Ha! Made Ya Flinch!

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It’s become a running joke that I flinch when a kick is thrown at my head during free sparring. In situations outside of a taekwondo school one might think that this is a perfectly normal reaction. Something startles us, we flinch. It’s human nature.

Flinching doesn’t help when a hard object is flying straight at your head. When I flinch I become completely ineffective: I squinch my eyes shut, hold my breath, and usually end up blocking with the wrong hand and get clipped anyway. I stop thinking clearly and instead panic even though by now I’ve come to expect head shots during sparring. I’m such a psycho about learning taekwondo that I cackle and goad my instructors into doing it again so I can break my bad habit.

I’ve always flinched, whether it was a reaction to the threat of physical harm or emotional harm. My first reaction has been fear. I was a doormat for most of my life and haven’t quite fully forgiven myself for being such an easy target for abuse and bullying from people very close to me to absolute strangers. I always kept my head down, smiled politely and silently through tight lips when someone was rude, and didn’t protest lest I “make waves.” In the case of some of my romantic relationships those metaphorical flinches drove me further into my shell and my insecurities. I didn’t want to be anything less than perfect and complacent out of fear that they would leave (which they all inevitably did anyway). My fear of being harmed (further fueled by the fear of being rejected) made me shut down completely or build up to an explosion.

But you know, getting kicked in the head isn’t so bad. I always wear protective headgear and a mouthpiece so the worst that can happen is that I’m knocked off balance for a second or two. Sparring class is a safe place to experiment with how we deal with danger. No one is out for blood, and we’re quick to back off when the pain is too real or the violence is too intense. It helps us learn to think quickly and clearly and be confident enough to use our blocks, kicks, and punches with force.

Having a mean roundhouse kick or a strong punch is a plus, but there’s something to be said for a strong defense. I can block fairly well, but if I’m doubled over with my eyes closed that’s not going to do me much good. I should look my opponent square in the eye and knock their foot or hand away from my face with as much force and confidence as they are using to hit me. If someone in our life is trying to harm us we should defend ourselves with confidence. It’s setting a boundary. It’s saying, “No, you cannot do that to me. That’s unacceptable. You are not allowed to hurt me anymore, and I’m not going to apologize for standing up to you.”

“Spear-hand thrust to the face. It’s a fake so you get them to flinch. It throws them off balance, and you get their arm to bend back,” I said quietly as I guided my teenage bo dan partner through hand-to-hand practice a few nights later. We were practicing self defense techniques that involved painful wrist and elbow locks. It requires the person being attacked to be quick and calculating and work through their fear of being attacked. It turns the tables on the attacker–we use their own force and their own weight against them. We make them flinch and wince and crumble in pain. We overpower their brute arrogance with our cool confidence.

If something (or someone) makes you flinch, pause, open your eyes, and ask yourself why you are afraid. What can you do to stand up to that source of pain and fear? What can you do to turn the tables on it, set a boundary, and say, “Nope! You’re not going to hurt me anymore”?

Battered, Bruised…and Better

pretty boxer

You should see the other guy.

Sometimes when things are going too well for too long my wily mind likes to try and find things to be sad about. “Hey, remember that mistake you made five years ago?” it will chirp sadistically into my ear as it slings its heavy arm around my shoulder. “Let’s dwell on THAT.” My mind is crafty. If there’s any empty space it will fill it with an image or words that tug at my sensitive heart. If I fall for its tricks the descent picks up speed:

“You haven’t thought about THIS person in a while–let’s really miss them, shall we?

Remember that time someone said something mean and you didn’t do anything back? Let’s get upset and defensive about that.

Remember that thing you did last year that at the time seemed like the right thing to do? Well I’m here to tell you that it was WRONG, and you have failed, and life will never be OK again, and you inevitably hurt someone else even though they don’t know it.

I’m going to make you backtrack and obsess until your eyes blister with tarnished memories.

Remember that thing you lost? Remember how horrible you felt about yourself for being so careless and stupid disrespectful towards the person who gave it to you? Yeah, I thought you did. Let’s beat ourselves up over THAT.

I think things are going to get worse, don’t you? You don’t? Well, they are and you’re not ready!

Hang on, let me grab the tissues and some chocolate. Stay put…oh wait you’re not going anywhere, ha ha!”

