Even Black Belts Get Imposter Syndrome

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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.

 

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Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into…well, Kicking and Screaming

inner peace

“Don’t let it escalate,” my instructor offered as a final tip for the evening. We were hanging around the dojang practicing some self-defense techniques. I was a little disappointed when he said that. I’ll admit that I’ve daydreamed about snapping the elbow and repeatedly stomping on the face of some nameless gropey man, a drunk at a bar or perhaps a cocky teenager trying to show off for his friends, screaming “Women aren’t squeeze toys! If you do this to me or any woman again I’ll hunt you down and gut you like a f*cking fish!! Now apologize!!!”

Turns out that’s not really what self defense is about. My instructor likened it to how we handle our emotions in an argument, and we don’t want them to escalate out of our control.  I was a little envious that this guy, twelve years my junior, already had it figured out when it took me many years of humiliating blow-ups and breakdowns and having to teach this crap at work for it to start to sink in. His practice had obviously given him much more than the ability to do a flying side kick.

I wondered how different I might have been had I stayed with taekwondo as a child–mentally more than physically. It would have given me purpose, focus, discipline, and most importantly, calmed me the hell down. One of the teenage black belts, who knows about my childhood foray into taekwondo, likes to joke that I’m really a fifth dan, and I always say, “No no no!” and waggle my hands at him. I really don’t think I would have stayed with it. The way my self-esteem plummeted–juxtaposed with my impossibly huge entitled ego–and priorities shifted (not necessarily for the better) as  a teen and young adult was so powerful that I doubt taekwondo could have survived.

Maybe I had to go through all that unpleasantness to become who I am today. Had I not gotten to the brink of total self-destruction I would not have gained exponential growth through the help of trusted (and very patient) guides and the tools of observation, reflection, and accountability. If I’d started taekwondo even five years ago I still would have been brooding over how fat I thought I was or how much I wanted whatever jerk I was obsessed with for the moment to text me instead of quieting my monkey mind and focusing on my flying side kick.

I came back to taekwondo when my mind and heart were finally tired of fighting, and they were more open than they’d ever been. Oddly enough kicking and screaming on the outside finally stopped the kicking and screaming on the inside. I became more optimistic and laughed a lot more. My life was no longer spinning out of control while I wailed in the corner as the helpless (and blameless) victim. I was finally ready to, as my yoga teacher would say, “receive my practice.”

Besides, if your monkey mind is distracted by anything other than technique during a flying side kick you’ll fall flat on your face.

Loss and Gain

toy-breed-puppies

It’s actually possible to be sad even when you’re in a pile of puppies.

My brother’s dog has been so depressed since I left after a weekend visit that he won’t eat and had to sleep in bed with my brother and his wife. They said they’ve never seen him so despondent before.

Either that little dog has a pretty smooth racket going or we are witnessing grief in its simplest and most innocent form.

Unless we are unbelievably fortunate or are hermits we have all experienced loss—the loss of a job, of a friendship, of an opportunity, of a romantic relationship, some of us have lost our minds, and most of us have witnessed the loss of life. I’ve recently experienced a major loss in my life. At first I was like my brother’s little dog—I couldn’t eat or sleep and I wandered aimlessly around the house looking for a ghost who had long disappeared.  After getting through the initial stages of grief I seem to be at the stage that’s not as glamorous as denial or anger:

Now what?

The “now what?” stage is that moment of clarity: well, X happened, and I’m still here so…now what? Experiencing a loss doesn’t mean you have to immediately fill that void with something else that will superficially cover up the pain. In fact, I recommend giving the void some breathing room. Let it be and see what happens. Then look around and see what else is already in your life that you haven’t been to experience something fully. Or, you know, do what I did and begin an intense contact sport.

A few years ago I’d emotionally hit rock bottom and decided to go back to taekwondo after a twenty year hiatus. For years I had focused on the loss or lack in my life and was blind to all the wonderful things I did have. The emotional pain was still there even as I mastered low block, middle punch, and roundhouse kick, but as it dissipated I knew I had gained something special. I still can’t put my finger on it, but it broke me of the habit of dumping all the responsibility of self-worth and validation on another person. I know I have more confidence, a better sense of priorities, and…OK, well, I also love the way my lower ab muscles pop out. Taekwondo opened my eyes. I gained the Me that had been buried for decades under decay and darkness.

Taekwondo was there long before I experienced my recent loss and will be here long after the pain has lessened. It’s a great source of comfort—I’m learning something new, I have a goal to focus on, there’s never a lack of endorphins, I’m out and around people–which is a nice break from being in my introverted head all the time, and we laugh a lot more than you’d think in martial arts classes. 

