How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

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It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

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Don’t Be So Defensive…Unless Someone Is Trying to Punch You in the Face

I want to step away from my typical blog posts today and share with you a TED Talk video my boss showed during this morning’s team meeting. It starts out as a discussion about collaboration, but the body of it focuses on that pesky human habit of becoming defensive in difficult situations.

The video resonated with each member of my team in various ways, both with our personal lives and also with some sticky work situations we’d been ruminating on just a few minutes before watching the video. It also brought to mind my favorite words of wisdom from my taekwondo instructor: “Don’t let it escalate.”

Your homework assignment:
The speaker’s definition of “defensiveness” is profound. After you watch the video ask yourself these  three questions:
1. In my most recent conflict was I really defending myself against another person or was I trying to defend myself from my own fear or insecurity?
2. What are my early warning signals that tell me when I am becoming defensive?
3. What can I do to constructively handle a situation where I know I am becoming defensive?

Dead Week

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When something you love brings out the worst in you rather than the best it’s a good indicator to reconsider how you’re spending your time and energy. It’s also a big ole mind f*ck.

I did not go to taekwondo all week. I was utterly burned out and was beginning to dread class more than look forward to it. It broke my heart to feel that way. I was tempted to go on Monday just to get a good cardio workout, but my body and mind were begging me not to go. I did run through my forms since those are so intricate and in danger of becoming fuzzy if I allowed my memory to become too lax. I suspect part of my stress around taekwondo has stemmed from a personal situation that has caused a lot of grief and anxiety. It went off like an A-bomb and flattened everything in its path. This week has had too much caffeine, sugar, and stress, and too little sleep, wholesome foods, and laughter. I still managed to lose another pound even after a late-night decadent meal at a fancy society gala so yay for that.

It was nice to be anonymous for a week. I still went to work and wore my mask of cheerful dutiful employee, but before and after office hours I was off the grid. My social media activity was barely a whisper and I had limited contact with friends and family. The darkness of the A-bomb situation only clouds my thinking late at night or on lingering weekend mornings rather than completely engulf me. No one knew where I was or what I was doing. It was glorious.

It was relaxing to just exercise without feeling like I needed to perform for somebody. Once I got past a few days of sleep-deprivation and deep depression I got back into my Pilates routine and added some cardio and weights. I went to a Les Mills BodyCombat class one night just to keep up my taekwondo technique. Thankfully there were no ridiculous grapevine steps or clapping and instead had a lot of hooks, front snap kicks, and knee bashes. I still executed a side kick the way I was meticulously taught even though I didn’t have anyone shouting at me to lift my knee higher and turn my hip.

It reminded me of how much I hate aerobics classes, but I was pleased that my stamina was so strong that it felt like a walk in the park compared to a typical taekwondo class. I was surprised by my muscular silhouette in the mirror. I seemed so much less clumsy and blocky in a tight tank and running pants than I am (or at least my perception of what I look like) in taekwondo class. I didn’t know that’s what I looked like under my typical flowing white long sleeves and loose pants. Doboks make everyone’s butt look big, no exceptions. I was too shy to kiyahp with the hopping, grinning instructor. It seemed silly among the T-shirts and tennis shoes.

When you clean house cobwebs and dust bunnies can frustratingly drift from one corner to another rather than be transported to the trash. When you go through some major mental shifting and emotional overhauls a few things can fall through the cracks. After thirty-five years of ruling myself with an iron fist I realized that I could no longer remain sane while measuring my self-worth by my relationship status or by what I looked like. I’m exhausted. Something I loved was bringing out the worst in me rather than the best. I began to dread it rather than dream of it. It was killing me. I want to say “f*ck it all” and fade to black.

