Guest Post: How to Deal With Life’s Uncertainties Like a Black Belt

BookMartialArts.com, the website I occasionally write for, just retweeted this article. I forgot I’d written it! So, my readers, enjoy it again!

Little Black Belt

Check out my latest guest post on the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com:
How to Deal With Life’s Uncertainties Like a Black Belt 

This an expansion on a post I wrote several weeks ago. Life can be frustrating, scary, and stressful, but maintaining a black belt attitude (whether you’re a white belt, black belt, or not even into martial arts at all) can help you get through tough times with confidence and grace.

martial-arts-black-belt

Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

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Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar

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This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

Have Growing Partners, Not Growing Pains

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This is still too much commitment for me, but I like the idea.

I had this boyfriend who claimed at the very beginning and at the very end of our relationship that one doesn’t grow in isolation. I think he said them both as a means to convince me to (1) get together with him in the beginning and (2) not to walk away at the end…even though he technically broke up with me, but that’s a different story.

I recognized his point but disagree on the absoluteness of it. I’ve done most of my growth, and I’m talking the really hard, gut-wrenching, gritty, life-changing, come-to-Jesus stuff “in isolation,” other than with the guidance and confidentiality of one trusted mentor. It was my only option, or at least that was my thinking at the time. First of all, my destructive behaviors drove people away, so that took care of any crowdsourcing for help, and second of all, I wouldn’t allow anyone to see me at my worst. I had to face some really hard truths about myself, and I had to fight that battle alone.

But…when given the opportunity, having other people guide us, give us feedback, and share their journeys with us can be one of the best ways to grow. At the end of last Saturday’s sparring class my Chief Instructor reminded us that we couldn’t just go in to class with the singular mindset of fighting for ourselves. We had to be good partners, whether that was being mindful of safety, respecting the other person’s age or body capabilities, or knowing how to challenge them in just the right ways. He’s since reminded us in other classes that being a good partner is just as important as practicing our own skills.

I subscribe to that philosophy as well. At the beginning of that particular sparring class I had reminded a teenage green belt, who seemed dismayed at the prospect of having to spar little kids, that part of his job as an older student and one who was moving into higher ranks was not just working on his own practice. He needed to be able to look out for and mentor the younger, smaller students, which is a good challenge in itself. For me being a black belt has partially been figuring out what I don’t know (or one might see it as moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence), and just as importantly, if not more so, living up to the responsibility of sharing what I do know with other students.

I started taekwondo training as a means to heal in a number of ways and give my life some purpose. It was self-centered motivation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since then, though, I’ve learned (albeit a little slowly) the importance of community and the part I need to play not only for my own fulfillment but for others, in some cases, more for them than for me. My life is much richer and happier because of my taekwondo family. I’d like to think I’ve done some good for them as well. The desire to serve and to, as my Chief Instructor would say, “be a good partner,” is inherent. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

Having a good partner, whether it’s in the dojang, the workplace, or the home, offers us a fresh perspective. They help us see our blind spots and the potential for greatness we haven’t yet recognized. Good partners push us just beyond what we think we can do and encourage us when we want to give up. They help us through the painful times and celebrate the good times. Being a good partner lets us share our wisdom and sometimes hard-learned lessons with others. It allows us to serve others and get outside our own self interests and agendas. It allows us to see our passions through another person’s eyes.

We can grow more quickly and more fully with the help of a good partner.

I don’t always practice what I preach or what my taekwondo instructors preach in my daily life, though. In fact, I veer towards the other end of the spectrum. I hate sharing my struggles (so that last post about my sort-of eating disorder was REALLY hard to write). I hate opening up my life to other people. I hate sharing my precious down time with anybody, even people I like. I think I want human interaction and connection, I’ve finally admitted that I need it to have a more fulfilling life, but damnit, I HATE asking for it.

I even hate sharing the good parts other than the insights I write about on this blog. It’s not a matter of wanting the glory for myself. I simply don’t know how to ask. It doesn’t occur to me. I was a loner as a child and learned to rely on myself for everything. That thought pattern has followed me well into adulthood, sometimes to my advantage because I’m very independent and autonomous but other times to my detriment. It’s easy to get tunnel vision without any feedback or an objective perspective.

