Last week I visited a new physician to get help with an frustratingly long-standing hamstring issue that has been affecting my exercise. I was just getting ready to roll through my symptoms and previous attempts at treatment when he stopped me in my tracks with his very first question.
Are you an athlete?
The words hung there in the air between us for a while because I froze. I stared blankly at him. And then I stammered nonsense words for a full 25 seconds as my brain wrestled with whether or not I could lay claim to that moniker. Athlete.
Athlete is apparently not a title that I easily embrace. With one innocuous question (designed, presumably, simply to ascertain whether or not I had a sports-related injury) my new doctor had unwittingly kicked off an identity crisis!
Inside my brain this is what was happening:
Am I an athlete? No! For heaven’s sake. I mean yes I work out. I spin. I do yoga. I run when my knees cooperate. I have a collection of workout videos that rivals the one I have of cookbooks. We keep multiple pieces of cardio equipment and a full set of free weights in a dedicated home gym. I work out. But I’m not an athlete. I mean no one is paying me to do this. And I’m not even that good. OMG you need to answer this doctor now. Get some freaking words out of your mouth. He thinks you are an idiot.
You catch my drift.
Once my understandably bewildered doctor mercifully moved on, made his diagnosis and treatment recommendation, and sent me on my way, I sat myself down to analyze this little episode.
As I thought back on it, I realized that I’d heard athlete and instantly translated that into professional athlete. It felt fraudulent to use a title no one has formally anointed me with. I felt like I would be misleading him into thinking I was someone I’m not. But if athlete simply means “one who regularly participates in exercise or physical activity” then I certainly could have just said yes and moved on. And to be clear, that’s what he meant, because no one on the planet is mistaking me for a professional athlete.
It made me think about conversations I’ve had with countless women about their own titles. Maybe you’ve been in one of these at some point.
Are you a writer? Who me? I mean I write a blog but I don’t have a book published or anything.
Are you an actor? Gosh, I wish! I just do community theater productions every summer. I’ve never been in a movie or anything.
Are you a teacher? Oh no! I mean I teach Sunday school and I teach yoga but I could never be a teacher.
Are you a doctor? Heavens no. Well, I guess I have a PhD from Stanford but I’m not working right now.
Are you an entrepreneur? Well, sort of. I have my own business but we don’t have funding or anything. It’s just a small thing.
In each case, on the surface we can tell ourselves we’re just trying to be honest. We’re clarifying that we’re not the person that the asker might think we are.
But what if buried in these dismissals is the belief that we’re not good enough to claim the title in question if we’re not being paid for it. What if this little exercise in honesty is really a way of playing small. Of not getting too big for our britches. Of making sure we stay palatable. What if we are actually saying,
If that’s the case, then disavowing titles we deserve needs to stop. Maybe it’s time we give ourselves permission to claim a few more titles based on what we do, not just on what we’re paid to do. Like this.
If you write, then you’re a writer.
If you paint, then you’re a painter.
If you have earned a PhD, then in the name of all that is holy, you are a doctor. Forever.
Really. It’s true. By definition.
The next time you find yourself tongue-tied in one of these all-too-frequent conversations, see it for what it is. A chance to be who you are.