It’s Not Failure. It’s PRACTICE!

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I belong to a fitness Facebook group. The other day someone wrote about his mindset regarding failure. He decided to regard failure not as a loss or as something negative, but as practice and a learning experience. Didn’t quite hit the mark on a deadlift? Practice–maybe there’s something off with your technique. Gave into temptation and had the donuts in the office break room? Practice–now you know to bring a healthy snack to fight the mid-morning munchies.

Last night in taekwondo class our instructor was encouraging us to try out something, even if we were afraid of failing. His example was 360 roundhouse, or tornado kick. It’s a complicated kick that can be tricky for anyone, including me and my fellow black belts and the lone blue belt in our class. Our instructor said if we’re afraid of failing and don’t try something, then we’ll never get better. Learning can happen incrementally each time you try something.

My 360 roundhouse kick isn’t great, at least where I think it should be for a fairly athletic 2nd degree black belt. So that means I practice. I’m not “failing” when I miss the pad I’m trying to kick or don’t get as much height as I want–I’m practicing. I tried out a tip he’d given for timing the jumping part of the kick, which pushed me beyond my comfort zone with that technique, and what do you know, it was better than the first time I did it.

By continuing to practice (even when that means messing up) we continue to learn, and when we continue to learn we begin to improve.

The fear of failure is often more painful than experiencing the failure itself. What if we regarded every “failure” instead as practice for getting better? Perhaps by regarding everything we do as practice and learning, we can make the world around us a little less scary and a little more exciting.

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When Starting is More Difficult Than Finishing

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I can win a game of pool, but I’m not very good at starting one. Let’s just be real–I’m terrible at breaking. I can never seem to get enough power to create a smooth and clean strike. More often than not, the cue ball barely moves the rack of balls, and sometimes I end up scratching. The last time I did a decent break had more to do with the extra-smooth surface of the table I was playing on than any of my technique.

Come to think of it, I could never get the hang of serving in a tennis match either. Sure, I could chase after the ball and lob it over the net, but starting the game on a strong note always seemed to elude me.

Why is it that sometimes starting something is more difficult than finishing it? I am very organized in my job and love completing tasks. I love making lists, not only to keep track of what I need to do, but also for that sense of satisfaction when I cross them out. But I occasionally find myself sitting at my desk feeling totally unmotivated to do what I know (and have spelled out) what needs to be done. Eventually I get to work, but making that first step can be more difficult than making the final one.

Is it not knowing how to start or is it plain old procrastination?

Finishing strong is important, but so is starting strong. When I was teaching poomsae (taekwondo forms) I would sternly tell my students that their ready stance (legs straight with toes forward, strong fists in front of the belt) was just as important as the rest of the form. I didn’t want to see any dead, glassy eyes, limp hands, or duck feet. If they went to tournaments the judges would most certainly be looking a that. Our beginning stance is our first impression. Focus and determination happen when you’re standing still.

Maybe finishing a task is easier because we’ve had some time to build confidence from our successes. We’ve had a chance to try things out, maybe even learn from our mistakes. Maybe the expectations on ourselves are too high at the beginning. We think there won’t be any mistakes or setbacks. We don’t think we’ll lose the game. Going into the unknown is scarier than conquering the familiar.

I don’t think I have the final solution to this conundrum, even as a VERY CLEAR (and impatient) “J” in the Myers-Briggs world. It can be helpful, if time allows it, to ease into tasks. Drink some coffee, journal, catch up on news, do whatever pleasant distractions you need to do to get them out of your system. Procrastination happens to everyone, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get it out of your system.

After a little while of working on a task, I find myself picking up momentum and completing what I’d been dreading getting started. This happens a lot with writing projects at work. I feel like I have writer’s block, but after I force myself to get started without the high expectation of finishing it immediately I churn out something that’s pretty good. Letting myself relax when I get started (but with focus and determination) often leads to a strong finish.

So maybe that’s the key–just relax and start. Do SOMETHING. Do ANYTHING. And try to do it well. Trust yourself to do it well. You’ll get to the end in no time.

How Taekwondo Has Helped (and Hurt) My Pool Game

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About a year ago (and some change) I started playing pool with a friend. At first it was just something to do once in a while on a lazy weekend. I had never played before and was really looking forward to it. I had visions of lounging around in a dark dive bar, telling jokes, and swigging beer while my friend and I easily played round after round of pool.

That’s not quite how it happened. The beer and hanging around in a dark dive bar definitely happened (and still do; the bartenders are cracking open my Coors Light right when I walk in the door), but it was much more difficult for me to pick up the mechanics of pool than I thought it would be. I was TERRIBLE and I was SO frustrated. It felt difficult and clunky. I couldn’t control my hands or relax my shoulders or get my angle right or do anything that my brain was telling my body to do. I couldn’t let myself just have fun and keep trying.

