The Best Birthday

Happy-Birthday-Cupcake

“Turn. Face Melanie,” my instructor said at the end of class. It was a Friday night and we had practiced my favorite techniques: hand strikes, forms, and breaking. What was coming next? Wait a minute, we’d already done the standard bow-to-the-black-belts part of our closing ritual: master, second degrees, first degrees. What’s going on? Is there something spe—oooohhh, right.

“Start singing,” he added, giving me a smirk as he strolled to the front of the room. The whole class sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I grinned and covered my face.

“Be sure to thank her and wish her a happy birthday,” my instructor continued when the students finished singing. “She helps out a lot getting you ready for tests and tournaments and teaching in class.” My grandmaster added his sentiments, reminding the class that I’d been an assistant instructor for two years and that I was always hanging around to help, making me, in his words, a “special” person. I couldn’t make a sound other than blush and do a little “Namaste” bow to him and my classmates.

Grandmaster and my instructor got to work setting up a table with drinks and cake (a cake! With my name written in blue icing–my favorite color! For my birthday!) and I smiled primly as my classmates shook my hand and wished me a happy birthday. I was truly touched and humbled.

Okay, let’s pause for a minute. A bunch of kids (and a few token adults) singing “Happy Birthday” and a cake doesn’t seem like that extraordinary of a birthday, but for me it meant a lot. No one had ever surprised me like that on my birthday, and the fact that I shared it with my taekwondo family made it especially meaningful.

My birthdays have been pretty quiet as of late. Even though I’m a grown-ass woman I’ve spent the last couple of birthdays either completely alone or with my parents. Now I know they’re reading this so disclaimer: I love my parents and very much enjoy spending time with them….but….They’re supposed hang out with me on occasion; that’s their thing since it’s kinda their fault I have a birthday and all.

Last year I spent my birthday out of town with the parents. It was fun but still a little lonely. The year before I was at home alone; I don’t remember if I even treated myself to fast food. The year before that when I was in a relationship I spent my birthday with a mean-spirited boyfriend who ruined the day with his constant negativity and criticism. Trust me, I was thrilled to spend this year’s birthday with other people’s kids and cake.

My little birthday celebration helped me get past a difficult place I’ve been in for a while with my practice. Over the past few months I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis around taekwondo. At first I wondered if I was using it as a vice like alcohol to avoid internal pain (I was). I wondered if I was using it to avoid maintaining real relationships (I was). I wondered if I even deserved to be there at all or if I was just a disappointment to everyone. Sometimes I even considered quitting.

But this seemingly small gesture of celebrating my birthday reminded me that I touched more lives than I gave myself credit for doing. It reminded me that I was loved and valued. It encouraged me to continue showing up for them, even on the days when I didn’t want to do it for myself. It was, in a sense, a rebirth of my commitment to my taekwondo family and my own practice. I felt reconnected to something I genuinely felt was slipping away.

And you guys, the cake was really good. Chocolate with whipped cream icing, mmmmm, who could walk away from that?

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Even Black Belts Get Imposter Syndrome

mask

You know that time for a minute or so when I thought I didn’t deserve the big office that was offered to me when I relocated for my job? Yeah, I got over that fast, which you can read about in this post. Things at work could not be better. I am having a blast and sincerely love my job. I’m building lots of great relationships and am involved in some exciting projects. Even when I’m not sure what to do or feel like I didn’t give the best answer or flubbed up a presentation, I can still move forward with a smile, feeling confident and satisfied.

I don’t exactly feel that way in my personal life. I’m not isolated and broken hearted like I was two months ago, but in the dojang, for example, I still feel like I have some overinflated, false sense of authority and necessity. I feel like I’m a fraud and a joke who doesn’t deserve a black belt. I have had to miss several classes lately due to work obligations (thank you, awesome job!) and some personal things, but I also have a thought in the back of my mind that maybe I should stop going altogether. Maybe it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” I don’t get the regular camaraderie and fun and see my incremental progress, so I lose sight of why I kept going.

Here’s how I feel about myself as a black belt, whether this is accurate or not: Why am I entrusted with anything? I’m just a clumsy first degree who makes more mistakes than progress. I teach some things the wrong way, and there are certain movements my aging, aching body refuses to do even when I know damn well how to do them, and they’re easy for lower ranking students but not for me. I’m really not that great at it and I feel like I’m an embarrassment and disappointment to my instructors. Sometimes I don’t even know why I have a black belt other than being good at hitting stuff with my hands. I’m pretty good at forms too, so I guess that counts for something.