And that was how I ended up curled up on my bed crying for two straight hours Tuesday night. Dragging myself out of bed to brush my teeth before I went to sleep seemed to be the biggest effort I could muster. I woke up to a puffy moon face and my left eye nearly swollen shut, and true to my responsible keep-up-the-facade nature I went to work and acted as if nothing had happened. Someone has to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Lots of seekers including myself have preached about not getting too wrapped up in dwelling on the past or trying to control the future. One person who used to read my blog would probably love to use those words against me to point out what I hypocrite I’m being. Well in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m human and I’m a work in progress just like the rest of us. At least I know when I’m faltering. That’s half the battle.

The nice thing about these dark nights of the soul is that they’re guiding posts for either something deeper that is troubling me or they’re the last pit stops before major changes. Law of attraction folks might say all that crap and sadness can happen as a release of limiting beliefs or negative feelings or resistance before a shift to a higher vibration when awesome things start to manifest. I think it’s a little bit of both. If I’m having a meltdown over something rather insignificant then it usually means there’s something much more serious below the surface that’s picking up speed.

And sometimes I just want to be sad. It’s comforting. It’s easy. It keeps me company. I wrote a guest post on another blog about the allure of rock bottom. My brother said if my version of rock bottom had a low frequency fan he’d stay there all the time. Maybe I was slowly drifting towards rock bottom again. Or maybe I just needed to hole up in my cocoon for a night and have a good cry. But if I had stayed curled up in my bed through the next day and into the next night I would have begun a rapid descent into dulled senses and even foggier thinking.

No surprise, getting the crap kicked out of me was just what I needed. The next night I went to the sparring and red and black belt classes, and my mood lifted instantly. I was back among my friends in my home away from home. I smiled easily and cracked jokes in between dodging kicks and landing punches. In the later class Grandmaster had my instructor try out a kicking combination while I dodged and blocked. He pushed us to try again and again and as we either became more tired or more daring (or a little bit of both) the mini-sparring became a little more brutal each time. The harder we worked the happier I became, each blow was a mini jolt of electricity reminding me that I was very much alive and very much in the present moment.

As I was leaving I joked that I’d have to wear long sleeves the next day to cover my bruises.   Secretly though I was pleased. As it has been for the last two years taekwondo was the outlet and saving grace that helped me escape that comforting but dangerous pit of sadness and isolation. Tonight once again the sadness and regret and obsession are creeping around at my feet as I sit here home alone writing this, but I’m keeping them at bay. I glance down at the small brown welts on my forearms and the purple stain on my knee, give those creepy crawlies the side-eye and say, “I’m tougher than you think.”

How Giving Up Drinking Saved My Skin

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The last time I drank alcohol was exactly three months ago after a lonely Sunday spent on the couch with a bottle of Malbec and a dark mood. I had been toying with the idea of giving it up after I got bo dan rank in April and would “officially” begin black belt training, but circumstances demanded that I give it up sooner.

My skin is very thin and sensitive, and I don’t just mean metaphorically. I can only use the gentlest cleansers and moisturizers or else my face will burn and turn bright red. My face regimen sounds like I’m making a salad dressing: I wash it with olive oil, tone with apple cider vinegar, and after I put on gentle moisturizer with SPF I splash on a little rosewater and glycerin for extra softness and a fresh sweet scent. I even exfoliate with sugar or sea salt.

The ever-present splotchiness and little broken capillaries across my nose and cheeks make me suspect some mild rosacea. In eighth grade a boy once called me “Rudolph” because of my red nose. At that age you could never really tell if a boy really liked you or hated your guts because they were all immature little assholes either way. That was long before I’d ever had my first glass of wine (even communion wine), so I know my red face isn’t just a symptom of riding the sin wagon.

My already pinkish nose and cheeks turn bright red if I have a hot drink, spicy food, wine, spend too much time driving straight into the setting Texas sun, or even just sit still at my computer too long, which causes the blood to pool towards the center of my face. I am tomato red through an entire sparring class, and during one particularly energized class I turned so red I was grey. The more alcohol I drank the more I noticed how red and splotchy my face was becoming….and staying permanently.

