“Just so you know, I can’t fully extend my right arm, so when I’m demonstrating this movement, one of my arms will be bent and the other will be straight. When you do it, lock out both your arms. I’d appreciate the show of solidarity, but it will be better for you to use the full capacity of both your arms.”
I’ve said some version of this countless times during my career as a fitness coach. If someone asks, I could explain more about erb’s palsy, but usually we’re strapped for time and we move on quickly. I’d love to tell you that I’ve delivered the news of my own physical limitation so many times that it leaves me unphased, but that’s not true. It is my job to help people learn how to move in a safe and efficient manner, so that they can get the best results from each workout. This fact is contrasted with the fact that I am physically unable to perform many movements in the optimal fashion because I have a physical limitation that I’ve had since birth. Due to the limited mobility and range of motion in my right arm, I’ll never be able to give a full demonstration of some movements.
I don’t know what the clients I work with think of this. I have been able to successfully coach clients to make improvements in their olympic lifts and gymnastics using means that I am actually not capable of utilizing, so I believe that I have some credibility in the way I have been able to help others. Additionally, I have worked hard to be able to do a ton of movements with one impaired arm that many people with two good arms can’t do, so I believe I have some credibility for the results I have been able to achieve for myself. Despite that, I’m still self-conscious.
When I made the decision to coach, I counted my story and example as a strong positive feature to my appeal as a coach. I am not a natural who took to each movement with effortless athleticism. In my own journey, I had to work through tedious progressions and put in extra time. In any instance where using two arms was needed, I was at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, I persisted. Most people, even with no acute physical limitation, are in a similar position: many fitness movements don’t come naturally; everything feels like an uphill battle. I thought my own story could be relatable and inspiring. I believe that has been the case.
But I don’t know that for sure. As a coach, I have some doubt or self-consciousness about my own physical limitations creep in on a daily basis.
As an athlete, I’ve received many flattering compliments on my physical ability, especially despite the physical limitation of my arm. When I’m looking to perform, I’m looking to perform better than everyone, not just better than you’d expect for a guy with limitations on one side. Likewise, I’ve gotten compliments on my physique and the strength of my erb’s palsy side. I’ve even received messages on social media from other people with erb’s palsy who ask “How can I strengthen my erb’s side to get symmetry like yours?” I certainly appreciate that sort of feedback. It makes me feel like I’ve worked up to having my limitation be barely noticeable. I’ll feel quite good about my physical state.
Then, I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a picture or video when I was less conscious of my position. I’ll catch a glimpse of my arm jutting out in the mirror. My eye immediately fixates on my erb’s palsy arm. It looks so much smaller and weaker than my left arm. I hate the way it props up in front of my torso, rather than just hang by my side. I think about how this is how I must be seen by everyone else. How my crooked arm must look so peculiar to every observer.
These feelings of self consciousness are not something I verbalize. If you were to ask me about how I feel about my arm, I might talk about how it has taught me so much about grit or how I don’t let it hold me back in any way. However, it most certainly has a mental hold on me at some point every day. I don’t dwell on this and have come a long way in acceptance, but I have my self conscious moments each day.
My physical limitation is something that I can acknowledge as a source of strength. I am truly proud of what I can do and how I’ve worked to be able to do it. At the same time, I will acknowledge that it is something that still is a source of self-doubt and shame for me. I acknowledge that today only because I know that I am not alone in having self doubts and insecurities about my body. Maybe I’ll come to a place of better acceptance or maybe I will always have those doubts, but I will not live in either of those states alone.