I was tired of punishing myself for not being “good enough” or worthy of being happy and satisfied.  I AM enough; happiness and satisfaction comes from within. I didn’t berate myself for “failing” at a relationship and stopped looking in vain for proof of improvements in my face and body. I am deeply sad about a certain situation, but I did not fall into the typical trap of viciously blaming myself for the outcome…and I didn’t start calling myself fat either, which somehow always comes up in unrelated situations. I hadn’t realized before that not hating myself was actually an option–how refreshing! I don’t want to measure my worth by that anymore, f*ck it all. Money, relationships, and a good-looking exterior are just bonus prizes to inner peace, not that I have that right now, but I’m getting closer. Plus, ever since I’ve stopped wearing eye makeup my eyelashes are longer and thicker. Yeah! #iwokeuplikethis

Apparently though I wasn’t “enough” for myself with taekwondo. That old black magic of self-scrutiny, judgment, and criticism began to rage full-force. My enlightened, happy and satisfied inner self wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I was beginning to be embarrassed by everything I did. I started thinking about how ridiculous I probably looked, how poorly I was performing, and how full of crap I am when I moon over how much more confidence I have or how happy I am jumping around and kicking the air with children. Really?? All the self-hatred and judgement that had been washed away from other aspects of my life suddenly attacked what had previously been untouched by deep-seeded anxiety and doubt. I wonder if I began to put too much emotional weight into taekwondo, like holding up the impossibly high expectation of a love interest to magically make you happy or more money to finally solve all your problems. It doesn’t work that way. Nothing external can live up to that expectation.

The air gets thinner and the trek becomes more treacherous when you near the summit of a mountain, and the same thing is happening as I edge closer and closer to black belt. I am questioning and doubting everything and sometimes find myself silently thinking in the middle of class, “Is this it? Is this all there is to my life?” This is not the first time something I loved began to bring on more stress and frustration than joy. Jobs, relationships, interests, and passions are all in danger of crossing over that dark line, and it is devastating when it happens. It feels like a betrayal. I still haven’t gotten right with myself and taekwondo. I still think I am a liar and a fraud who doesn’t deserve to be a bo dan. One might suggest I need to let go of that anxiety and let the Universe work its magic. I’m just not there yet.

P.S. On a much happier note–THIS IS MY 100TH POST, YO!!!!!

4/20 Burnout…Wait, It’s Not What You Think!

burning candle

When you do something over and over you either become stronger or you break.

Tonight was an extremely small class, so one of the masters worked with me and a younger bo dan on our forms. We walked through it piece by piece, performing each move over and over as we made tiny corrections each time.

“Come over to the wall, let’s work on your side kicks,” he said since there was a side kick in our new form, and it wasn’t quite up to scratch. Side kick is tricky. It’s one of the kicks we learn early on in our training but is one of the most difficult to master. Many students tend to short change side kick by not pulling it back and instead do a weird twist and half-heartedly fall forward into “panic stance” before regaining balance. For the next half hour my classmate and I deconstructed and reconstructed our side kicks, first holding the barre for support, then stepping away and doing “free range” kicks, and then finally hitting bags.

“Go slowly, speed will come over time,” he said. “Get it right first.”

I did the side kick so many times that I actually got worse before I got better. My mind and senses started swimming about the same time my eyes became blurred with sweat. It was that same unnerving feeling of staring at a word or picture for so long that your brain disconnects from the meaning of it. The word begins to seem like it is nonsensical and the picture becomes dissonant shapes. I refused to admit that I was tired (“I’m tired of my low kicks!” was all I would say). I hoped the master didn’t think I was getting frustrated with him or myself. Even though I’m very serious most of the time in the dojang, being there is the highlight of my day. That’s where I’m happiest and most excited. Taekwondo has fundamentally changed who I am for the better.

But the truth is I’m burned out.

I have been living and breathing taekwondo for the last several weeks, especially the weeks leading up to my bo dan test. I need a break. I’m actually looking forward to having company this weekend not just to see my family but also because I will skip Friday classes to spend time with them. I need to get some distance from it, even if it’s only for a few days, before I can go back to it.

When I got home another burning situation I’ve been dealing with hit me with full force. The initial shock was long over. I haven’t cried in a week other than when I watched a World War II documentary all day Sunday and finally lost it when they started playing Mozart’s Requiem. (Who wouldn’t lose it at that point? I will again if I start thinking about it)

So when the tears threatened to well up I focused on the pain in my muscles, tendons, and joints, a pain that is hewn from growth and triumph. It distracted me from the pain in my heart, a pain sprouting from grief and frustration and loss. I was tired of being my own hero all the time and having to tap into every last reserve of my strength. I was tired of kicking and fighting over and over when what I really needed to do was rest. I had to back off so I wouldn’t get burned.