In case you still doubt the sheer crappiness of my skin and circulation, there’s more. I bruise very easily, and they last for weeks. Scars from small cuts or bites can last up to six months. I’ve gotten several drive-by diagnoses from nurse and doctor coworkers of Raynaud’s phenomenon in my fingers. The good thing about that is I was able to commission my mom to knit me several cute pairs of fingerless gloves.

So what did giving up booze do for me other than save me from too many calories and drunken Super Mario Brothers sessions?

I lost a few pounds. I don’t attribute that entirely to giving up drinking. I amped up my workout routine and cleaned up my diet about the same time I gave up the bottle. It certainly didn’t hurt though. Drinking wine is like pouring a big glass of sugar down your throat, plus it gives me the munchies. I wouldn’t drink a fully-leaded soda every night. How is drinking wine any different?

My vitals changed as well. I went to the doctor in April, and my resting pulse was 60, and my blood pressure was 114/62. I typically have low pulse and BP rates thanks to exercise and good genetics, but I’ve never seen it lower than about 120/75. At a June health fair it was 106/68. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

My skin did clear up. Even after just a few weeks of not drinking I noticed that some of the persistent redness had calmed down, and it looked brighter. Within a month other people noticed that my skin looked clearer.

The biggest thing was that I got out of my funk. I had fallen into a deep depression earlier in the year, aggravated by the cold dreary weather and some complications in my relationship. I was lonely, restless, and starting to question whether anything was worth the trouble anymore. I got to the point that I needed a drink when I got home, and it kept me company throughout long dragging weekends of isolation and brooding.

I learned to rely on my pure unfiltered self rather than the hazy distraction of an outside substance (whether it was alcohol, food, Netflix, whatever) to cheer me up, get me through a rough patch, or just pass the time. A few weeks after I stopped drinking alcohol my relationship imploded. I wanted to drink myself into a blind stupor during that lost weekend, but I didn’t have a single drop. These days I actually look forward to treating myself to an occasional soda, perhaps ginger ale in a wine glass if I’m feeling fancy, or if I really want to indulge, lemonade mixed with ice tea (and not the kind from Long Island).

Will I start drinking alcohol again? An emphatic YES. I have a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne that I will open immediately after my black belt test in the fall. I’d say that’s about as special as you can get for a special occasion. I LOVE wine, and not just for the slow-building heady buzz. I love the texture, the taste, the complexity of smell and flavor, the beautiful color of it, how it can complement anything from filet mignon to peanut butter crackers (cabernet sauvignon and a really dry cheddary chardonnay respectively in case you’re wondering). It’s my partner in crime while I make a fresh batch of marinara—some for the gravy, some for the cook. Virginia Madsen’s candlelit soliloquy about wine in the movie “Sideways” makes me tear up a little.

Yes, I will start drinking again after my self-imposed oenophile-exile is over. The difference will be that I will truly be able to enjoy wine without being weighed down with the anxious expectation for it to save me from my worries or give me a false sense of cheer and peace. Plus I’ll need to make a new batch of marinara.

Choose Your Priorities, Don’t Let Them Choose You

priorities

Tonight a teenage black belt who should be testing for second dan in October was throwing up one argument after another as to why he couldn’t stay for the extra classes we have on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Finally he said that his priorities have shifted for the summer.

“And what’s your priority this summer?” my instructor asked with a sigh.
“Video games.” The student turned on his heel and stalked out of the training room.

We often think we are at the mercy of our priorities and everything that’s “on our plate,” but the truth of it is it all comes down to choices. Yesterday I talked about how we have a choice in how we feel rather than being a victim and blaming someone else for our anger or sadness or self-doubt. Claiming helplessness in the face of priorities is robbing yourself of your very potent power of choice.

You have a choice in how you spend your time and energy. In EVERYTHING. “But I have to go to work or I’ll get fired!” you might say. Oh really? Is someone yanking you out of bed and shoving you into your car every morning and forcing you to drive to the oil field or the office or the restaurant or do you choose to drive yourself to work no matter whether you love or hate your job? “I have to take care of my kids!” No, you choose to. There are plenty of idiots out there who don’t.

You have a choice in how much attention and energy you devote to that next phone call, email, project, or conversation. Your boss might have told you to do it, but you are ultimately the decider. You could certainly stay home and yes, you might get fired. That was your choice.

