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.

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“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.

Anger Management

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“Good. I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon! Strike me down with all your hatred, and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” – Emperor Palpatine, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

You gotta love a great villain, especially one with deliciously quotable lines like Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars series. (Besides, that overused Yoda quote “Do or not do, there is no try” is a bunch of smarmy self-righteous crap.) Palpatine’s taunting statement made me think about anger, how we express it, when to use it to our advantage, and when to let it go.

Last night in sparring class a teenage green belt and I were minding our own business, snapping kicks and punches and chasing each other around the ring when we heard an eruption of anger from the other side of the room.

“I’M DONE! I DON’T NEED YOUR BS!” screamed a teenage black belt who has a history of mouthing off and losing his temper. For whatever reason he started shouting at our instructor during their sparring match. He stalked out of the room, leaving my partner and I to continue our fight under our instructor’s watchful eye. I felt a little bit like I did those times my brother got in trouble and I was left alone at the dinner table saying things like “Uh…this corn is good!” and trying to please my parents any way I could. There is an anger in this kid that is threatening to be unleashed. I know from experience that that type of anger will only destroy him while the rest of us look on unscathed.

Sparring can either bring out the best in us or unlock our demons. Most of the time I’m positive, curious, ready to work hard, and even jovial. I got hit in the face last night and just laughed it off, taking it as instant feedback that I needed to block and dodge faster (and I was really really thankful I always wear a mouthguard). But I can’t claim total innocence as I’ve lost my cool a few times during sparring class—no screaming eruptions like my classmate, but a I’ve thrown a few glares and muttered nasty comments under my breath. Those few times I did lose it had nothing to do with my partners or instructors or even anything to do with taekwondo. I was angry at things in my personal life and angry at myself. My hatred was poisoning me and taking me closer and closer to the dark side, whatever that means for you.

I have felt a lot of anger and hatred lately in my personal life. It ebbs and flows, reaches a boiling point and then simmers down until the next trigger is pulled. I feel intense boiling hatred for someone I’ve never met, someone who interfered in an important part of my personal life and indirectly led to the end result. This person’s interference and tricks pulled behind my back humiliated me, and I have my moments of wanting revenge. I feel my hatred toward that person much more acutely than the anger I’ve felt towards the person directly involved in my situation (I’m trying to keep this anonymous; ya’ll’ve figured out there are two people I’m talking about, right?).

I’ve been able to gain closure and do whatever forgiving I can with the person directly involved.  But it’s still easy and in a way comforting to hate this other person I’ve never met, the one who interfered in my personal life when they had no business doings so. They exist only as an idea, an effigy, a target on which I can pin all my frustrations and blame. The poison of this hatred feels good, like a hit of a dangerous drug. I’m not quite ready to let it go.

This teenage black belt and I share some of the same demons, although I’ve never disclosed that to him. The demons are not an excuse for certain behavior; they simply serve as an explanation. At this point I’m not sure sharing my story would help him. I don’t think he’s ready to be helped or to take responsibility for his own feelings and actions.

While he was aggravated and explosive, sparring class actually quieted my own anger and stress. By the end of class I wondered what all the fuss in my head was about. Taekwondo usually has a way to twist and work my mind and body to the point that my frustrations, worries, and fears are obliterated, like stamping out a burning cigarette. They’re gone with a quiet hiss. Unfortunately for my teenage classmate, I think his demons and anger are far too strong for him to, as my yoga teacher says, “rest and receive his practice.”

There are some people I can’t forgive. A particularly abusive ex-boyfriend from many years ago, a toxic former friend, this person whom I’ve never met who contributed to a very painful situation in my personal life. I know I am giving them too much lease space in my head, and I know I will never be free if I continue to hate them. But I like the anger, and I like the way the bile and bitterness feels in my veins. I rarely think of the former two people any more, but I’ve never forgotten how they treated me. My anger and intense hatred towards the third person are still raw, and I haven’t yet figured out how to put it all behind me (don’t tell me to forgive; that’s not happening).

If there’s anything positive to gain from it it’s the sense that I now have a better understanding of human nature. Some people simply can’t be trusted, and some people are snakes in the grass, waiting to strike. Anger doesn’t necessarily need to be squelched. It can be a healthy emotion that keeps us from being abused and taken advantage of. Anger can been a feedback tool to show us our own insecurities, and I’ll admit that some of my current anger and hatred stems from my own insecurity even though that other person still is a triflin’ no good dirty bi–never mind.

Uncontrolled anger turns itself back on the one feeling that emotion. It’s the old adage of swallowing poison and hoping the other person dies. They don’t tell you that the poison tastes like Coca-cola and cupcakes at first. When you discover how disgusting it is it’s too late.

I can hear my instructor saying in my head, “Don’t let it escalate,” so maybe that’s the best thing to do at this point. You can walk away from a bully or a snake. You can still be angry at them and they’ll still exist, but you’re not wasting your sight or breathing space on them anymore. It doesn’t kill them, but it keeps your fear and anger from killing you.

Sometimes just acknowledging that you feel anger and figuring out the reason why you feel it can help lessen its power.
Ahh, I feel better already.