And now my instructors will probably be mad at me for writing that. I never said those thoughts were based in reality. They’re just feelings that bubble up sometimes. I really want to test for second degree later this fall, but at times I’m tempted to not go back at all. Why bother if I’m so awful at it?

Sounds like I have a good old fashioned case of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome, or Imposter Phenomenon, was first identified in the 1970s and is typically occurs among people who find it difficult to accept their successes and often question whether they will be found out as a fraud. In my case, I think I’m a crappy black belt, and I’m just making a fool of myself by continuing to show up at the dojang. It’s even more debilitating with my personal friendships and relationships and one of the reasons why I’ve lived a very isolated private life up to this point.

Imposter Syndrome is also typically seen among high achievers, so maybe I’m just a self-centered Alpha Female looking for reassurance. Maybe I’m just a big jerk.

I’ve never really had a real case of Imposter Syndrome in the workplace, which is stereotypically where it tends to manifest. I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve panicked because I didn’t know what to do or didn’t feel like I was up for a big task, but I found ways around them and kept going. I never let work anxieties affect how I felt about myself, and as a result, my confidence has grown as I’ve matured professionally, which I think has at least partially contributed to my continued success.

On the surface I keep up a good front of being seemingly put together with advanced education, career success, owning a home, and the added bonus of being physically attractive, at least by societal standards. I didn’t do any of those things to impress anyone, though. I wanted to build my own life and figured early on that I wouldn’t have any support so I charged ahead solo. Things fell into place by happenstance and hard work. I liked school. I liked to work. I liked to exercise and pick out stylish outfits and make myself look nice. Good stuff just happened to ensure from that. That front has helped me hide my true feelings, but in a way, they’ve trapped me into that image as well. I look very good on paper, but now I can’t let down the facade.

I think the difference between my work life and personal life is that with work, as much as I care about the people there and as much as I love my job, there’s a healthy sense of detachment. I could drop the mic, walk away, never talk to any of them again, and never give a thought to that part of my life again and be totally fine. I’d still be me and feel just fine about myself. I’ve always felt that way when it comes to my jobs, and as a weird result, good fortune seems to follow. It’s effortless.

Here’s a good example of Imposter Syndrome creeping into my personal life: shortly before I went back to taekwondo I briefly dated a guy who seemed like a great catch. He was handsome, fit, charming, funny, and owned a business. He seemed to have it all together…on paper anyway. The sad thing was I could never relax and be myself around him. I always questioned how I looked or what I said. I wondered why a guy like him was with me. When was he going to become disappointed in me and ultimately reject me? Why did he even want to date me in the first place?

I didn’t think I was good enough for him, and that is still difficult to admit. It makes me sad that I thought so little of myself. I’m sure he saw a lot of good qualities in me, but I was too mired in self-doubt to see what he saw. I ended up blowing it by overreacting over something minor, and I sabotaged the relationship as quickly as it began. In retrospect it was what needed to happen, and I couldn’t care less about that guy now, but I do remember the lesson I learned. The best thing that came from that failed relationship is that it catapulted me into the best thing that’s ever happened to me even though I kind of have a love/hate relationship with taekwondo right now.

While professionally I’m open to opportunities and possibilities and actually think I deserve them or at least have earned them, I don’t allow myself to relax and enjoy the ones I experience personally. Deep down I’ve never felt like I was good enough. I knew I was capable of being loved, but in the back of my mind I didn’t think anyone would want to stick it out with me for the long haul, whether it was a friendship or a romantic relationship. Guess what happened? As a believer in the Law of Attraction, I set myself up for failure.

The people I care about probably don’t know that I struggle frequently with old harmful emotional habits such as defensiveness and fearing rejection (well, until now. Oops. Hi, y’all.)…or maybe I wear my heart on my sleeve and they’ve known all along. This is so frustrating–as much work as I’ve done on myself over the past seven years, I still catch myself wondering if their fondness for me is conditional and temporary. My mind latches onto every thing said or unsaid (it loves to dig it claws into the unsaid) and analyzes the crap out of them and keeps me up at night with its silly notions and heartache-inducing, trouble making nonsense. Those bad habits have caused me so many problems in the past that I inwardly work overtime to control them.

