The “Shit Sandwich” & Other Lessons From Elizabeth Gilbert

This week, some big ideas from unrelated parts in my brain crashed together in a perfect storm of temporary enlightenment.  An email conversation over a few days with my coach about goal setting happened while I was listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic.  This isn’t a book review – I’m just sharing a couple of things I’ve discovered listening to this book that helped me.

For a couple months now, I’ve explored the shame I felt when I competed last July.  If I don’t deal with it, I won’t be able to compete again because I know there will be an anxiety attack of epic proportions.  For those of you who are familiar with her work, one of Brené Brown’s books has already been listened to – twice.  (I’m sure I’ll listen to it a couple more times). There have been a couple of Wayne Dyer’s books, too, and a couple from authors not so well-known.  Each of these books have given me something I can use to evolve my mental game, just like lifting transformed my physique.

She Called it “The Shit Sandwich”

Ms. Gilbert referred to the sacrifices required to make time to be creative while still being a responsible person as eating “the shit sandwich” for your particular endeavor.  It means that that there will be parts of the process that aren’t fun or convenient, but need to happen.  She gave examples of now famous authors who made the time to write, working other jobs, before they were able to make a living as a writer.  She mentioned Toni Morrison and JK Rowling specifically.   She said we need to be willing to do the inconvenient stuff.

Someday, I’d like to be an author, but right now, that’s not where my creativity is focused.  I don’t expect people to understand it, but bodybuilding is where I feel creative.  I work on it daily.  Lifting, food, rest are my tools.   It’s my sculpture.  I’m working on this one project.   I add to it, sometimes work on details, and I walk around wearing it.  I’m happy to do the hard stuff for my craft – “the shit sandwich” of early morning workouts, getting by on less sleep, saving money to pay for it, and the periods of strict nutrition.  But there are other parts of bodybuilding that feel like it’s not worth it.  I do think about these things.  I work on balance.  And I repeatedly ask myself “why do I need to do this?”  It’s a simple answer.  It brings me joy.


When I step on stage, my “art” is being judged.  Last July, my sculpture was the best it’s been, but I lost sight of that fact.  The table of folks below the stage judged my work as inferior.  (Have I told you what happened?  I don’t remember.  When I was moved after the first symmetry round, I wasn’t just moved to what would be a last place position in my own class.  Women’s open and novice classes were brought out together.  I was in the open.  When I was moved, I was moved away from the open class to the other side of the novice class.   I was far stage right, not being compared to anyone during the mandatory poses.  I did not see a single judge look at me during front-facing poses.  I knew I just earned my third last place finish in three shows.  I fought hard to keep my inner demons quiet the whole time I was on stage.  My photographer husband was next to the stage, so I posed for the pictures.  Those are the only pictures where I’m smiling.)  The reflective work I’ve been doing – listening to books, absorbing ideas, applying some, rejecting others – has helped begin to build the mental foundation that I thought was strong enough to withstand what happened on stage that day.  I wasn’t ready.  I need to be sturdier to do what I’m attempting to do – a competitive female bodybuilder in open classes even though I’m in my 50’s – because I don’t want to be caught off guard on stage like that again.  I can’t control where they move me, but I can control how I react to being moved.  I can control who’s opinion matters more to me on that day.  Mine.  Period.

As I mentioned, there were several emails with Coach last week about goal-setting.  He knows what I’m working on.  We’ve also agreed that I need to complete this work before I can compete again.  He gently steered me towards setting goals about personal progression.  Thought about it.   Turns out, that doesn’t work for me.  I see progression as a logical outcome of smart programming and consistency.  So if I’m going to make sacrifices, expect my husband to sacrifice, spend money on this, I need another big scary goal.  I made a list of the big scary goals I’ve set and achieved, even though they seemed hard or impossible when set.  After a few days of sitting with it, mulling it over, and acknowledging that my experience last summer had landed me in a depressing place called “reality”, Coach helped me find the words to set the next big  scary goal…

Last. Woman. Standing.

(Which means I want to win an overall, earn a pro-card, and compete at a national show.  I’ve always wanted this, but three last place finishes has made it seem too naive to hang on to.  It’s still naive and unrealistic.  So what?  I’ve been disappointed already and know what that feels like.  I didn’t set a time limit.  Just owning the dream.)

This one needs a new name.  It will now be called the Big-Scary-Hairy-Improbable-But-I’m-Going-For-It-Anyway Goal.  I honestly believe I will continue to improve and will present a better sculpture each time I compete no matter what.  I have a good work-ethic and a supportive and smart coach.  But it’s no longer about how hard I work anymore, is it?  This goal will fuel my work regardless.  This is “Fire-in-the-belly” sort of stuff.

I listened to Ms. Gilbert addressed rejection and it occured to me that I can learn a lot from writers about judging and rejection.  This passage resonated with me…

“No doesn’t always mean no.  Never surrender.  Miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up.”

~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

So that’s the plan.  I’ll keep showing up.

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Filed under Bodybuilding Journal, Competing, Motivation

6 responses to “The “Shit Sandwich” & Other Lessons From Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. Thank you so much for posting this today! As I powered my way through another day of shit sandwiches, longing for time enough to create something, anything at all, I wondered if there was a point to it all. You show that there is – in every post. Big scary goal? You got this! Inspiring to boot!

  2. Gene Fleming

    So many parallels to my own life, but in different venues. As a trumpeter, my first large audience was about 7,000 people. I shook, my lips were dry, and I felt faint. The solo was “OK” but didn’t garner a standing ovation. Years later, I didn’t give solos a second thought.

    As a public speaker, I had some good coaching. After my first biggie, a coach asked, “Did you finally get that booger in your nose and find that loose change in your pocket?” Apparently, I’d rubbed my nose and played with my coins.

    I was so humiliated, so embarrassed. But, that Naval officer made a speaker out of me. I’ve done seminars and TV work with success.

    The art of perfecting my skills was about chiseling away everything that wasn’t working and building on everything that was.

    At a certain point, my father had the opportunity to hear me speak (after I was well-polished). He crucified my efforts…picked me apart…thought the standing ovation was unmerited. He was the one judge I wanted to impress…the one endorsement I felt I needed.

    Suffice it to say, I had to let that critic go.

    I never got his seal of approval, never will, but I built a resilient me despite him.

    Now, I’m 58. I started bodybuilding three years ago. I’m not a competitive guy, I’m just chiseling away at the parts that need it. My wife thinks I’m sexy.

    I’m in Heaven right here on Earth! She’s the only critic who matters.😀

  3. Jen

    Inspiring…. as always.
    The health and fitness industry is a constant comparison game.
    We just need to know how far we’ve come.
    And let us never forget that we are valuable and that the opinions of mere beings does not matter. (Even when we’re being judged by them)
    Imagine the feat you have accomplished just stepping on that stage. The majority of people would never subject themselves to that.

  4. Kimber

    Thank you for your story and the inspiration! Sounds like your coach is all encompassing, knows his craft, and a definite keeper!

  5. Pingback: The Importance of Mindset To Doing Scary Things | Lifting My Spirits

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