I wasn’t the easiest person to be around during this painful growing period. I even had irrational fears that my friend would want to stop being friends with me because my pool skills weren’t up to snuff—sounds ridiculous, right?

After whining about how bad I was for a while, I decided to tap into my black belt perspective and see if it could help me improve my game. Taekwondo has taught me a lot about myself and in turn, how I approach my new hobby.

Taekwondo reminds me that my perfectionism crosses into other areas of my life. At the pool hall I was so hard on myself and so self-conscious about barely being able to move the cue or hit my targets. I foolishly expected success to be handed to me just because I showed up.

I have put these same irrational expectations on myself as a taekwondo practitioner (and pretty much my entire life).

My perfectionism finally started to ease off when one day my friend said, “Why are we here?” When I answered, “To practice?” he shook his head. “No, we’re here to have fun.” Oh. At the moment neither of us were having much fun. I took that as a cue (no pun intended) to lighten up on myself and just enjoy my beer and look at pool for what it was: a game.

The reason why I started taekwondo was not to get a black belt or learn self-defense. I just wanted to do something fun and positive. It was helpful to remember that fun was my number one goal with pool AND still with taekwondo.

Taekwondo made me a curious pool player.
Getting a black belt does not automatically make you perfect at every technique—as I wrote in an earlier post, part of BEING a black belt is making a conscious effort to raise self-awareness around technique, ask questions, and play with mechanics. I bring that same curiosity to my pool game. I scratched—hmm, let’s figure out why. I couldn’t get power behind my shot? Let’s have someone look at my arm to see what I’m doing. The angle was off? What can I do next time to think through the shot I want to make?

Taekwondo made me a persistent pool player.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. Miss a shot; try again when it’s your turn. Maybe it’s my lingering perfectionism, or maybe it’s the tenacious stubbornness one feels in a sparring match that’s not ended yet. I’m going to keep playing. Taekwondo requires a lot of patience, persistence, and mental and physical toughness. While pool is not nearly as physically as demanding as taekwondo, the mental tenacity required is quite high.

Sometimes you have to take a little break in the middle of all that persistence to come back fresh. Our playing had waned off at the end of last year. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018 my friend and I decide on a whim to go play since it was free all day.

I won the game in eight minutes. I’d never played so well. I’ve since had great games (both through decent technique and pure dumb luck), but that first “comeback” game was all I needed to inspire me to keep practicing and keep playing.

Taekwondo made me an appreciative pool player. This goes back to my curiosity around my performance, progress, and what I can do to improve. Once I started to get the hang of things and get a handle on how I could purposefully learn and improve, I could really get “into” playing the game. Does that mean that I can only enjoy things on the condition that I have some kind of proficiency in them? Maybe. I probably would have quit both taekwondo and pool if I’d never been able to get my body and brain to move past the basics. That’s something I’ll have to deal with and/or just accept as a reality about myself. Either way, now I can really dig into pool, get curious about improving my game, admire what my pool-playing partner does well, and keep improving and celebrating my successes.

Taekwondo gave me faith that the physical “click” will eventually happen. It has with pool, for the most part, although  I have a LONG way to go to be as proficient as pool as I am at taekwondo. I look forward to weekends when I can drink beer, crack jokes, and play. My left-handed shots are getting pretty good. My friend and I are finally at the point where we can talk trash to each other. Most importantly, the fun hasn’t worn off. I just have to keep my perfectionism in check (the beer helps with that).

When In Doubt, Go to Class

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It would have been so easy to skip taekwondo class last night. I’d had a long but productive and satisfying day at work (complete with key lime pie from the break room fridge) and was ready to relax and turn off my brain. It’s been cold and rainy for the last week, which is to be expected for February, but as a native Texan I just can’t abide anything below 60 degrees and didn’t want to get out into the “bad weather” any more than I had to. My Netflix queue is bursting at the seems. The bottle of wine I was saving for Thursday evening was softly calling my name.

I’d already missed a week of taekwondo due to a busy work schedule, and as I discovered at the end of last year, it was seductively easy to fill my time with other activities.

But instead I went to class.

I knew I’d made the right decision after about twenty minutes of practicing forms before my class began. I was just beginning the last black belt form I learned (the rarely practiced and even more rarely discussed Nopei) when I felt some sense of release and ease. Ahhh. I was in my element. I had finally shaken off my professional and personal responsibilities for the evening. My corporate persona had dissipated. I was in BLACK BELT MODE.

I spent the rest of the hour doing speed drills, practicing advanced kicks with my fellow black belts, and did some leg conditioning, which my heart thanked me for and my still-aching (but protectively braced) right knee grudgingly accepted. I caught myself smiling as I wiped the sweat from my face and panted for breath. I was having fun!