Just as I am tempted to shy away from taekwondo so I am not faced with my own failure (at least in my skewed perception), I am tempted to shy away from the very people I care about. Why bother? They’re going to find out that I’m not that great and come to the conclusion that I’m not worth hanging around, right?

I know I am a good person and worthy of love and friendship, but old deeply ingrained habits die hard. I don’t want to burden the people I care about with these thoughts and feelings mostly because they aren’t real. They are lies and fears cooked up by the parts of my mind that I haven’t yet gotten under control. They’re not even fully formulated thoughts. A lot of it is good old fashioned, reactionary anxious garbage that doesn’t need to be dragged out in front of company.

Disclaimer: I didn’t write this for sympathy or reassurance.

I know a lot of stuff that flows through my head is bullshit that makes my life unnecessarily difficult. I’m simply admitting what I’ve figured out.
Carry on…

When does self-consciousness morph into self-centeredness? Am I a decent person currently plagued by doubts but sincerely trying to overcome them or am I an egotistical maniac just dismayed that I’m not being adored and worshipped? Did my self-consciousness make me inadvertently shoot myself in the foot and sabotage those relationships I supposedly cared about?

Did I just out myself to the people I truly care about? What if they find out that I really don’t have it all together? What if they don’t care and still love me anyway, but I’m too blind and selfish to recognize it? If I really loved the people I claim to care about, I would trust them to love me back, and even if they didn’t, I’d still be okay with who I am.

My mentor has told me more than once that what other people think about me is none of my business. Whether they love me, hate me, or simply don’t care about me isn’t a reflection on who I am or the qualities I have. Easier said than done, but I try to keep that in mind. It seems to work in my professional life, and as a result of being detached, confident, and carefree, my work life has been on an upward slope since my early twenties. I’m reaping rewards without seemingly trying at all.

One of these days I’ll feel that way about my personal life too. I won’t question whether someone cares about me. I won’t doubt myself in the dojang. The scary truth that just occurred to me is that to be totally free and happy in my personal life I need to be able to drop the mic, walk away at any moment (from friends, taekwondo, whatever), and still feel whole and satisfied and confident in myself even if I lose what I think I love the most. Even if I’m found out.

But you know what? I’m awesome, no matter what anyone thinks or doesn’t think.

I’m ready to drop the mic.

 

Can I Live Without Taekwondo?

lonely beach

I haven’t been to taekwondo class in over a week. Not by choice–a sinus infection thanks to Texas allergies knocked me back pretty hard. I was thankfully able to attend a lovely banquet for the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society in Dallas last Saturday, but other than that my participation in the taekwondo world has been nil.

I haven’t done any forms at home, I haven’t mentally worked through my self defense techniques, I haven’t watched any training videos. My uniforms are all washed and neatly folded in a drawer, and my belt is coiled in my duffel bag, waiting for me. I didn’t do anything related to my practice. It seems like I can live without taekwondo. Or so I thought.

I talked to some of my classmates and instructors off and on for a few days, getting the gossip and funny stories about things that happened in class. By the end of the week communication dwindled to a trickle and finally to nothing. Having been burned several times in the past by giving my heart too freely, I’m pretty gun shy about pursuing communication with people who don’t appear to be very communicative. So I didn’t bother. I was too stubborn to reach out. Maybe I should have been the one to call, text, or even stop by, but I was too afraid of being rejected. Decades of hurt and mistrust overtook me and poisoned the relationships with people I love. Apparently they can live without me too.

Boredom set in, then an aching loneliness, then depression. I have cabin fever. Other than a ballet barre class yesterday I’ve been too tired and congested to exercise. I’ve hidden in my office during most of the workweek. I’ve been reading voraciously during all my time at home, taking full advantage of having a well-stocked library in my house. I’ve written in my journal a lot. I began mixing substances just to get the night over with, not really caring what effects they’d have on me.

To my horror I’m tempted to wrap my protective cocoon around me tighter and mutter, “Fuck all of you, I’m done,” when what I need the most is my familiar dojang and friends. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go back at all. I’m safe at home with my books and my mood-altering substances. I’ve whittled myself down to 110 pounds and feel especially elated every time I step on the scale. I could get used to this. I’ve sunken into isolation before, and I’m very good at staying there. Maybe the relationships I thought were solid are just as superficial as all my other ones. Hiding in plain sight is easier than it sounds. Taekwondo is just an addiction that’s been masking my other addictions.