You have a choice in how much time and attention you devote to your partner or family. I have never said, “I’m too busy” to someone I really liked or loved. Like everyone else and more times than I’m proud to admit I’ve used the “I’m too busy” line to get out of something that I chose not to do but don’t have the courage to admit it.

Not to be an apple polisher here, but my priority this summer IS taekwondo. Yeah sure, I have a full-time job, but that’s never stopped me before, heh heh! I choose to stay in shape so I have the endurance for sparring, the strength for jumping, and the finer motor skills for forms. I choose to watch what I eat (well, most of the time) so I have a clear head and high energy. I choose to devote my time to my practice rather than doing all those other fun things I could be doing this summer.

I choose it because it is so important to me. I don’t really care about titles or measuring myself against anyone else. I’m doing this for me. The dojang is my second home, and the people there are my second family. Getting a black belt is the icing on an already delicious cake; I just want to be there as often as I can.

If you catch yourself saying, “I want to do that, but I don’t have time,” pause for a moment. Do you really not have time or do you place your values and importance on something else? Either scenario is OK. You have more freedom than you think you do. Everything is a choice, and the power is yours.

“Everything That Irritates Us About Others Can Lead Us to an Understanding of Ourselves”–Carl Jung

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The other day right as taekwondo class ended I let a seven-year-old get under my skin. We were collecting our shoes and water bottles after a hard cardio workout when she remarked with wonder, “Wow, we didn’t take a break at all.”
“I know,” I said, “But we can handle it. We’re tough. We’re bo dans after all.”
She paused for a moment and said, “Bo dahns” matter-of-factly and trotted off to meet her mother.

“Don’t correct me!” I spat at her half jokingly but also half menacingly. A surprising rush of anger flared up in my neck. How dare that little brat correct me in front of other people? How dare that bossy child who whines and complains and fidgets and doesn’t remember any of her forms or one-steps tell ME what’s up in the dojang? How dare she be so bold and confident and sure….how dare she be all the things that I am not.

I thought about if for several hours afterwards. I wasn’t really angry at her. She’s just a kid, and her life sucks way more than mine does. I mean, I never have to listen to boring schoolteachers ever again, I can have cookies for dinner if I want, and I can stay up as late as I please. Being a grown up is AWESOME.

I was angry at what her words and (in my perception) tactless disrespectful attitude represented to me. I feel like people have been walking all over me, humiliating me and taunting me my entire life. I was angry because don’t do that to people. I’m nice and considerate, and dammit, everyone else should be too and fuck you if you’re not! I was angry because I just sat back and took it. I attracted it and I let it happen over and over and over again. I never just walked away and removed myself from the situation.

In that moment I was reminded of all the times I was corrected, blamed, scolded and condescended to like…well, like a child. When people do that I feel worthless and small. I feel insignificant and powerless. I feel like I don’t deserve any better.

It’s been said that the people around us are a mirror of our reality. They treat us the way we allow ourselves to be treated. If we let people treat us like crap, then perhaps it’s because we don’t think we deserve more than crappy treatment. Some form of attention or interaction–even if it’s dysfunctional–is better than none at all in this twisted worldview. Too often I have allowed myself to feel inferior in the presence of another’s overwhelming (if not sometimes misguided) confidence.

In a flash I remembered an old boyfriend who would constantly pick at my words, looking for loopholes that would peg me as a hypocrite. He used to correct my grammar and pronunciation in three different languages (yes, really). I let the corrections in his native language slide, but I finally had to tell him to back the hell off when it came to my native language….which makes me wonder if perhaps I do mangle my own language, but then I remember which one of us has an actual college degree in ENGLISH. Most of the time I just stuttered and wept silently and endured all the put-downs and patronizing.

I remembered a toxic bitchy ex-friend who had a habit of repeating my name every two or three sentences as if I were a dog and she was trying to hold my attention. I’d like to say that I told her to get her anorexic crybaby spoiled ass out of my life, but I simply stopped speaking to her, and as if by telepathy she did the same.

I have been targeted, bullied, harassed, cheated on, lied to, abused, and very worst of all, I continued to let it happen. Since childhood I seemed to attract a plethora of insecure but alluring bullies: domineering female friends and overbearing boyfriends who seemed fun and confident and protective at first, but once they got a taste of what beating me down felt like they became thirsty for blood and I willingly opened my veins. It’s caused me to shy away from friendships, especially with women, and as for matters in the romantic department, I let the tension build until I explode with venom. To protect myself I’ve become more and more isolated and guarded.

