it all I’ve got anyway because I am compelled to and I can.

Who am I to put myself out there like that? What makes me think I can skate in front of all those people, run all those miles, cycle in those mountains, swim in that ocean? Who are you not to?

For some, the physical movement captured by participation in sport is a means of following creative impulse. They may not make paintings, but they move in flow with others in a most creative and spontaneous way, within the structure of the sport they embody. That is why the flow experience is described by athletes and artists alike. They become so engrossed in the activity that they lose track of themselves, time, and others. All fades away except for the activity itself in the moment. And that experience is beautiful, if you’ve ever felt it.

Struggle is beautiful because it presents us with vulnerability. Mentally tough people embrace this kind of beauty, even if it might be embarrassing.

Related articles:
Monitoring the “Heart” Rate
Ways to Play: Work and Play

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Darla Sedlacek, PhD, therapist in Lakewood, Ohio

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gerrard


    April 9th, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Its not easy and maybe even almost impossible for some people to overcome this sort of a mental block.Often it is the person himself that limits his ability.I had read the following a long time ago:

    If you believe that you can do something then you can do it even if you were not capable of it initially.

    And the opposite holds good too.

  • Hanna


    April 9th, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    I never perform my best at anything when I notice that I am comparing myself to others- what do they look like? How well do they do something that I am also interested in doing? You just have to find a way to get past all of that.

    Life is not well spent by dwelling on the things that someone else does or does not do better that you. We are at our most creative and successful, and dare I say beautiful, when we allow ourselves to simply be who we are and live up to our own goals that we have set for ourselves, and not in some race to measure up against everyone else.

  • Joey


    April 10th, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    If I am good at something. . . and know that I am good at something. . . then why am I continuing to compare myself to someone else?

  • Dr. Darla

    Dr. Darla

    April 16th, 2012 at 10:36 AM

    Some people are more apt to compare themselves to others, athletes are keenly aware of this. Some athletes have an easier time focusing on their own performances compared to past performances, rather than comparing self to other athletes. Some suggest it’s a focus issue, some suggest other variables. If in a flow experience, there typically is not a focus on what others are doing, just in the moment with own performance, deeply engaged with self. This is the beauty, the deep engagement with creative impulse. The vulnerability maybe comes when we go back to comparing and doubting. In moments it shifts, but maybe mental toughness helps one continually shift back to engagement with creative impulse.

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