Sometimes what you love can burn you. The trick is recognizing when you need to step away from the deceptive warmth of the flame and rest in the cool quiet darkness for a while.

Well…Now What? And I Drop an F-Bomb.

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“Be true to yourself. You’ve come too far in 2 years,” my dad said. I experienced a really bad set back tonight and planned on my usual soothing ritual of lying motionless on the couch for eight hours watching Netflix, which will start tonight as soon as I post this. I told him I was going to skip going to a young professionals arts event tomorrow because I was too sad and didn’t want to put on a big fake smile. He reminded me that this situation and other parties involved don’t define who I am.

I will not share personal details about this situation; I’ll just say my life took a big nosedive shift I am reeling somewhere between really fucking furious and deeply sad. A lovely little bombshell was dropped on me unexpectedly at 9:30 at night. Nice. I have been in a situation that has not been by my choice or design and yet somehow I have been the one to blame for its downfall. What. The. Fuck. I know I don’t drop f-bombs or even s-bombs in my blog, so I apologize for offending my gentle readers, but this situation warrants it. SHIT FUCK SHIT THIS FUCKING SUCKS.

I talked to my dad, who is the best one to talk to during these situations and in the course of our conversation he’d brought up that he’d noticed a huge change in my demeanor over the last two years that I’ve been studying taekwondo, especially in my happiness and confidence levels. He didn’t want me to let this situation undo all the hard work I’ve done. And he’s right. Then my LOA thoughts kick in and I wonder what I did to “attract” this situation and what I am supposed to learn from it. Maybe I am just supposed to learn to be me and love me so I am not seeking it elsewhere in sources that always dissipate like vapor.

I’ve cried all the tears I’ve felt like crying tonight, now I’m just numb. I am waiting for the clonipin to kick in, calm my nerves, and knock me out (just to sleep! Nothing bad!) and I am staying true to my promise of not touching a drop of alcohol until after I get my black belt. I was watching “All About Eve” before I had this difficult conversation that upended my reality. I recall the famous line by Bette Davis: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Fucking sucks. I’m still going to taekwondo class on Monday, and I think I will go to that arts event tomorrow. Besides, it’ll be funny to show up in an elegant dress with bruises all over my arms from sparring.

Things Got Weird and Then Got Better

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Kitty was about to have a breakdown or a breakthrough…or both.

This morning during a meeting I revealed more of myself than I intended to, and I didn’t even say a word. We were meeting with a person in another department to discuss the sticky logistics of a shared project and were trying (without too much luck) to get some clarity on our roles and responsibilities. I won’t bore you with any more details.

I’m not the most vocal person in meetings, but I always try to contribute. This time I just shut down. I stayed silent, kept my eyes down the entire time, and refused to speak when questioned. I simply could not talk. Throughout the meeting what kept my mood lifted was reminding myself that tomorrow I will be donning a white dobok, getting my heart rate up dangerously high, and duking it out with teenage boys. I’m not sure what was more hilarious or ridiculous—me sparring or the polite argument that was occurring in the meeting.

After our guest left my coworker, a wise man with a wealth of experience, looked at me and said, “Are you OK, partner?” Luckily I have the type of relationship with my coworkers that there’s a safe space to open up, so I did. I said the politics and emotion involved in the project turned me off from the beginning, plus, there was something about our guest that (a) I didn’t quite like and (b) reminded me a great deal of myself. I said the politics and confusion around another project similarly pushed me away. I might be overly sensitive to things like that; I’m not sure. Also, and I didn’t admit this–I was totally lost. I got so lost in the rhetoric that I wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Stop going around in circles, just tell me when to show up and what to do,” but it was so far into the meeting that I didn’t want to admit they’d lost me thirty minutes ago.

Then a deeper, darker feeling of malaise washed over me. This was all pointless. Everything is pointless. Life is pointless. Wait a minute, what?? Where the heck did that come from?? All I wanted to do was have my little peanut butter snack after we got out of the conference room and now this?? What the hell is going on??? The same thing happened this past weekend when I finally had to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself about the way I was not taking care of myself very well and letting my health decline. I’d like to think it’s old resistance sloughing off as I progress to brighter and greater manifestations…but for now it kinda sucks.

