How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic

empathy blood

Once upon a time I knew a man who didn’t in believe emotional intelligence. He even bragged about heatedly arguing with a facilitator who had been brought to his workplace to give a presentation about emotional intelligence. As he told me this story I silently thanked my lucky stars that he didn’t work for my company and therefore would never attend a workshop that I facilitated as a leadership and organizational development consultant.

This Man-I-Used-to-Know’s argument against emotional intelligence was that he shouldn’t have to “change” himself to please the other person. In his mind, it was no better than false representation. For example, if my style is very direct, and I’m doing business with someone who likes to warm up meetings with small talk and niceties, too f*cking bad! It’s my way or the highway! To this man, adapting his own personality tendencies and communication style for the sake of another person was nonsense and no better than lying and deceiving the other person. He felt like the concept of emotional intelligence was forcing him to be something he wasn’t. The other person’s needs, personality, and style weren’t a consideration.

This man also claimed to be incapable of feeling empathy. I later found out the hard way he was telling the truth.

I am not going to get into the nitty gritty details of defining emotional intelligence. You can find that elsewhere on the web. Here’s a really quick definition according to Psychology Today:

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include 3 skills:
1. Emotional awareness, including the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others;
2. The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving;
3. The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions, and the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.”

I’ve written posts on here before about how taekwondo has brought me out of my shell and helped me connect with people in a way I haven’t been able to (or outright refused to) in the past. I believe it’s also made me more empathetic, self-aware, and mindful of other people. I’m not perfect and still have lots of work to do, but I’ve come a long way.

Less than a decade ago, my emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and pretty much everything lying between my ears was crap. I was so blinded by my own self-loathing, loneliness, and misery, that I didn’t even know how to interact with other people, much less be mindful of how I did it. Anxiety and sadness had swallowed me up to the point that I was just running on auto-pilot to make sure my façade to the world was still intact: go to work, go to school, pay the bills, cry in private. Who cared how I related to other people? In my mind (at the time) they were all going to hurt me anyway, so why even bother?

Fast forward to 2016: I am pleased to say that during my recent annual performance review, my boss repeatedly praised my empathetic nature and self-awareness. I don’t mean to brag; I’m just so glad that I’ve done a 180 from where I was a few years ago. I told him that while some of that came from growing into my job and having the support of an amazing team, much of that came from taekwondo, especially in the early growing pains of being a new “assistant instructor.”

In the very short time that I’ve been a black belt, I’ve learned that while an authoritative, one-size-fits-all approach is often what’s most appropriate for the militant discipline of a martial arts class, there are plenty of opportunities to flex my EQ muscles and adapt my style to the needs of others. Depending on age, belt level, maturity, and personality, my coaching style can morph. I’ve started to pick up on more subtle learning factors of the other students, such as confidence levels, how they’ve responded to past direction, how they are responding to me, and their general mood during that particular class. I’ve learned to go against the adult learning practices I use in the workplace (i.e., talk it out) and be more directive with the kids. I’ve learned that I need to be mindful of the parents’ perception of me in addition to the students’ and instructors’ perception.

I once had a participant in a workshop I was teaching at my workplace remark that my facilitation style was very nurturing (Note that he did not try to argue me out of the room the way the man I mentioned at the beginning of this post probably would have). That’s carried over into the dojang. With some students I am gentle and patient, although with others I know I can be a little tougher.  “Nurturer” is still my default, which may provide a softer contrast to the no-nonsense approach of my male instructors, but I know I will have to push myself out of that comfort zone. I can’t be the mother hen all the time. After all, I have to adapt to what my instructors need from me as well as the students.

Am I a saint who can instantly empathize with everyone? Oh heck no. I’m still anti-social and detached in many situations. I’m polite, but being friendly takes a concerted effort. I could go an entire week without speaking to anyone and be fine, and I still have to remind myself that it’s important to others that I acknowledge them (greeting someone at work in the morning, stuff like that). I’m still the nicest version of myself in the dojang, which unfortunately means people in other areas of my life get the short end of the stick.

…But I know I’ve made progress. My boss wouldn’t have praised my awareness of both myself and how I relate to and serve others if I wasn’t displaying empathy, and I don’t do that to put on an act. I have a big, fat, blood-gushing heart and care very much about the well-being of others, sometimes to the point that I worry too much and can become overly protective. Mother hen turns into mama bear. Finding that balance is still a work in progress.

Putting myself in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s at work or in the dojang or anywhere else gets me out of my head for a while and helps me focus on something outside of myself.  Being able to serve other people and hopefully make their lives easier through the way I treat them is truly heartwarming. That’s a feeling can’t be replicated without making the conscious effort to connect with other people.

And I get to punch some of the people I’m making a conscious effort to connect with. That’s pretty sweet. Told you I wasn’t a saint.

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2 thoughts on “How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic

  1. Pingback: Martial Arts Ruined My Love Life…or at Least Ruined What It Used to Be | Little Black Belt

  2. Pingback: How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World | Little Black Belt

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