But I can’t blame my little classmate for reminding me of someone else because she’s not responsible for how I feel or what memories of the past I associate with the present. It seems like we’re always making the people in our present atone for the sins of people in our past. What I was really angry about was that I had let this pattern build up in my life and I had tolerated behavior that my accusers, abusers, and attackers certainly wouldn’t have tolerated if the tables were turned. I really wish I had their blind foolish confidence….or that I were some kind of sociopathic narcissist, whatever’s easier.

Punishing the present for the hurts of the past can take a toll on one’s spirit. In a former relationship I spent the first few months trying to convince my partner that I was not in fact the evil doppelgänger of a conniving ex-wife or crazy ex-girlfriend or volatile mother. I worked very hard to be nice and sweet and loving and attentive and pretty much the best girlfriend ever. I was racked with anxiety over vague threats floated my way that I reminded him of them. If I dared show any fear or doubt or God forbid, anxiety, it was tossed cruelly back in my face. (Try having a pleasant dinner after your boo says they “really question your mental stability.”)

The heavy responsibility of the ghosts of his past was placed on my shoulders when it never should have been my burden. At the time I wasn’t brave enough to say that. I just ducked my head and towed the line because I didn’t want to know what was at the other end of “or else.”

As I continued to contemplate my little compatriot’s comment I realized that in a way I was jealous of her. I was envious that I couldn’t speak my mind or argue that I was right no matter whether I really was or not. I’d rather be polite and know when to pick and choose my battles, but perhaps I need to seek a healthier balance between being outspoken and being silent.

Ironically right after that my instructor told me that a couple and their daughter watching our class told him they liked me and thought I was “very aggressive.” It’s kind of sad that the only place I am truly bold and aggressive (in a positive healthy way of course) is in the dojang…and more frequently in the conference room with my tight-knit team of male colleagues. I wonder what would happen if I were really in a fight. Would I be cool and confident and trust my training or would I fly into a blind indignant rage at the fact that someone with poor manners decided to humiliate and pick on me like it was their God-given right? That’s just rudewouldn’t mug somebody because I’m POLITE, and dammit, they should be too!

The next time you find yourself getting angry because someone hurt your feelings or “made” you feel bad, pause and dig a little deeper. What is it about their behavior that really gets to you? Go beyond “It’s wrong!” or “It’s mean!” What specifically bothers you? What memories does it conjure up? What feelings do you have, and are they the same as what you felt in similar moments from your past? Is there anything you can do to stop that downward spiral of yucky feelings?

Is there something about that person’s behavior that shines a bright mirror on something you were afraid to show? Are they actually pointing out something that you want to change about yourself? We like to say that bullies lash out because they are insecure. That’s true, but one could also argue that we might uncover some of our own insecurity in the way we interpret and respond to the situation. Two insecure people with perpetually broken hearts and nasty tempers can be a very dangerous combination.

The good news is that YOU are in control of your feelings and responses. No one can “make” you feel insignificant or unworthy–only you can do that. So what can you do to make yourself feel better? If you do want to change something, do it. No one’s stopping you but the person in the mirror. Want to try a different response? Go for it. Want to walk away? Please, let me get the door for you. I’ll help you carry your baggage. The really good news is that you have my permission to kick the other person’s ass because they probably were really being rude anyway.

Commit, Even if You Look Stupid (I’m Good, I’ll Just Watch From Back Here)

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“What’s the next part of this form?” my instructor asked, swiveling his head around and looking straight at me.  We had just passed what I call the “jazz hands” portion of Palgwe Sam-jang, the green belt form that we were reviewing that night.

“Ki-yahp and punch!” I shouted back. “No, wait! It’s THIS!!” I crowed triumphantly, whirled around to land in a deep front stance, and slammed down a low block with a sharp satisfied exhale.

“Is she right?” my instructor asked as everyone remained perched in a frozen back stance (except of course for me in all my front stance/low block glory). The other students furrowed their brows, looked down at the floor with embarrassment, and mumbled “Uh…maybe?”

