For a few minutes last night, though, it was the last place I wanted to be. As soon as the first round of sparring began my mood crashed and burned. Suddenly my instructor’s guidance sounded like taunts and my partner’s attacks felt like physical manifestations of all my shortcomings. This of course was all in my head. Neither one did anything wrong. They just happened to be in my line of sight when my old friend Low Self-Esteem decided to play. All my flaws were exposed, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was pissed.
I glared at my instructor and whined, “I’m tired,” which was a lie. I had been looking forward to class all day and couldn’t wait to work out. I was tired, but not physically tired. My mind and heart were tired. I am tired of holding it together and being “on” all the time. I’m tired of carrying myself and being my own hero. I’m tired of bearing my crosses alone. I’m tired of being slow and clumsy and weak and ineffective when I spar. I’m tired of trying to live up to my own impossible expectations.
But even that isn’t entirely true. I love my life and sometimes can’t believe I have the stupid luck to have it. I’m so much more at peace and in tune with who I really am and have accepted that happiness truly comes from within. What’s become confusing is that my tiny glimpses of bliss and enlightenment cause me to glance around, yawn with boredom, and say, “None of this matters one bit. This is all pointless. Who cares about these activities or possessions or achievements or relationships? All that matters is internal peace and happiness. F*ck it all. I’ll be dead in sixty years anyway.” My inner Buddha is sometimes more like an enlightened Eeyore.
As my partner and I circled around each other I continued to throw nasty glances and mutter curses through the plastic of my mouthguard. For a split second my instructor’s eyes glinted with a mixture of confusion and irritation. Even though I was silently willing him to go away, leave me alone, and stop reminding me that I didn’t know what I was doing I almost wanted him to call me out on my rudeness to snap me out of my downward spiral. Instead he continued to coach me and my partner, throwing out commands and not letting up until we were finished. I couldn’t look at him or my partner after that. Ultimately I was thankful that he kept pushing me to improve my sparring strategy. It kept me focused on the present moment and shielded me from myself. I’m a much more deadly opponent to myself than anyone I’ve ever encountered.
The only other time I’ve gotten upset in sparring class was when I was about ten in Taekwondo Iteration Part One. I did the classic green belt slapstick move of hitting myself in the nose as I was attempting to block a blow from my sparring partner. It surprised me more than it hurt. I went after the other kid in a blind rage, breathing fire and kicking furiously until my gentle-hearted instructor pulled me aside and talked me down from the ledge. I was never really angry at the other kid, other than that he unwittingly exposed what I deemed at the time to be an unforgivable flaw. I was angry at myself for being a failure. I was mortified that I had made such a rookie mistake.
My reaction was just a symptom of a much deeper problem. Even at that young age I was embarrassed at what I deemed to be a sign of weakness, a stumble, a cause for people to laugh at me, a reminder of how much I hated myself. I believed I couldn’t do anything right, and that attitude would haunt me well into adolescence and adulthood. Shame, humiliation, and feelings of unworthiness were ingrained into me so early on and so deeply that I am still digging out the pieces. These days when I think about the incident I’m not embarrassed about hitting myself in the nose. If I got hit in the face now I’d probably just start laughing and high five my partner for giving me a funny story to tell at work the next day. I’m much more embarrassed at how I reacted, just like I was embarrassed at how I lashed out last night, even though it was only for a few seconds.
At the end of class I apologized to my instructor, who was wondering what that side of me was about. I muttered a quick explanation that I was “stressed out,” but that wasn’t entirely accurate. I knew something weird had happened. I knew that for a few seconds the Old Me, the angry, lonely, self-loathing perfectionist, had clawed its way back to the surface. Dexter Morgan had his Dark Passenger. I have Old Me, and she is very troubled and very mean.
The next class, advanced technique for red and black belts, was much more relaxed and comfortable. But the tiny peek into darkness kept nagging at me. I felt like such a fraud! Who cares if I know all the forms or my slow motion front snap kick is pretty or I can explain the “whys” behind the one-steps to a young girl? If I can’t put what I’ve learned to practice to adequately defend myself and fight off an attacker then do I deserve to test for black belt this fall? Do I even deserve to be the rank that I am now? I am all talk and no action.The rational side of me says, “Chill, you’re learning, that’s why it’s called PRACTICE.” The irrational side of me says, “F*ck you, I want to be perfect NOW.” Short of smacking myself in the head the way Chris Farley did during his endearingly awkward celebrity interviews on SNL, I’m pretty tough on myself.
Last night instead of letting Old Me pour a shot of Gentleman Jack and crack open a trusty bottle of (legal) prescription pills to console myself I chastely chugged a giant can of Goya coconut water that I buy from the same neighborhood mercado where I treat myself to pan dulce and rose-scented soap and snacked on a bowl of shredded roast chicken mixed with a mashed up avocado and topped with garlic salt, which…OMG, you guys, you don’t even know…so yummy…OMG, yum!!!
In the end I was pleased that I had turned an unpleasant situation into a learning moment. For so long I let the violent flash floods of my troubled mind rule my life. I let myself be a helpless victim and I couldn’t figure out why everything kept falling apart. Even though I couldn’t control my reactions for those few moments, I knew exactly what was going on and why. Maybe that’s why it’s better to keep my friends close and my enemies even closer.