What we don’t talk about when we talk about trusting the process

Every time I encounter the phrase #TrustTheProcess, I want to fucking SCREAM (yes, I wanted to scream the entire time I wrote this post). Being an athlete, I see and hear it all. the. time. It’s everywhere, its 7.5+ million posts propping up the fitstasphere by fitfluencers and big-name, top athletes alike.

I get why people use it. I know that, ostensibly, it’s meant to be motivating, encouraging, empowering. To amp people up. Get them excited. To instill in them dedication, discipline, drive. I understand the appeal.

In practice, this phrase is an overused and mis-used ableist pile of shit.

The people who preach #TrustTheProcess often fail to consider the resources—especially the intangible ones—and the nuance that go into accessing “the process” in the first place, let alone adhering to and trusting it. They conceive of “the process” as a universally applicable and infallible monolith. If you stick to it, it’ll work. If it doesn’t work, you’re not doing it right. Or you don’t want it badly enough. In the face of failure, the process is never the problem. Only you, the person, are ever the problem.

Here’s the thing about #TrustTheProcess: “The process” is not fail-proof, one-dimensional, or one-size-fits-all, and for it to work, you have to trust a lot more than just the process itself.

It isn’t enough to just show up and put in the work and follow—and stick to—the program. #TrustingTheProcess requires us to also trust our body, which requires us to know our body—and our needs and our boundaries—and to trust our intuition; to trust that the process we’ve been prescribed is designed for our body, that it’s compatible with our boundaries and our needs; and to trust the people around us who are telling us to #TrustTheProcess in the first place—coaches, trainers, doctors, physical therapists, etc.

For many of us autistic folks, these are incredibly difficult tasks. Sometimes they feel impossible. Sometimes they are impossible. Especially in a society that seems hellbent on forcing one-size-fits-all approaches that are baselined for neurotypical brains and bodies, espousing toxic positivity and hyper-individualism, and misunderstanding and pathologizing natural variations of the human experience.

Many of us autistic folks, especially those of us who learned we’re autistic later in life, grew up being told by everyone around us that our experiences, especially our sensory experiences, weren’t valid or real. We were called dramatic and attention-seeking. Our attempts to communicate our experiences and our needs were taken as complaining, or even combative, and often went unheeded. Sometimes we were punished—socially, emotionally, physically—for trying to make our experiences and needs known. Often, this shit persists into adulthood, and even after we learn—and disclose—that we’re autistic.

Since I started lifting almost a decade ago, I’ve consistently told coaches and doctors “this doesn’t feel right” and “that doesn’t make sense to me” and “I don’t think I’m doing this right??????”

For years, I was made to feel like I was stupid, that I was being lazy, that I didn’t want it badly enough, that I was being willfully obstinate. For years, coaches—and your standard variety pack of healthcare providers: doctors, DPTs, LMTs, chiros, etc.—insisted that it was impossible for me to experience the things I was experiencing, that I must be mistaken, that it was all in my head.

At first, I pushed back. I switched gyms, changed coaches and doctors, asked for second and third opinions, googled the shit out of many corners of the internet. Everywhere I went, I was told by people with all the right qualifications and credentials and letters behind their names that I was wrong. I was dismissed, disbelieved, gaslight. Told no, I was not having the experiences I was having. Impossible. The problem was me. I needed to #TrustTheProcess.

So I did. I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars, and tens and tens of hours each month on #TrustingTheProcess. Day after day I showed up and put in the work. I paid for custom programming and coaching, I paid for nutrition coaching, I meticulously tracked my macros, my hydration, my sleep, my periods, my moods, my energy levels, and a long list of other variables. I recorded my training sessions, and analyzed them to death. I planned my entire life around lifting. For almost a decade I did this, with very, very little return on investment.

After the initial wave of PRs that most newbies ride, I plateaued. Hard. I wasn’t getting better, or stronger. Eventually, I started to regress, and to get weaker. And then, I ended up where I am now—multiply injured and, due to compensatory movement patterns that my body developed in response to performing movements incorrectly for literally my entire life, with “profound” (a current doctor’s word) muscle weaknesses and imbalances, on top of my natural hypermobility and joint instability. (Autistic people are at significantly higher risk for hypermobility, connective tissue disorders, and joint injuries.)

TURNS OUT *cuts eyes at camera* I was right all those times that I told my coaches and clinicians “this doesn’t feel right” and “that doesn’t make sense to me” and “I don’t think I’m doing this right??????”

Being autistic means my brain processes information—like coaching cues—differently, and my sensory systems—including the systems responsible for balance and coordination, muscle activation and recruitment, motor planning and output, awareness of where my body is in space, and sensing pain—work differently.

All those years, I suspected that my brain and my body worked differently. But I had no proof, so no one listened to me. I didn’t know the truth of my intuition—an intuition that was questioned and dismissed so frequently and intensely by experts and professionals that I gave up on it, began to ignore it—until recently. I didn’t know the truth of my intuition until I learned that I’m autistic and began learning how being autistic impacts me as an athlete, and overall health and wellness.

Most of the people I’ve worked with in the past didn’t know it either. I don’t think any of them were actively out to sabotage me. I think that they just…didn’t listen to me—and weren’t willing, or were otherwise unprepared, to consider that my experiences and needs are different from most, and to accommodate them/me. And before I learned that I’m autistic, I didn’t have the context or language to more effectively communicate my experiences and needs; to get people to listen to me, to believe me.

Autism aside, it’s wild to me that I was treated the way that I was, by so many people and for so long. Athlete/coach and patient/doctor relationships are supposed to be collaborative, not authoritarian. We should be working together to create spaces where we both feel respected and trusted, and able to trust each other.

It’s really, really hard to #TrustTheProcess when you don’t trust the people who are telling you to #TrustTheProcess, because the people who are telling you to #TrustTheProcess don’t trust you when you communicate your experiences and your needs to them.

We’re all different. “The process” is designed for many, perhaps even most. But “many” and “most” are not “all.” Some of us need a different process. And that’s okay! “Different” doesn’t mean “less than” or “worse” or “wrong.” It means “different.”

Coaches and clinicians: Be someone we can trust. When we tell you what we’re experiencing and what we need, believe us. Trust us. Work with us to find an approach—a process—that works for us, instead of doubling down and shrugging us off. We aren’t lazy or complaining or inherently inept or incapable; we’re frustrated and traumatized and exhausted. We absolutely want it badly enough. We just need someone to take us seriously, and give us a chance. I promise you, we’ll be much more open to trusting you and the process you prescribe if we feel seen and supported.

And if what we need is outside the scope of the service you offer, or beyond your knowledge and experience, say so! “I don’t know” is not a sign of weakness or an admission of failure.

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