Gentle Vigilance: Loving Your Way Towards Your Goals

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post on how all-or-nothing thinking is self sabotage, and I continue to see evidence of that to this day.

I see performance athletes training themselves into the ground until they are sick, injured, and/or burnt out.

I see folks who are making progress towards enjoying movement invalidating their growth with their thoughts that it’s never enough.

And, absolutely, I see it permeating the lives of myself, my students, my friends, and my loved ones in so, so many ways.

I was just recently reminded of a Twitter thread by Molly Backes that was circulating widely over the summer about the weight of “Impossible Tasks” and the difficulty of navigating the many tasks that make up a life.

Unlike all too many trainers and coaches who offer gaslighting in the face of struggle, I am here to honor and validate this struggle… and to acknowledge that I, too, have had to learn how to do the impossible, even when what seems impossible to me may look like a simple, every-day task from the outside.

One of my close friends and mentors is the author Catherine Ryan Hyde; honestly, words cannot fully express the immensity of my gratitude for Catherine and the positive impact she has had on my life. Almost eight years ago, we had a conversation that has stuck with me and helped me through many challenging periods of my life.

During this conversation, we explored the idea of “gentle vigilance.” We talked about how important it was to continue to move vigilantly towards healing and one’s most important goals in life… but to do so from a place of self-love, and with a heart of great gentleness.

At the time, I had absolutely no idea how to do that, but it seemed a worthwhile thing to aim towards. Over the last eight years, I have made significant progress towards my ability to manifest gentle vigilance in my life (although by no means am I perfect at it!).

This idea of gentle vigilance shapes a great deal of my approach to coaching, because it enables me to help people in a way that is honest about the realities of their lives, rather than aiming for some externally imposed ideal.

I completely step away from prescriptive approaches of how much, how often, and how intensely people “should” move (most of which—let’s be honest—are rooted in ableism, body shame, and classism) and instead ask my students a series of questions:

  • Imagine a week where everything goes well—not perfectly, but well. No unusual transportation troubles, you’re working as much as is typical and no more, you’re not sick or injured, none of the significant folks in your life are experiencing extenuating circumstances above and beyond the usual, and any chronic conditions or illnesses that you experience are being effectively navigated. On a week like that, how many days per week would you like to realistically move with intention, and for what length of time?
  • Now, imagine a week in which you’re not sick or injured in a way that would prevent movement, but nothing else seems to quite fall into place. Maybe there are challenges in your normal mode of transportation, or you have an inordinate amount of work to navigate, or you or one of your loved ones are experiencing some significant extenuating circumstances, or a chronic condition is flaring up and creating some additional challenges. Basically, it’s a doozy of a week. On a week like that, how many days per week would you like to realistically move with intention, and for what length of time?

What results from these questions is a goal statement that is focused on the realities of their lives, rather than an externally imposted ideal. For example, someone who answered the first question with “Three times a week for 45-60 minutes” and the second question with “One time a week for 10 minutes” would have the following goal statement:

Goal: to move with intention from one to three times per week for 10-60 minutes per time.

Every week that they are within that range is a success!

Notice that I say “Move with Intention” instead of “Train” or “Exercise” or “Workout” or whatever; that is not an accident. Moving with intention allows this to be expansive and accessible. It can mean turning on your favorite playlist and boogying while you make dinner or making the conscious decision to complete an Impossible Task that involves movement (such as sweeping the floor, taking a shower, or going grocery shopping, etc.); it can also mean getting in some intense time with kettlebells, the yoga mat, or a bar of steel. There is no hierarchy here: the goal is to move with intention, and to do it from a heart of kindness as much as possible.

Of course, this process of setting goals from a place of gentle vigilance applies for areas of life that aren’t directly connected to movement: writing more, spending more time with friends or family, organizing your living space, or improving your sleep hygiene are all examples, and I’m sure each of you can think of one or two things that you would like to grow towards.

Whatever your goals are, explore the question of what it would look like if you moved in their direction while free from the constraints of shame, guilt, and perfectionism.

It will involve a rhythmic shifting between times when you are taking active steps and times when you are resting, evaluating, and/or playing.

It will involve trial and error, and learning how to kindly, gently notice the voices of judgment and fear within your thoughts as they arise… and then keep doing what is best for you, even in the midst of them.

Gentle vigilance. What does it mean to you? How might embracing those two little words change the way you’re relating to one of the goals you’re working towards right now?

Step into the question, and see what happens.

(And, of course, if you’re interested in learning how I can help you develop a gently vilgilant relationship towards movement, contact me! I’d be happy to help.)

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