I’ve made the cruel discovery that not even taekwondo, what I thought was my saving grace, can fulfill whatever it is my heart is looking for. I was just clinging to it, like I had to other things or people, to make myself “happy.” I have to generate that within myself.

I can live without taekwondo, and taekwondo can certainly live without me. How arrogant of me to think that I’m an essential part of the school, part of the gang, one of the boys. I’m only a first degree black belt, just a student who plays dress up as teacher once in a while.

But I don’t like how I feel without taekwondo. I still need it. I’m heartbroken without it, yet I don’t like that I feel so vulnerable to admit it. I see how rapidly I declined without it in only a week. I’m angry that it has such a hold on me that I fall apart without its constant presence in my life. Will the spell be broken once I’m back in class?

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

black belt cinch.jpg

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

114.8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously I am in a state of denial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body

carbs-bread-rice-pasta

Foundation of the old school food pyramid, yo! But really, who ever got 6-11 servings in a day? Eleven servings??

After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.

I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.

At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.

Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.

I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)

Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.

Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.

I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.

“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.

Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.

Gnocchi to the Rescue

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.

After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.

Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.

I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.

And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.

I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.

Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.

I Am Who You Think I Am

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I have one for every day of the week…

Lately I’ve gotten some positive feedback from people in different areas of my life. They see me as strong, calm, and a perfect fit for a taekwondo instructor. One of my coworkers calls me an “Activator” because I am quick to complete tasks. Another coworker asked me a lot of questions about taekwondo when she found out I practiced it, and said she saw the inner strength and peace within me befitting of a black belt. During a period of job upheaval a coaching client was adamant that I HAD to remain his coach, and he would be “devastated” if I weren’t. A mother of some of our taekwondo students told me her kids love me and appreciate the “gentleness” in my style of teaching.

I’m having a hard time believing them. No, you have to understand, I feel like I’m pulling a fast one on people. I’m not that nice. I avoid socializing. I’m sarcastic and judgmental. My first priority is looking out for Number One. What inner peace I do manage to have is often dashed by worry and doubt. Privately I struggle but I’ll be damned if I share what I’m going through with anyone. I’m lonely but I’m thrown off when people express an interest in spending time with me and actually start to get anxious about sharing my precious free time and scheduled activities with others. And…sigh…sometimes I still think I’m fat and worry I’ll be rejected because of it (as a petite size 4 who kicks ass in the gym–I know, I’m an idiot).

Why doesn’t anyone see the dark, self-serving, angry, mistrusting creature looming just beneath the surface? Can’t they tell?? I don’t think I’m completely hiding my true nature or what I believe my true nature to be. I get along with people easily and feel comfortable interacting with small or large groups so I’m pretty much being myself (well, some of the time). But something feels off when people tell me how awesome they think I am. Half the time I’m counting the minutes until I can get away from them and go hide by myself. It is more comfortable to wear a mask and hide behind my walls than to let relationships flourish. I don’t understand why they like me. I don’t see what they see. If only they knew…

I started to wonder if it wasn’t so much that people didn’t know the real me but instead, I didn’t know the real me. I am the one pulling a fast one on myself with self-deprecating lies. I only see the flaws and magnify them until they crowd out all the other good qualities. I am SO guarded against letting people get close to me that I would rather entomb myself in my own mind with all its biases, exaggerations, false assumptions, and bad habits. I’m so wrapped up in my own self-destructive BS that it’s threatening to drown out all the good qualities I DO have.

Okay. Now that I realize that…now what? Maybe it’s like winning a lottery but at first not realizing you have the money and instead you still choose to live in a cardboard box. Now that you realize you have all that money you can get yourself out of that situation. I can be friendly, funny, and engaging if I let my guard down although right now I still don’t want to. I can be strong and calm if I don’t allow worry to overtake me although right now the habit of worry is so deeply ingrained I have to put all my energy into breaking myself of it. I still kinda want to live in my cardboard box.

I guess I’m not so bad after all. In fact, I’m pretty great. Now I have all these resources to tap into—calm, creativity, connectivity, people who want to be friends and spend time with me, a body I can enjoy and appreciate rather than hate or punish….that’s pretty cool. Once I stop spending so much time ruminating on the darker parts of my personality I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands. Hmm…

So it turns out I am who you think I am…and maybe someday I’ll believe that too.

Am I Substituting Taekwondo For Relationships? (Or, Part II to the Vices Post)

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Looks like paradise to me! I don’t even want a talking volleyball.

