Being Okay With Where You Are

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“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.

It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.

I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.

We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–

THUNK.

The board didn’t break.

Crap.

I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.

Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.

Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.

I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.

I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.

It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.

If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.

I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.

I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.

Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.

I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.

Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.

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I Am My Own Nemesis

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When I received my new black belt uniform a few weeks ago, the first thing I noticed wasn’t the bright white fabric, colorful patches, or black lapels. I noticed this phrase on the packaging:

“I Am My Own Nemesis.”

This stopped me in my tracks. We usually see cheerful phrases like “Just Do It” (Nike) or “Impossible is Nothing” (Adidas) on our athletic gear. Yeah, I can do anything, especially now that I’m wearing this $50 dry fit running shirt! The company that packaged and sold my uniform may have the same motivation to pump up their customers, but their motto came with a warning and a dose of reality.

It was a stark reminder that I have a long road ahead of me. No matter how fast or forceful I am as a black belt, my deadliest opponent is lying in wait squarely between my ears. Mental discipline is a tenet of all martial arts, and can be more difficult to master than the physical demands. It’s fairly easy to hit a kicking bag (or another person) with a solid roundhouse kick, but trampling down our own doubts and fears can take years if not a lifetime to master.

The enemy nestled in our minds can attack us in many ways and in many incarnations. It can begin to drive us insane as we begin to doubt more and more our abilities to overcome adversity or accomplish goals. It often appears in these forms:

Fear: Fear of the unknown, fear of being rejected, fear of physical harm, fear of loss (money, relationships, stability, job, etc.), fear of being exposed or “found out,” which goes neatly in hand with self-doubt.

Self-Doubt: Doubt in our capabilities, intellect, choices, and many more. The more we doubt ourselves the more our sense of self begins to crumble. Doubt is like scraping a big eraser across a drawing of yourself; your essence begins to disappear. Doubt yourself enough and you will be frozen in indecision and fear. Self-doubt can lead to self-hatred, which is a very dangerous downward spiral.

Anger: Our inner enemy likes to be combative and paranoid, and it will convince you that the world is out to get you. Anger can often stem from a feeling of vulnerability and a deep fear of being hurt. When mired in anger we start to see conflict everywhere and begin to take every encounter as a confrontation. I have known people who created many enemies in their life simply because they began to assume the worst about everyone they encountered.

If there’s a silver lining about being your own nemesis is that you know the enemy better than you’ll ever know your other opponents. One way you can battle this Self Nemesis is by observation, which is a useful tool my fellow martial artists and I use in sparring. We don’t just rush into a fight with fists and feet flailing. We study our opponent and look for their strengths, weaknesses, and patterns to help us plan our attack and defense.

Are you beginning to feel overwhelmed by doubt, anger, or fear? Stop. Observe, and more importantly, observe without judgment. Don’t berate yourself for your feelings. Simply acknowledge them. You’re afraid? Well, that’s okay. What is it you’re afraid of? What’s the very worst that can happen? Are you 100% sure that what you fear will happen? Are you really and truly 100% helpless, or is there something you can do? Ask yourself if what you’re thinking is true or if you’re telling yourself lies. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Taekwondo has been my saving grace for overcoming low self-esteem and crushing anxiety. Sometimes when faced with a challenge at work or in my personal life (or most recently, trying to climb up onto a Bosu ball at physical therapy) I think, “Chin up, you can do it! You’re a black belt!”

There are real dangers and opponents out there, but sometimes the great nemesis is all in our heads. I’d love to see in the comments below your tactics for overcoming your self-doubt and fear. What do you do when you realize you are your own nemesis?

Doing What We Dread Can Do Us Good

quote-about-discipline-is-doing-what-needs-to-be-done-when-we-dont-want-to-do-it “Well, the majority voted for forms so we’ll do self-defense tonight. If no one wants to work on it that must mean that’s where we need the most help, right?” one of the instructors said cheerfully as we all inwardly groaned. It was Wednesday night, which is reserved for sparring followed by red and black belt class. Most of us in the late class had already attended sparring class and were so exhausted that we were ready for an easy evening of gliding through forms. Instead we would be spending the next hour working on intricate hand-to-hand techniques.

We selected partners and once again I was paired with a quiet, poised young girl whom I had coached during sparring class. She possessed the grace and long limbs of a dancer, an elegant maturity well beyond her years, and here’s the rub—she’s ten years old and already taller than me. We spent the evening working on our hand-to-hand techniques, which she has to learn for her upcoming bo dan test and I will have to repeat for my black belt test. I enjoy working one on one with the kids so I let her twist my wrist over and over until she finally worked up enough aggression to make it effective, meaning it hurt like hell.

“Is everyone worn out? Maybe mentally more than physically? Being frustrated can make you just as tired as working out,” our instructor mused at the end of class. It’s true, self-defense works my brain harder than any other taekwondo technique, and it’s easy to become frustrated when my body won’t do what my mind knows it’s supposed to do. However, I also felt surprisingly refreshed and relaxed at the end of the class. It was as if putting my body and mind through the wringer had squeezed out any residual stress, distractions, or worry.

Sometimes we have to do things that are good for us even though we don’t want to do it. We don’t want to eat our vegetables. We don’t want to practice self-defense. We don’t want to deliver bad news. We don’t want to expose our insecurities. Once we do, however, it doesn’t feel so bad. It’a not as scary or unpleasant as we thought it would be.

I had to do something very difficult yesterday that I had been dreading, but in the end it was what was best for me. I didn’t feel “refreshed and relaxed” after the fact since it was a sad situation, but I knew I had to go through with it. It will help me reach the next level just as I have to keep trying things that are uncomfortable to progress in my taekwondo practice. Perhaps we could even do what we dread with a little more confidence and faith next time.