I still have a hard time accepting the fact that I do need other people. They enrich my life in ways that I’m not able to do in isolation, try as I might. I’ve gotten better at it at work. During my yearly performance evaluation my boss remarked that I had a knack for building and maintaining relationships. It wasn’t always natural, but as I grew into my “caregiver” roles (first as a librarian and then as a leadership development consultant) I embraced human interaction and connection as my means of doing my work. I’m good at it, and I think I’ve helped a lot of people grow. I’ve been a good training partner.

I don’t do that in my personal life. I don’t seek out relationships. I’m not loyal. I’m not consistent. I don’t stick around. The urge to do my own thing, and more importantly stay off the social grid and viciously guard my free time, almost always wins out over the desire to spend time with other people. I have long-lasting acquaintances but very few long-lasting friendships. Frankly, I’m not a very good friend or partner, and there is a big part of me that couldn’t care less.

What would my personal life be like if I looked to family, friends, and coworkers as my “life training partners” just as I do with my taekwondo instructors and fellow students? What could I learn from them? What could they learn from me? Would it bring me as much fulfillment as taekwondo training does? What would I bring to others’ lives and experiences? Would it help me be less self-centered and keep me from sinking into tunnel vision thinking or depression? Would I really have to keep shouldering my burdens or even my triumphs alone?

Am I ready to share my journey instead of stubbornly growing in isolation? I’m not sure about that one. For now taekwondo is a good start.

Black Belts Can’t Have Eating Disorders, Right? I Mean, That’s Just Silly…

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Maybe I can cinch this belt just a little bit tighter…

114.8

That was the number blinking up at me from my digital scale at 8:57 PM a week or so ago after three hours of taekwondo training. I smiled. It was exactly one pound less than it was at 5:21 AM that morning. Ahh. At least I had that.

Then I ate a small meal, sat on my bed and cried for a while, and took some medicine to help me sleep. That’s been happening more often lately. My weight had nothing to do with my mood (other than giving me a little boost), but I’ll get to that later.

So I guess I have to eat (ha ha, no pun intended) my words a bit. A few months ago I wrote this big manifesto about how I was finally over the disordered eating and body image problems that had plagued me since I was thirteen years old. I stopped restricting calories, ate whatever and whenever I felt like it, and got back into cooking traditional Italian dishes. I was really proud of myself.

Then some strange gastrointestinal problems hit me around Christmas and lasted up until…hmm…about this time last week. I had to follow a healthier, more whole foods diet and cut out junk food. I love junk food but eventually lost interest in it other than an occasional taste. Some days I simply couldn’t eat because I felt too sick. I lost seven pounds, and oh my God, you guys, it was like the hit of a drug. Seven pounds doesn’t sound like much, but I’m 5’3” and small to begin with, so it’s noticeable. I look leaner, and my clothes fit better. I’ve been this weight before, and I was fine. I LOVE being smaller. I LOVE the way my clothes fit. Those dropping numbers on the scale were emotional cocaine. I was triggered, y’all.

I can get addicted to things very easily, and weight loss is one of them. I like seeing the “trouble areas” get leaner. I like seeing the muscle tone peek out around my triceps and the ripples on my upper back. I like that I recently had to buy a smaller size pair of jeans than I’d been used to. I like that my tight lycra stretch pants I always wear to the gym are just a wee bit looser than usual.

It’s not like I don’t eat. Here’s a typical day for me: bowl of cereal with banana and raspberries and maybe half a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. Tortellini with vegetables for lunch and a spicy chickpea and tahini wrap for dinner. I just hate feeling full. I wonder if I should have had half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a whole sandwich after class tonight. Maybe I should just eat a protein bar after taekwondo practice, especially on my late nights. Or maybe…

Let’s get something straight. I don’t binge, and I don’t purge. You guys, I eat, I swear…but maybe, just maybe, I could get the number a little lower. Just for fun. Just to see if I could do it. Just to have a low baseline so I could put weight back on. That’s okay, right?

