“Hold back, slow down,” Grandmaster said when I threw an axe kick at a young bo dan during a sparring class a few months ago. The command to fight had barely dissipated and I thought I’d try something different–jump in aggressively and take the offense. “He’s high-ranking. You don’t know what he’s going to do. Watch him and then respond.” That bit of coaching changed my entire outlook. The kid still got in some nice hits, but I felt much more relaxed and calm during the match.

Taekwondo is not about going out and looking for a fight. In fact, sparring is the only time that is officially sanctioned for us to deliberately beat the daylights out of each other. On the street you don’t go around bragging about your black belt or goading the loud guy at the bar into fisticuffs. If you come across someone bragging about their fighting skills there’s a strong probability that they’re the biggest chicken in the room. Your confidence and calm demeanor in the face of conflict should speak for itself. If it gets physical then you have every right to defend yourself. May I suggest an elbow to the side of the head?

The same calm cool mindset should be adapted to how we handle interpersonal conflict. What usually happens, though, when the adrenaline is rushing and our higher mental functions shut down, is pure lizard brain panic.
“My hackles are up…but in a gentle positive way,” I assured a coworker after I sent a cautiously-worded and thorough response to some changes that popped out from around a corner. (Don’t they always tend to do that?) Over the years I have learned through trial and error and a few burns and scrapes to be protective of myself, my time, my sanity, and my limits.  When a mandate is handed down from upper leadership in the office I counter with questions and logistics, albeit respectfully. In my personal life I object when I am met with disrespectful or questionable comments about my personality, looks, or way of doing things. I speak softly and infrequently, but I am a force to be reckoned with.

It hasn’t always been like that.

Sometimes I strike before the first blow has been dealt. Since childhood I was a doormat, weakly protesting ridiculing and insults with frantic tears and desperate screams long after the other person’s proverbial foot was squarely planted on my neck. I suffered through more than one verbally and emotionally abusive relationship. I let friends bully me, partially because I could do nothing more than be a docile cow, and partially because in the end I couldn’t care less about salvaging those friendships so I didn’t put forth the effort to have a crucial conversation. At work I snarked and protested behind backs but never addressed the problems face-first. When offered the chance to voice my concerns I shut down and my anger continued to simmer.  People I trusted and wanted to please punched me the hardest. I didn’t think I deserved better.

It took many years to start respecting and loving myself enough to realize that the way I was being treated wasn’t cool, and the only one who was going to save me was myself. I’m still getting my sea legs with this whole confidence thing, though. Sometimes I take feedback as a fight to be picked. Sometimes I don’t recognize that an insult or insensitive comment is about that person’s insecurity and unhappiness, not a reflection of my supposed poor performance as a human being. Sometimes I unleash a tornado when only a gentle yet firm breeze is required. Sometimes I still revert to being the trampled on, ridiculed helpless victim. It’s very difficult to unravel the deeply entrenched habit of letting my mind run wild with conflict fantasies, which is a really unpleasant and unproductive way to pass the time. Last week I was caught off-guard with some heavy-duty topics in my personal life that deserved more time than the 10 minutes I had before I had to leave for work. I had a difficult time processing them throughout the day, vascilating among bits of silent rage, wounded victimhood, and wobbly but defiant and scrappy self-assurance that I was indeed just as awesome as I’d kept telling myself I was. I couldn’t tell if it was a fatal blow being dealt or just an invitation to engage in discussion. In the past I have reacted so swiftly that the damage could not be undone. I get paid to talk with people about conflict management and still struggle with it on a personal level. Physician, heal thyself.

Am I so worried about getting hit that I snap in the winds of change?

“Relax!!” an instructor called out during a more recent sparring class. I was sparring with another instructor, a fourth degree black belt who was intent on pushing my limits but not going past the level he thought I could handle. There was nothing to worry about. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to perform well and use all the technique he had taught me or was more concerned about avoiding a nasty kick to the ribs. (I did avoid those and have the forearm bruises to prove it). It was too much for my lizard brain to handle. I must have been pretty tense for my instructor to pick up on my stressed-out body language as I look like a  marshmallow in my sparring gear. I consciously loosened my shoulders and tried to be a little more mindful during the rest of the match. While you don’t want to be slack during sparring (really folks, hold your hands up; look at what happened to Anderson Silva), it is possible to be fluid and relaxed while clocking someone. Sparring is a dance. It’s a two-sided conversation. The trick is to listen. It took concerted effort to relax, though, and made me wonder how often we’re walking through life in a metaphorical sparring stance, anticipating an attack from everyone who crosses our path.

Is the hand extended towards us balled in a fist or offering an olive branch? Are we so blinded by our assumptions and past experiences that we can’t tell the difference? Can we destroy entire relationships in the blink of an eye? Is there hope that we can rewire our brains to relax, thoughtfully assess the situation, and respond rather than react? That can make all the difference in the outcome.

Here’s a really advanced yoga posture that will not only help you relax but remain confident in the face of adversity:
Raise the left corner of your mouth.
Now raise the right corner of your mouth.
Hold and breathe.

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