“It’s THIS!” he said, turning to his right, shifting into a front stance, and popping up a high block. We all groaned.

“Oh so close!” I laughed and adjusted my arms.

My instructor trotted to the front of the room and said, “I heard a lot of ‘uh, maybes’ and ‘I don’t knows’ when I asked you if she was right. Commit to something! Don’t do things halfway, at least not in here. Being on the fence means you don’t have an opinion and you’re waiting to see how things work out. That’s OK in the short term, but in the long term it can be dangerous.” He shuffled his feet and straightened his knees into a weak imitation of a back stance.

“You see?” he said, opening his palms and spreading his fingers, “If your stances are halfway now you’ll develop bad habits, and they won’t be effective later.” He shifted back and forth between stances. “You need the strength of front stance,” he said as he sank into his right knee, “and the speed of back stance.” He shifted his weight to his back leg and raised his fists as if ready to spar. “Commit to your stance, even if it’s wrong! I’d rather see you do a wrong stance all the way than the right one halfway!”

I smiled and thought, “At least I was committed to my wrong low block!”

As he continued to weave through the lines of students, correcting stances and fine-tuning blocks I thought about the concept of commitment. Words can carry the weight of the world, but they can also be tossed around casually like pieces of meaningless garbage. I have been hurt both by taking someone’s words too seriously or not taking them seriously enough.  A person’s true character can more often be seen through their actions. Do they follow through on their promises? Do they give and serve? Do they right what was wrong? Committed actions show that we have confidence in our opinions and the choices we’ve made.

The only time I’ve heard an example of how “being on the fence” was the the best choice was an old tale my grandma liked to tell about a distant uncle who was a child during the Civil War. He was leaning up against a fence, chewing on a piece of grass and looking at the clouds, when a posse of soldiers came barreling up the dirt road to his house.
“Boy, what side are you on?” the leader of the gang snarled.

“I’m not on any side” replied my relative slowly, shifting his weight on the wooden post. “I’m on my belly.”

I Can Do This With My Eyes Closed

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“Uh-oh, I know what we’re going to do,” said a teenage black belt in a half-groan/half-giggle. It was red and black belt class, our late night class after sparring. My fellow red belts and bo dans abandoned me after sparring, so all that was left were me, the teenager who never comes to sparring (ahem!), and an older man who got his black belt last year.

My instructor’s face lit up as he steepled his fingers together and positioned us in a wide diagonal line across the floor. “I want you to do Koryo One again,” he said after we had just completed the form as a warm-up. “But this time I want you to do it with your eyes closed.”

My eyes danced furiously under my closed lids, trying desperately to make sense of what was going on. I ignored them and focused on breathing deeply, shifting my weight, and making sure I stayed low in my stances. I opened my eyes and felt refreshed and excited, as if I’d gotten to know the form on a much deeper level.

Then we did the two other red belt forms, and that’s when things started to fall apart. I began to feel wobbly and unsure. I lost my balance, shuffled timidly and stiffly through stances, and somehow inexplicably flung myself into the left side wall and ballet barre during the part of the Palgwe Pal-jang that is directed straight towards the back of the room. (Notice that my instructor did nothing to stop me, probably because he was laughing too hard).

“What the heck just happened?” I shouted when I stumbled into the end of the form and blinked open my eyes. Perhaps my attempt at Koryo One was successful because it was the first form I’d ever practiced with my eyes closed, and I had no expectations. Perhaps it was successful because unlike the other forms, it only goes back and forth on the vertical axis. The individual strikes and blocks are complex, but the movement pattern is simple. (Koryo One is also the only form that I can fully do in my hallway without modifying it or running into anything….hey, I was doing laundry and I was bored.)

Perhaps my deteriorating performance of the forms Chil-jang and Pal-jang was because I started to lose confidence and doubt my own abilities.

My last post offered the concept of trusting ourselves when our worlds get turned upside down. It could be the same challenge or something very similar we’ve faced before, but the perspective has changed, and that makes it scary. Sometimes we might be facing a challenge with limitations such as time, money, resources, support, or one of our senses. If we get too wrapped up in dwelling on what we can’t control then we will end up emotionally paralyzed and will run into even more walls, figuratively or literally. The trick is to focus on what we can control and what we can do, no matter the limitations or obstacles we face.