This morning I hauled myself out of bed way earlier than I wanted to, because if I did, I would get to swim (and then have coffee with) one of the raddest people I know. We do this (mostly) weekly and have been for a year now. Last April, I could pull off a mean doggie paddle, and today I swam 12 laps in under 30 minutes without feeling tired or winded. So I’m not going to break records any time soon, but I’m faster, stronger, and certainly less likely to hurt myself than I was a year ago.
But when I casually mentioned my morning activity to a colleague and was met with, “I didn’t know you’re a swimmer!”… My instinctive response was, “Oh, I’m not. I’m still just learning, and I only do it once a week.” This interaction has played several out times over the last year, but this time I felt a twang of annoyance with myself.
Why don’t I think I’m a “swimmer”?
These days I probably find time to knit even less than once a week, and there are *far* better knitters out there. I’m always learning new techniques and about different fibers, but I have no trouble identifying as a “knitter.” Same is true of baking and cooking, though those have been even more sporadic than knitting over these last few months, and I know many talented bakers and chefs who could wipe the floor with me in a competition. I ride my bicycle everyday for my main transportation and have for over a decade, but I still have a hard time identifying as a cyclist.* This morning when I told my rad swimming buddy that I’m not a consultant and not sure how to operate in that world, she quickly reminded me that I was ignoring six years of related expertise that translate just fine into my new role.
Why do I keep doing this to myself? Is it because I’m bowing to gender expectations? (I mean, who’s going to question my crafting or baking skills? It’s almost an expectation that I’ll do those things decently enough.) Is it a manifestation of perfectionism? When it comes to athletic activities, I immediately hone in on my shortcomings and challenges and discount the improvements I’ve made and what I *am* capable of. I do that in part because I’m afraid I’ll get into an interaction (with “real” swimmers or cyclists) that will force me to defend my self-identification (how tedious and tiring!). In my professional sphere, titles are both fairly meaningless and heavily relied upon for credentialing. If my boss or board didn’t put a particular word in my job title or description, will others accept me claiming that knowledge?
Ultimately, it’s not a question of how other people label me. It’s a matter of identifying the little voice in my head – the one that’s not letting me fully embrace all of my aspirations and the small gains that I’ll make along the way. There’s no time quota, ability, or outside credentialing that marks when I get to be a swimmer, knitter, consultant, or any other skill or activity I’m invested in. And if someone else does decide to challenge me, I just might be up for it now.
*Yes, I know we’re not supposed to use “cyclist” and should focus on the behavior and not the person. But I’m talking about self-defining and communities of shared interest, not the labels other people get to put on you to otherize or marginalize you. So there.