I felt myself getting a little flustered and so I clammed up before the tears that were starting to spring to my eyes could do any damage. I am usually emotionally detached in the workplace, and it’s served me well. I exhibit a great deal of care and compassion, but there is no love. For me love and work are mutually exclusive, although I know it’s not that way for some other people, therefore, when I sense myself getting emotional about something work-related I’m frustrated. I absolutely loathe the idea of crying at work or feeling anything more moving than a sense of obligation to do what I’ve been tasked to do, no complicated questions, no arguments, no politics, no games, no anger, no emotions. My happiness isn’t hinged on work…or at least that’s what I tell myself to stay tough.

“I get the sense you saw something in her you didn’t like about yourself,” my coworker said quietly as we walked down the hall back to our desks.
“She seemed fake,” I said. This woman was very intelligent and very nice, but her mannerisms and choice of vocabulary were like a parody of business buzz speak. I added, “And I’m very fake. Everything you see is an act…and…and…[I waited for some privacy before I blurted out the next part] I hate corporate America, I really hate it and I don’t fit in…but I’m here.” I don’t lie or withhold information. I’m just a different person in the office. And it’s wearing me out.

My coworker patted my shoulder and offered to talk if I wanted to. I’m not sure I can open up again. Some feelings I didn’t know I had were stirred up, and now that they’ve surfaced I’m not sure what to do with them. I wonder if that’s been contributing to the general low mood I’ve been in for the past few weeks. I felt like Holden Caufield, that whiny little asshole who thought everything was “phony.”

Overall I’m satisfied in my job. I have a great team, great boss, fulfilling work, a decent work-life balance, and the means to support the lifestyle I want. Even though I work for a non-profit service-oriented organization I think capitalism is absolutely fan-freaking-tastic. But… I don’t “lean in,” I hate politics and power plays, and I feel like I’m putting on an act every day. On one hand what they see is not the True North I talked about in a previous post. On the other I have lived in the skin of my professional persona for so long that it does feel real to me. As for the corporate America thing, it’s all I’ve known during my professional life. The money and perks are good, I’ve learned a lot and met nice people, and although I’m very curious about what life outside the cubicle is like, I’ve gotten along OK on the inside other than eye strain and a messed up hip from sitting in front of a computer all day. If were truly living my dream I’d be a life coach and a yoga teacher. Right now I’m just too practical and comfortable. I don’t think “corporate America” was really the problem this morning, though; I was looking for a target to take the hit for my frustration and unhappiness. Maybe I’m the one who needs a life coach.

Suddenly the Tide Turned….to AWESOME!!
Back at my desk I was lost in my thoughts, my face hot from embarrassment, sadness, and confusion when another coworker snapped me out of my fog. She was a new employee and was conducting brief one-on-ones with everyone in the department to get to know them. It was time for her to meet with me. We happened to be wearing white jackets and black pants so we hit it off immediately. Texas women don’t get mad when someone is dressed alike. We’re just tickled pink to have found a “twinkie.”

I talked for a few minutes about what my team does and described our current projects…and I was already exhausted and bored with myself. There I was going again as Miss Slicked Back Serious Professional and I was tired of hearing myself talk. Thankfully my new coworker caught a glimpse of a picture of my boyfriend (“very handsome” in her words, and she’s right) and when I told her that we had martial arts in common she dropped a delightful bomb on me.

She is part owner of a team with some fairly renowned and respected fighters in the UFC. They have a gym not far from our workplace.

W.O.W. AAHHHHHH!!!!!! I nearly jumped out of my seat I was so excited.

After that the professional facade dropped and I animatedly chatted with her about taekwondo, what it’s like to own a fighting team, all the events she’s gotten to attend, how incredibly nice so many fighters are under all that muscle and grit, and who we thought got cheated in their fights. I instantly felt relaxed, happy, and I forgot why I was upset in the first place. Who knew I’d ever be this excited to talk about sports?

