The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

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I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.

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Little Black Belt is FOUR!

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My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

Taekwondo Has Become an Afterthought and an Albatross

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I used to be a taekwondo person with a growing career. Now I’m a successful career person who just happens to have a (2nd degree) black belt in taekwondo.

I don’t like that feeling.

Sure, I have a poster in my office that says “A Black Belt is a White Belt Who Refused to Give Up,” and I go to class once or twice a week…and that’s it. I don’t think about it much. In reviewing the past several months prepping for my four year anniversary blog post I realized I didn’t write about it much either, even last year when I was heavily preparing for my 2nd Dan test. Regular life has taken over, and taekwondo has taken a back seat.

Taekwondo had a very prominent place in my life for several years, and within a few months it suddenly dropped to nearly nonexistent. I’m just now starting to notice the negative effects. I’ve let myself get pretty stressed with increasing work demands the past few months, and I attributed a piece of it to my lack of “outlet.” I had taekwondo to look forward to almost every day for the last five years. I planned for it, thought about it, daydreamed about it, and could always count on it to be a healthy balance of all the “adulting” I had to do during my day job and just keeping up a household.

I have a nice home and nice people to visit with outside of work and nice hobbies, but I’m missing that euphoric high I used to get from a hard-working, fun taekwondo class. I’m missing my drug and my life balance. I feel like I’m missing part of my identity too.

My taekwondo world went through a huge upheaval at the end of last year. I don’t want to go into details here. Suffice it to say there was some tension and stress among everyone involved. The schedule has changed, the location has changed, and some of the people have changed. I went from going to the dojang five or six days a week to maybe two. I backed away from teaching the lower ranking class because I realized how much I disliked it and how stressful it was for me after a long day at a busy job. Now I only go to the “advanced class” once or twice a week. The temptation to stay home after a late meeting or long commute instead of going to class is fairly regular.

I’m not very happy with my current situation at my taekwondo school. I’m not getting much in the way of “black belt training,” my favorite instructor is gone, the location is sub-par, and I know I don’t have the same conditioning I had last year. There’s only so much one can do in two hours a week, especially if about half that time is spent teaching. (I also don’t have an intestinal parasite to keep me really skinny like I did last year) I’d like to train and test for third degree, and in the meantime I’d like to compete in forms and breaking at tournaments. My current situation allows me neither the time nor attention to focus on those goals.

If I were coaching me as I do with other people, I would remind myself that I do have the choice to leave…and right now I’m choosing to stay. I’m not very happy where I am but I feel like I need to stay out of obligation even though the world would not fall apart if I left. Certain people have certain expectations and assumptions about black belts and “loyalty,” and if I chose to leave there might be trouble, at least in the short-term.

I don’t know if going to another school would inspire me to make taekwondo a bigger part of my life again. I think some of that has to come from me. I think I can try harder to make the best of the situation I’m in now and come up with ways to practice taekwondo outside of the limited class time.

Right now I have eight students testing for first degree, and that is keeping me motivated and positive. I care very much about my students and am not ready to move on from them yet. After the test I think I’ll have to reevaluate my place in the school and decide whether I’m brave enough to do what’s best for me or to wait it out a little longer and hope for a deus ex machina.

Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

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I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

Being Okay With Where You Are

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“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.

It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.

I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.

We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–

THUNK.

The board didn’t break.

Crap.

I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.

Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.

Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.

I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.

I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.

It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.

If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.

I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.

I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.

Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.

I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.

Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.

Saying Goodbye to the Parasites in Our Lives

This is Plankton. He’s my intestinal parasite.

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…it’s not REALLY Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants, but this is how I picture the recently diagnosed parasitic infection in my digestive system–a tiny little bastard who’s always scheming to pull one over on everybody. He’s a dick, and I’m tired of the way he’s been treating me, but I’m also a little afraid to say goodbye to him.

I’ve hinted at my digestive-problems-of-mysterious origin in a few posts before. I’ve always had some food sensitivities since at least high school, but they got noticeably worse right after Christmas last year. I lost a total of 14 pounds in about 2-3 months, which on my 5’3″ petite frame was a lot. I’ve gained back about 6 pounds, and this is hard to admit…I’m not entirely happy about it.

Plankton’s taking up residence in my body was apparently one last f–k you from 2016, a year I think we can all agree was just awful for everyone. He made me sick, he ruined my appetite (and sometimes my entire day), and he was a constant unpleasant presence in my life.

He was also my enabler. I LOVED losing weight. I LOVED seeing the numbers get lower and lower on the scale every morning. I LOVED that sometimes all I ate for dinner was very carefully counted out Saltines and a little bit of hummus because I was too sick to eat anything else. Plankton tapped into my almost-but-not-quite-yet resolved issues around body image and disordered eating. He knew just what buttons to push to make me want to hang onto him a little longer.

Plankton knew I was having a pretty glum start to 2017 (job instability and a dark bout of loneliness), so he made himself a point of focus that I could cling to. Other parts of my life were unhappy, so if I could control and monitor my weight, at least I had some tiny bit of stability. (Yes, I recognize the irony in that statement) Sometimes even without the symptoms I restricted what I ate to see if I could get the numbers even lower. I wanted someone to notice my weight loss and ask if something was wrong. No one noticed other than my parents, who only see me every few months. I kept my secrets to myself.