To me it’s not that big of a deal. I’m not “skinny.” I have curves and muscles. Skinny girls look like prepubescent boys. I’m fine. I’m still flabby in one area so I HAVE to sacrifice everything else to make that part thinner, right? I have it in my head that I’m deceptively thin: I look tiny and fit from the outside but up close it’s a different story. Who is going to be attracted to me if they find out my secret? Am I right? (Then again I’ve never had any complaints other than that one time you can read about here.)

And it’s not like I’ve ever had a full-blown eating disorder. Well, there was this one time in high school where I exercised excessively for one summer. I mean, it stopped my period for three months, and I barely slept, but I was fine. I scaled back once I got into my senior year of high school. I started eating more, but I just exercised a lot and never really “purged,” so that shouldn’t count, right? If I’m ever vomiting it’s either because I’m drunk, have food poisoning, or have a very rare stomach flu. I won’t throw up perfectly good food.

And I guess I’ve kinda had a mini version of anorexia over the years, like that one time I got down to 108 pounds right before I started taekwondo…but I mean, it didn’t cause any lasting damage, and I didn’t think I was THAT thin. I didn’t have heart palpitations or get that fine layer of hair all over my body. My face was haggard, my clothes were baggy, and coworkers asked me if I was sick (of course I lied and said I was fine)…but my stomach still wasn’t flat and I still had cellulite on my thighs, so it doesn’t count, right? You can’t be “skinny” with a tummy and cellulite. Why didn’t they see what I saw? AMIRIGHT?? I can’t even do anorexia properly. Food is just too good.

I don’t have an eating disorder; I have disordered eating (it’s different) and some lingering body image problems. That’s all. I mean, it’s just this one problem area I can’t get rid of, so it’s okay for me to continue losing weight, right?

Obviously I am in a state of denial.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know I’ve written about strength, confidence, and loving yourself. Was I bullshitting all of you to mask my own insecurities? No, not really. Whatever I’ve written has made perfect sense at the time. I believe all of that, but obviously I just can’t allow myself to truly feel that way.

I know damn well this current period of restricting really doesn’t have anything to do with controlling my weight. Clamping onto my recent weight loss that originally was unintentional and now intentionally trying to stay thinner is my way of coping, just like it always has been throughout my life. There is something deeper emotionally and mentally going on, and I’m using my body as a way to gain control of the situation.

I’ve identified what’s bothering me, but I won’t share that here. I won’t even share it with the people I’m closest to. I have to keep up my responsible, high-energy, high-achieving front because there is absolutely no one to pick up the slack if I fall down and have to give in to what’s troubling me for a while. There never has been, and I don’t trust anyone to fill that role. If you ask me if I’m fine, I’ll say “Yes,” so don’t bother.

I’m taking a huge risk by admitting this here. What will my coworkers think? What will the parents of the taekwondo students I teach think? What will the people closest to me think when they find out I’ve been keeping these feelings from them? I want somebody to tell me I’m okay, but I’m too afraid to ask and be vulnerable. This blog post may seem like a big ole cry for help, but I won’t accept it. I have to keep handling this alone.

This begs the question: Am I a person with an eating disorder who happens to do martial arts or am I a martial artist who happens to have an eating disorder?

I got curious about sports and body image/eating disorders. We typically associate those problems with body conscious activities like gymnastics, ballet, cheerleading, and sports with weight classes such as wrestling. Surely a martial artist, whose practice is based on the tenets of confidence and self-respect, wouldn’t be capable of succumbing to the tempting, lying, hate-spewing devil of food restriction and excessive exercise. Right?

Yeah, they do that too. Some of them anyway.

Dangerous practices of cutting weight are well-known in certain martial arts arenas, such as professional MMA fighters, so I didn’t want to focus on that. I’m more interested in the everyday martial artist, the people who have jobs, school, or family obligations, and practice martial arts as a very enjoyable past time.

The problem was I kept running into dead ends. I used to do medical research for a living, so trust me, I dug. Research was either tied to professional athletes, or the studies on perfectionism and athletes was more generic rather than focused on a specific sport.