“I’m really a fun girl. This is just my professional persona,” she said slyly when our little informal interview ended. She straightened her lacy lapel and trotted away in her high-heeled sandals. It was like she was giving me permission to put on the act in the office. Maybe everyone else is putting on a bit of an act too. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself to “keep it real.” Can we truly be ourselves in the workplace? Am I truly myself in the workplace? Do I need to be? Does it matter as long as I’m doing honest work? Do I even really care? Not really. It’s like going to another country with a working knowledge of the language. I’ll get by in Mexico with my broken Spanish, but underneath I’m thinking in English, and when I’m by myself I’ll revert back to my English-speaking American customs. I’m who I need to be to get by during the day.

“Let go, you’ve been holding it up all day,” my yoga teacher said tonight as he encouraged us to relax into foreword fold and let the weight of our heads loosen from our necks. I chuckled. I’ve been holding up a lot more than my head, and it’s a relief to let the weight go.

If you want to see the real me, go to the dojang. Come on, you knew I’d link it back to TKD at some point.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head

ninja_kitty_kicks_dog“YES!” I cackled through my mouthguard and high-fived the fifteen-year-old boy who had just kicked me in the head. I was proud of him that he’d gotten one over on me and proud of myself that I was becoming more aggressive and adept at sparring with the guys in class. He flashed a confused braces-lined smile and we slapped our cotton-padded paws in the air. A few minutes and another blow to the head later I had a realization.

Head Shot Thought Part I – Three points!
I got hit because I crouched. For some twisted reason I thought I could duck the kick rather than standing up straight and throwing up a block. I realized that it was not only a very poor sparring tactic, but it was also reminiscent of an old habit I thought I had begun to break.

I’ve lived in fear and shame as long as I can remember. Flinching, cowering, crouching–those are all lifelong habits that have plagued me since childhood. I let so-called friends, boyfriends, loved ones and strangers bully me because I was too complacent to walk away. When I tried to fight back I was just humiliated and beaten down even further so why bother? I thought I was lower than an animal, that in some sick way I deserved the abuse, that it was the only kind of attention I could get, that I didn’t deserve any better, and when I tried to fight back I was just ridiculed, humiliated, and abused even more so why bother? Mingled with the hatred toward my abusers was the hate I felt for myself, and I have finally started to chip away at it over the past few years.

Apparently I still have a little more work and healing to do to do.

My crouch wasn’t self-defense. It was an apology for existing, it was a statement of unworthiness. The up side is, though, is that it doesn’t upset me to realize that. In fact, I’m thankful that my self-awareness has skyrocketed and I can quickly identify these pockets of pain, self-doubt, or “resistance’ as my law of attraction friends would call it. The more quickly I can find them, the more quickly I can smoke them out and cut them off at the knees. Try and keep me back, you little bastards.

Another Head Shot Thought – Three points!
The other thing the blow to the head did was wake me up. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I felt alive, even elated, something that has been elusive lately. It was a shock, like being thrown into a body of icy water…sorry, another cliché. Ever since the winter weather settled in I’ve been nipped at the ankles by boredom, restlessness, an uneasy discomfort that I can’t quite pinpoint. The depression I’ve kept on lockdown is trying to worm its way back in under the guise of winter blues and loneliness. I start questioning the point of it all, whatever that means, whether I’m at home folding laundry or at work clicking through emails. Days seem to drag by and when I finally crawl into bed I read a book as long as I can because I don’t want to be alone with the silence and my thoughts. The only time I truly feel fulfilled is in taekwondo class.

Maybe I hoped that blow to the head would give me the same “full emptiness” I felt when I had a concussion nearly a year ago after a minor car accident. I was completely aware of what was going on, but I was relaxed and laissez-faire about the details. I didn’t bother with worrying about the small stuff. There simply wasn’t space for it in my head. So far I haven’t found a way to create that feeling again. I’m too much of a straight arrow to venture beyond legal means. Meditation just seems to increase the mind chatter.

So here’s my new challenge–how do I hold onto that joy and focus that I feel in class? How can I find the same fulfillment and sense of meaningfulness in the rest of my life? How do I constantly live in what Eckhart Tolle would call a state of being “awake”?
How can I be a taekwondo person, the one who has a strong spirit and perseveres, when I’m going about my daily life? My LOA friends would say find ways to feel good now, and I know that works because I’ve done it countless times with very positive results. I know that fulfillment and happiness is already available right here in my heart. That gives me hope.