So Plankton and I learned to live with each other. I tried to avoid foods that would trigger his wrath, but later in the year I let myself indulge and kind of enjoyed the fact that some “problem” was letting me eat whatever I wanted while keeping the weight off. We were a team, albeit dysfunctional. I waited nine months until seeking help from a doctor.

I knew I had a problem that was beyond just “food sensitivity” for months, but the seriousness of it finally hit me during a brief conversation with my mother. She told me how “drawn” I looked earlier in the year when I was at my lowest weight.

“So you’re saying I looked…thin?” I responded, half-jokingly but secretly, shamefully pleased. But seriously, what if this was worse than just lactose intolerance? What if I had IBS? Hell, what if I had colon cancer? Next thing I knew I was crying in the shower thinking about how as a self-loathing teenager I’d wished for a serious illness that would make me lose weight. It was a relief (and admittedly, kind of cool) to find out my problem was treatable.

Now it’s time to say goodbye to Plankton in the form of antibiotics. My original food sensitivities won’t go away, but if all goes as planned I won’t have the constant issues my clingy friend brought to the table, no pun intended. I’ll kind of miss him. He kept me skinny. He helped me fit into a cute little black skirt that I was going to get rid of because it was at one time too tight. I don’t want to go back to my pre-Christmas weight. What will I do without him?

Do you have parasites in your life you need to get rid of? They could be other people, habits, activities, perhaps even your own thought patterns. We can be in parasitic relationships that we know are making us sick, but we’re having a hard time seeking help. Are your parasites enabling you to stay stuck in a mental or physical place you don’t want to be but fear you can’t leave? Are they telling you that you must accept an unpleasant situation because you don’t deserve better? What is draining your energy and sapping your soul? Who (or what) do you need to let go of for good?

It’s time to let go of what no longer serves us and be brave enough to face the world alone. It’s time to be free.

Be Careful What You Wish For…You Just Might Get It

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Make a wish! It could be your dream come true or a big ole bucket of NOPE.

All I wanted was a little time off.

I decided to take the last week of August off from taekwondo because of a few lingering injuries that kept getting irritated and frankly, I was burned out. I had been going to taekwondo five or six days a week, attending my own classes, plus I showed up at the lower ranking classes to help teach and hang out with the instructors. It was all good fun until one day I thought, “I need a break.” I enjoyed my week off and was thoroughly looking forward to starting up classes again plus attending my gym more often and cleaning up my diet.

Instead I got a cold last week. I couldn’t go to sparring, and my balance was so off thanks to sinus pressure that I had a hard time demonstrating takedowns and jumps for students working on test preparations. Last Friday we had a color belt test instead of regular class. I got a few seconds workout sparring with a kid testing for black tip, and I took a ballet barre class on Sunday, but other than that I haven’t been able to have a hard workout in a while. I couldn’t wait to go to class on Monday.

Yesterday, the day I wanted to go back to class, my back decided to give out. No! Not another week off! Ah, the curse of the Odd Years Bulging Disc. I have “thrown my back out” every odd year since 2011. I was due this year and was hoping I could hold out until after my test, but like the rest of me, my back is a high achiever that likes to plan ahead. Hooray!

Thankfully it wasn’t nearly as bad as my past back blowouts have been, and I was even able to move around enough today to teach a five hour professional development class at work. I can do a turning back side kick with the stiffness, but the disc is still protesting a spin kick with pain…darn it, I was just getting decent at spin kicks. A visit to my trusty physical therapist should sort me out in time for my remaining classes this week.

Okay Universe, I get it. I’m done slacking off, rinsing my sinuses with a Neti pot, and pouting on my heating pad. I’m ready to come back to class (and the gym) now!

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it! I heard that, of all places, in church many years ago. I don’t remember what else the priest said, but his wry warning stuck with me. Making a wish is also making a commitment to change. It’s planting the seed for action, which is sometimes nurtured and other times stays buried underground.

Perhaps the intention behind our wishes helps shape the results. What is behind it–frustration, anger, revenge or hopefulness, accountability, and humility? The major events and changes in my life are result of the intentions I’ve put out into the world. The Law of Attraction is real and evident in how my life’s triumphs and failures have played out. Sometimes the results I wanted were better than I could have imagined, and other times they were like the skewed ironic answers to a wish made on the cursed Monkey’s Paw.

I have wished for change in my professional life and have been answered with both stressful, unnecessary chaos and amazing opportunities. I have wished for change in my personal life and have been answered with both harmful relationships and incredible new ventures and helpful people. Either way there’s always been a pretty good life lesson involved.

Maybe my body rebelling with sickness and pain was not so much the result of an ill-intended wish but rather life’s way of showing me I’m not in control as much as I think I am. And that’s okay. I’m very organized and planful around my work and some of my personal life (i.e., controlling), and once in a while I’m reminded that I have to be ready to adapt when what I get isn’t want I originally thought I wished for. I feel even more grateful for taekwondo now that I’ve been out for two and half weeks. I can’t wait to have a hard workout, laugh with my classmates, and learn from my instructors. I feel so thankful and ready to work even harder towards second dan….I suppose that was the lesson I needed to learn this time.