So what does the lack of evidence mean? Am I the only martial artist who has body hangups? Where are the other stories of struggle? Am I a bad black belt because I’m insecure and don’t always appreciate my badass black belt body? Am I setting a bad example for other martial artists? Some days I don’t feel like I deserve my black belt, and not just because of my body hangups. This makes me question whether I can handle it or not. Should I even be testing for second dan this fall if I can’t get my shit together?

Okay you guys, don’t worry, I won’t REALLY starve myself, but if I didn’t have sports to keep me honest I might very well go over the deep end. Here are all the reasons why I’m fine, no really, I am:
(1) Food is hella delicious, and I like to cook
(2) I need fuel for swimming and taekwondo, which are two very demanding sports
(3) I need good cardiovascular health to hold up during cardio drills and sparring
(4) I don’t want to lose the badass muscle tone I’ve built up over the years doing taekwondo and leg-blasting physical therapy exercises
(5) I need strong bones to keep me intact when I slam into other people…or get slammed into the floor
(6) This anorexic bullshit is for white emo teenage girls, so that’s not really what I’m doing, amiright? I’m too old to have this problem.
(7) I’m too responsible to totally ruin my life, as tempting as that is sometimes.

Look, it’s not really about weight. Most days I’m good, feeling happy and upbeat and enjoying my work and personal life, but there’s an underlying darkness. I’m keeping myself extra busy so I don’t have to face the emptiness, loneliness, and restlessness I’ve been feeling for the past few months…. But on the plus side my weight was down to 114.2 the morning after my previously mentioned weigh-in. At least I have that.

The game continues. I’m fine, really. Besides, black belts are too strong for these types of problems…right?

Love is Like Grape Soda…or, Being Happily Single on Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day! I still feel the same about love and grape soda.

Little Black Belt

crush-soda-grape-54495 Nope to grape soda…and to crushes, for that matter.

“For me, right now anyway, a relationship is like…grape soda.”

I was talking to a trusted friend and mentor a few weeks ago, and the subject of dating had come up. After a serious relationship ended last April, I spent several months doing the exact opposite of what I used to do after breakups: I wasn’t thinking about dating at all. I wasn’t wishing for it. I wasn’t interested. I was genuinely surprised when friends asked if I was dating because it was so far from my mind. My parents knew not to ask, and they were probably glad that I was taking time for myself. Even when my ex attempted to reconcile, I was tempted but ultimately declined. I was officially closed for business.

I continued my explanation to my friend:
“Grape soda is one of those things I don’t

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Thinking Too Much Makes You Stupid

I still need to remind myself of this some days.

Little Black Belt

dominos When your brain is all:  “Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap!!!”

I have two master’s degrees and a well-established career. I also have a first degree black belt in taekwondo. I manage my finances and pay my bills like an independent woman in a Beyonce song. That and a quarter won’t even buy you a cup of coffee anymore. Despite all these credentials, I found myself struggling to follow instructions that were intended to be simple enough for children during taekwondo class Monday night.

Being an overly educated, intelligent, complex-thinking adult brings with it the tendency to f*ck up really simple things…you know…like where to stand in line although it’s just slightly different than how we normally do it, or say…doing a series of snap kicks across the room and then immediately switching to roundhouse kicks on the way back, which we haven’t done in that exact sequence before. I swear I could have done…

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Breakdown or Breakthrough: Five Life-Changing Decisions I Made When I Was Feeling Like Crap

Sometimes our darkest moments bring us into the light. What were yours?

Little Black Belt

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I’m one of those people who not only needs a kick in the pants to make a drastic change, but I also need a swirly, a wedgie, and to be shoved in a locker and left over night until the janitor finds me the next day. I changed my major several times as an undergrad and each one was punctuated with hysterical sobbing phone calls to my dad during which I declared I wanted to give up on everything. I started my second master’s degree eight months after a devastating breakup. I started taekwondo two months after a string of dating humiliations and failures. Pursuing the MBA and returning to taekwondo were among my top 5 Best Decisions of My Life Thus Far and were decisions made with a mix of both impulsiveness and calculated determination. Decisions, choices, moves, whatever you want to call them, each event dramatically changed the trajectory of…

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