A simple decision topped off an already good day and helped me remember why I got back into this martial arts game in the first place. Confidence and athleticism aside, taekwondo makes me feel freaking amazing, both physically and mentally.

You can tell when someone is in their element. My mom loves to knit, my dad is a painter, and my brother is a musician. They’re all very talented, but “being good at it” isn’t why they do it. Sometimes they don’t care what the outcome is; they just want to DO it. That’s how taekwondo feels for me. I just want to DO IT, no matter what. I am in my most heightened physical, mental, and emotional state when I am practicing taekwondo.

What puts you in the zone? What makes you feel most present and alive? What is that thing? If you don’t have it, look for it. Read a book, try out a new hobby, drag your ass to the gym, find some peace and quiet or a place that heightens your senses.

When in doubt, GO. TO. CLASS.

 

 

When a Hiatus Leads to Victory (i.e., the Best Jump Back Kicks Ever)

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Okay, I didn’t do THIS, but it felt like it.

Last night in taekwondo class I did the best jump back kicks I’ve ever done in my taekwondo career. Ever. (I’m a second degree black belt, it’s about time, right?) It’s not like I haven’t been doing jump back kicks lately, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re hitting targets versus just kicking the air. Hitting targets, whether they’re pads, kicking pads, or people, is extremely important in taekwondo or any striking art. You can hit the air all you want and get fairly well conditioned, but it’s quite a different thing when there is weight and resistance at play, as well as the precision required with hitting a target, whether it’s moving or not. This is not only important for sparring and breaking, but it builds power and speed as well.

Now that we’re at a community center we have to bring equipment with us, meaning we don’t have access to the stacks of focus pads, shields, heavy bags, and other striking targets that we used to at our old dojang. I usually keep two focus pads in my bag, but this time I lugged in a heavy black rectangular-shaped kicking shield. There were a few students from the advanced class stretching while the orange belts practiced, and their eyes lit up with delight when I held up the pad, grinning and wiggling my eyebrows. They immediately grabbed it and started doing little drills with each other. This was going to be fun.

After some warm ups the senior instructor picked up the shield and asked us to form a line.

“Why don’t you show them what to do?” he suggested. Hmm, what’s a good drill with a heavy shield?

“Okay, listen everyone,” I said. We’re going to do a sliding side kick [I kicked the pad with my front foot] “…followed by…a turning back kick.” I turned and slammed my other foot into the pad as I talked. “Think about when you’re sparring. They’re getting close to you so you hit them with a side kick [I kicked again] and then…knock them…back.” I did one more turning back kick to emphasize my point.

I’ve been hit or miss with targets in the past (no pun intended), especially with turning back side kick. My problem is usually not chambering my leg high enough to kick right in the center of the pad (which in theory is someone’s gut) or sometimes not turning the shoulder of my kicking side down enough. That night, however, I was doing a pretty good, consistent job and had a respectable amount of power behind my kicks. Cool.

Then my Grandmaster stepped to the side with a small focus pad and gestured for me to come over to him. I saw him working with another black belt on jump turning back side kick. Uh-oh, was it my turn now?

“Jump back kick?” I asked. He nodded and lunged towards me. (Sometimes a drill the holder will “fake” towards the kicker so the student can work on timing and distance.) I took a small step back, jumped in the air, twisted my torso, and smacked the heel of my back foot squarely into the meat of the focus pad.

POP!

What?? I’ve never done that well before. Grandmaster gave a short nod of approval. I did a double take in surprise and then quickly repositioned myself.

POP! He moved towards me again.

POP! Well, I’ll be damned.

POP! “Your left side is perfect. Right side—turn the shoulder down a little more,” Grandmaster advised.

POP! Cool, maybe I could break with this kick someday!

POP! Grandmaster smiled in approval, and I trotted away, panting and pleased with myself as I straightened out my uniform.

I ended up doing about eight or nine jump back kicks across the floor and hit that little focus pad every single time. I didn’t graze the edge or tap it. I HIT it. I jumped up, chambered both legs mid-air, and kicked the crap out of that pad square in the middle every time in front my 9thdegree Korean Grandmaster. Sweet. Maybe doing all those jump snap kicks and simple but highly repetitive back kicks in Body Combat class have kept my legs in good condition over the past few months of minimizing my taekwondo training.

I don’t think I haven’t done a drill like that in about eight months, probably not since we moved from our old school. It’s been easy to get complacent lately. Meh, same old kicking drills. Meh, a few forms and sparring. Eh. Who knew giving my body and brain a break and inadvertently doing cross training (Body Combat, barre, swimming, yoga) would lead to some of the best, strongest kicks I’ve ever done? I don’t think I need to wait another eight months for target practice. I think I do need to look for more opportunities to surprise my taekwondo brain and muscles and keep up the diversity in my own training and also for my students.

So I guess these little breaks have done me some good.

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!

The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again

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I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

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.

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.

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.