A few nights ago I was watching a Facebook video of a hometown friend playing guitar and joyfully singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Just as he jumped up and started to dance I suddenly started to cry. It wasn’t the song or feeling nostalgic for my WestTexas hometown that was getting to me, but rather it was a feeling I dreaded would make an appearance sooner or later.

I am profoundly lonely.

My second thought was, “STFU, you’re not lonely. You’re just bored because you got home early and don’t have anything to do tonight. You’ll go to class tomorrow night and forget all about this being lonely and wishing you had someone to talk to nonsense. Don’t you have a dishwasher to empty? A book that needs reading? For that matter, don’t you have a book that needs WRITING? A jigsaw puzzle that needs puzzling?”

Damnit, I was wondering when this was going to happen. Let’s be clear, I am no stranger to being alone and in fact gravitate towards solitude. I grew up in rural, big skied, and most of all QUIET West Texas. I’ve always been shy and preferred to spend most of my time alone, so when true loneliness strikes me it is deeply unsettling and confusing. I don’t particularly like spending a lot of time with people. It makes me uncomfortable, bored, and antsy to escape. The thought of an entire weekend to myself to do whatever I want whenever I want is heaven…And yet here I was feeling mopey and wondering if I should entertain the idea of dating again.

I HATE this feeling–not the feeling of loneliness, but the feeling of longing. I feel weak and undisciplined! After my last serious relationship ended a year and a half ago I committed to embracing a solitary life. Never before had I appreciated being single; I’d always resented it. Now I truly appreciate it and relish in my freedom and self-reliance. I’ve made peace with the fact that I may spend the rest of my fabulous life alone…fine by me, I’m retiring to Marfa, Texas by my own damn self. And I’ll probably be a taekwondo master by then. Bye Felicia!

Being single has been really good for me. No, I’m serious! I’ve made huge strides since I stopped dating. I became more bold and confident, I took more risks at work that paid off for me, and I tested for and received my black belt all on my own with no one backing me up. I am an independent woman. I am a walking Beyonce song. And yet here I was, sitting on my bed crying because I realized I didn’t have anyone to share my pretty spectacular life with. God I hate myself for feeling that way.

Of course  after my little Facebook video-watching meltdown I worked a long day and then spent about three hours in the dojang the next evening, and I was fine…Although I had a moment at home afterwards sipping whiskey and working on my jigsaw puzzle when I thought it would be nice…just once…to be able to tell someone about the fun things we did in class. Or to get dressed up and go out to dinner or an arts event. Or to go wandering around the lovely downtown part of my city. But I swallowed that feeling–and another few drops of whiskey–and continued working on my puzzle.

These conflicting emotions have confronted me with a disturbing theory: I am hiding behind taekwondo so I don’t have to interact with people, especially potential romantic partners, and also, it keeps me so busy I don’t have to confront my feelings. I tell myself that interaction with my instructors and classmates is enough interaction for me. I’m afraid any change in my routine, one that might keep me from going to class or make me start slacking off on practice will also keep me from the warm, fuzzy emotional highs I get from taekwondo. I’m not sure any guy is worth that sacrifice. I’m not yet able to believe I can have both.

Crying over a Bob Marley song was what made me first wonder if I was using taekwondo as a crutch to mask darker feelings, which I explored in a previous post. I still stand by my stance that there is nothing wrong, defective, or sad about being single by choice. Being in a relationship is not somehow the human default. I don’t put a “yet” on the question of whether I’m going to be in a relationship or get married. If those things happen, they happen. If they don’t, they don’t. I’m still me either way. I wish everybody had the opportunity to be single for a while so they can truly focus on themselves, who they want to be, and what they want to accomplish.

Taekwondo is incredibly fulfilling, and at this point I think my life would be pretty empty without it. It has taught me to love, which in the past I’d only reserved for blood relatives. It’s graced me with the opportunity to give, serve, and hell, I’ll even throw in the word fellowship with other human beings. I am a better version of myself in the dojang, so why ruin a good thing? (Here’s a fun game: every time I get starry eyed and mention how much taekwondo has changed my life for the better, do a shot!)

I’ve been very open about not wanting to be in a relationship. At first, I needed time to heal. Then I needed time to get used to being independent again. Then I needed time to truly embrace being alone rather than resenting it. Then I needed time to enjoy how far I’d come. What I haven’t admitted is that I’m scared.

