Does childhood trauma make us more likely to become bodybuilders?

As a part of my treatment for PTSD, my therapist recommended that I read Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve only made it through the first few chapters, but I can see why it was recommended reading. I can see myself in many of the characteristics he describes. Walker begins by identifying some of the common traits of folks who experience certain kinds of ongoing trauma in their childhoods, including four main personality types/coping strategies.

There’s the narcissist, who learns to fight and compete, the “obsessive/compulsive” who learns to live in fear (flight), the child who learns to disassociate (freeze) and finally the codependent, who learns to fawn, or appease others in an effort to keep the peace. Each of these personality tendencies is born out of a natural, physiological response to unsafe environments, and they aren’t pathological when they are short-term responses to hard situations. However, as I understand it, we can get ingrained into longer-term patterns of response from childhoods filled with uncertainty and chronic danger (real or perceived). I have said before that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m both dealing with trauma and drawn to bodybuilding, and as I read this book, my feelings about those connections are only getting stronger.

After all, I feel that I’ve seen at least three of these personality types in the gym.

The narcissist lifter is easy to spot. Preening in the mirror, aggressively making it all about themselves, losing their shit if someone takes “too long” in the squat rack. Lifting is about proving something, about being alpha, about being better than others and proving something to the world. Like all narcissists, there’s a deep well of uncertainty and internalized inferiority driving their incessant need to go hardcore. I’m clearly biased against this sort of personality, as I’ve been on the receiving end of too much abusive behavior from lifters who are out to prove they’re hot shit. I’m sympathetic to their insecurities, but not if that means they’ve got to victimize others to feel good about themselves.

The dissociative lifter is there to get in their heads and check out for a while. They aren’t lifting to build community or connect with others. Headphones or earbuds firmly in place, they’re in their routine and in the zone. They might seem cold or distant, but they’re probably actually just totally not paying attention to others. I definitely can have moments of being a dissociative lifter, and I enjoy the sense of flow I can get from getting lost into my lifting and that I can disconnect from the other challenges of my day.

I can also relate to the obsessive/compulsive lifter, who finds themselves needing to react and respond, searching endlessly for more information to make the workout a bit better, more productive, safer or more optimal. These are the folks who find it more stressful to miss a workout than to fit it in, who enjoy the nitpicky details and struggle to identify which training and nutrition ideas are highest priority. These are the perfectionists, and they are likely folks who are highly successful in whichever areas they focus their attention, but that also means they may be most prone to all-or-nothing thinking and either going all-in on their training and nutrition of completely “falling off the wagon.”

I have the hardest time identifying what a codependent or “fawning” lifter might look and act like. Part of it, I expect, is that this is a newer concept to me. Walker defines a fawn response as, “when a person responds to a threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall the attacker.” I won’t deny that I have some fawning tendencies as well, as I certainly have my moments of shrinking myself down in hopes of making other people more at ease, even when they’re bullying me. But I notice this tendency and go pretty quickly into another defense these days, as I resent letting mean people get away with what they want just because they’re mean and scary. My guess is that the closest analog in the lifting world to fawning are the folks who are doing the work for someone else–always trying to be thinner or more attractive to their unsupportive spouse, partner or society at large or trying to be more acceptable for their judgmental parent. I don’t think the folks in the gym with these motivations are likely to make a big scene. They’re probably overly accommodating, making sure they’re not using the equipment when someone else might want it, afraid to take up space. They’re probably also highly concerned about what others might be thinking about them, something they have in common with the narcissists. I would think it would be difficult to sustain the effort of a regular gym habit coming from this point of view.

Personality typing comes with it some ingrained flaws that I don’t like. It implies that we are more one thing than another rather than a complex mix of traits. It doesn’t consider context and environment moment to moment and instead suggests our personalities are more-or-less fixed regardless of circumstance. And yet, once these patterns were suggested to me, I can’t help but notice that elements of it feel true and right. Dr. Lisa Lewis talked about perceiving our challenges from a strength-based perspective, and we can do that with these qualities, too. A tendency towards narcissism likely makes someone a very successful competitor. Having the ability to dissociate helps someone get in the zone and compartmentalize other challenges. Obsessing over details can drive us towards excellence. An element of codependence helps us consider the needs of others. Maybe they’re only pathological or problematic in the extremes?

I’m certainly no expert, and I’m just sharing my thoughts and ideas in an interest in sparking a conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions along these lines! Please leave a comment below. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this conversation, please do us both the favor and share it with them! Thanks for your support!

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