Relationships have been nothing but trouble for me. I was not my best self in relationships, and in fact some brought out the worst in me, whereas taekwondo of course brings out the best. (Do another shot!) I stayed too long in abusive situations and tolerated neglect and non-commitment. But the bigger problem was myself. I made mistakes, impulsive decisions, did and said things I regret, and embarrassed myself. I had my moments of being abusive too, and I’m so ashamed.

I was not who I am today when I was someone else’s other half. If the men I dated saw me now they wouldn’t recognize me. I wish some of them could see me now. And as life plays out they’d probably think I’m awesome. Guys always think I’m super cool right at the point when I don’t give a shit about them anymore. Or maybe they’re still glad they dodged a bullet, whatever.

So what am I afraid of? Let’s start with the tired cliches: I’m afraid of getting hurt again, duh. I’m also afraid of being rejected for superficial and not-so superficial things. I’m afraid of being rejected for my pesky demons and skeletons in the closet. Digging deeper: I’m afraid I’ll revert to my old ways and lose myself in seeking approval rather than riding on my own wave of self-respect and confidence.

And honestly, do you know what I’m most afraid of? This is going to sound silly. I’ve convinced myself that my new kick-ass reality (superficial stress and all) is the result of eschewing dating or even the thought of dating. Notice I’m not placing the blame on men. I like men very much and actually prefer their company over other women. I’m saying not being in a relationship has been one of the best things for me. I’m afraid I will lose this life I have now–my freedom, my independence, my past times–if I begin to open up my life to someone else. I keep going back to the fact that I don’t want to admit: Spending my time in class rather than pursuing love protects me from potential heartache and rejection.

I haven’t convinced myself that it’s possible to find someone who is complementary to my life rather than consuming or conflicting. I’m afraid at my age all that’s left are aging, out-of-shape party boys or crabby workaholics. Who out there works out like a monster but also likes to get dressed up and go to an art museum or enjoy a good bottle of wine? Who’s going to be cool with me getting up at 4 am to swim or staying late at the dojang because I want to help a few kids who are testing for their green belt the next day? And more importantly, who is going to be down with drag shows AND country bars? (The drag shows because they’re fun and the country bars for the irony and they’re unintentionally hilarious. Plus I’m Texan and I like to two-step.)

Let’s be clear, I’m not looking for the male version of myself. I don’t want a pet or a puppet. A partner doesn’t have to have the exact same interests as I do, nor should he. Maybe I can learn about something new and interesting, or we can continue to pursue our interests separately. For example, I hate bicycling, and if I were with someone who cycled, I’d politely decline the invitation for a couples ride, hand him a bottle of Gatorade, and wish him luck on the ride. See ya! Fishing trip? Bye! Camping! Enjoy pooping outside by yourself while a bear is watching! NOPE!

Would it be nice to meet someone who is into martial arts? Sure, that’d be great. But if not, hopefully he’d just politely decline the invitation to join me in class, hand me a bottle of Gatorade, and wish me luck in my sparring match. (Showing up for my next black belt test, however, is mandatory). People, single or coupled up, should have time to independently pursue the things they love. If their partner shows an interest or participates with them, then great, that’s more time together. If not, that’s okay too, and hopefully their time together is richer because of their own personal fulfillment and satisfaction…but I’m still not convinced that type of symbiotic partnership is possible for me, and I’m not wiling to sacrifice what I have on a whim.

I’ve come too far and made too many personal changes to let a temporary, fleeting moment of sadness send me spiraling back into codependency and living for a g-ddamn text message from some guy who probably isn’t that into me anyway. I am set in my ways and really like being able to do what I want and when I want. I really can’t comprehend finding someone who could mesh with my lifestyle and who’d be willing to share me with my commitment to my dojang and my taekwondo practice (one more shot!)–although there’s a part of me that hopes that will happen somdeay.

I am going to ride this Single Lady storm out and power through this temporary loneliness. Wanting to be with someone is just a feeble lie my mind is telling me. That has gotten me into trouble too many times before, and I have too many scars. A relationship is a nice-to-have, but I certainly don’t need one. Taekwondo has been too good to me and too good FOR me to let it slide. Relatioships are fleeting. Black belts are forever.

So, the conclusion is..NOPE. I’m going to class tomorrow and will continue to keep myself safe and preoccupied. And probably start a new jigsaw puzzle. And maybe shoot for two-a-day swimming workouts on the weekends. Here’s to vices! (Clink!)