Yesterday during class I felt a little tug—the sense of community that I have shrugged off my entire life. The sense that even though the ache of grief and loss is still there, it is surrounded by something positive that I love to do and embraced by people who care about me….and who also won’t think twice of kicking the crap out of me or throwing me on the floor.  We’re weird like that.

If you are grieving for a loss and don’t know what to do…let it be. It’s here and it’s terrible, but you’re still standing too.  You might not be able to erase the pain, but you can gain new insights and ways of experiencing joy that you might have overlooked before.  The answer to “now what?” is “anything you want!” Fight back by continuing to live.

Happy update: my brother reported that his little dog’s spirits are back up again. I almost felt bad for even visiting and letting him get attached to me since my absence caused him so much pain. But my little puppy “nephew” was just experiencing what anyone (or any animal) who is capable of loving is bound to experience: loss. It’s encouraging to know that after experiencing loss and grief there is love, hope, and happiness around the corner.

Break Fall

falling-girl-part-02 Wednesday night in red and black belt class we practiced falling. “Don’t drop like you’re dead,” my instructor said to me and the other bo dans after we morosely plopped forward, landing forearms-first on a heavy mat. “Hit your arms against the ground and don’t sink your body into it,” he said, emphasizing his statement by popping his arms. Falling face-forward is scary, but if you know how to protect yourself, you can fall with confidence.

Our falls aren’t passive. In a way it’s similar to the technical aspects of partner work in modern dance and ballet. If you’re the lifter you’re not just muscling up dead weight, and if you’re the one being lifted (or in the case of taekwondo, thrown), you’re not a limp rag doll, even if you are pretending to be a rag doll in some kind of weirdo contemporary dance. You have to think about foot placement, weight distribution, safety, breathing, protecting your back if you’re the lifter/thrower, following silent cues from your partner, and landing so you protect your joints and head.

Anyone familiar with martial arts has probably heard the adage, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Or if you’d like a more modern version of this tenet in the rap song “Still” Dr. Dre says, “Even when I was close to defeat I rose to my feet.” Indeed, Mr. Young, indeed.

Perseverance is one of the guiding principles of taekwondo. It can also be easy to forget in the heat of defeat. Lying passively on the ground can be quite comfortable, but you can’t stay there forever. I encountered a major disappointment over the weekend, and I did have that dark moment of thinking things were never going to get better. But they do. If you’re lucky enough you wake up the next day and are still breathing. If you’re really lucky you can put one foot on the ground and then the other. Falls are going to happen. The trick is to break the fall so they don’t break us. Re-watching “The Big Lebowski” helps too.

Later in the class we played around with some advanced self-defense throws. To demonstrate one of the techniques my instructor hooked his arm around my leg after I’d kicked at him, grabbed my lapel with his other hand, and swiftly threw me to the ground all in a matter of about 3 seconds. I knew it was coming, but I was still a little stunned when I slammed into the mat. It was scary because he threw me so fast and I hit pretty hard, but it was also a little exhilarating. I had survived. I had made it.

Little Black Belt is ONE! A Year in Review…

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Eating cake like a BOSS.

If you’ve completed filing your income tax returns then I’d like to invite you on a retrospective journey through the evolution of this blog—the discoveries, the triumphs, the tears, the deep questions, and most importantly, the jokes. If you haven’t completed filing your income tax returns….what the hell is wrong with you?? Get back to work!!

A year ago today I tentatively uploaded my first blog post “Fear of Flying Kicks.” I didn’t share it with anyone other than whoever might stumble across it on the other side of the internet. For a month I walked around with the secret tucked in my pocket until I shyly told one trusted person about it and then started sharing the posts on Facebook. Since then I’ve gained some followers, and my posts have been very meaningful to them. I’m delighted that my words provided some insight and comfort to others even more than they have been to me. I’ve received a little criticism too, which is just par for the course of sharing one’s thoughts with the world. Most importantly it’s given me a platform to share all the learnings and epiphanies that were bubbling up inside me so ferociously I thought I would burst.

“Does it give you peace of mind?” a coworker asked when I was trying to convince him to enroll his little daughter in taekwondo when she gets older. I was about to go into a long spiel about how it made me more focused, confident, self-aware, etc., but he continued with his question. He was asking if it gave me peace of mind as far as physical safety….oh yeah, there’s that part of it too! I told him if I go through life never having to use it in a real combat situation then I will be very happy. Confidence, staying cool and calm, and making safe choices are my first lines of defense against attack. As far as gaining the other type of peace of mind, something I had been pursuing my entire life—yes, I get that from taekwondo. A thousand times yes. More than I thought was possible.

I came a across a quote on the blog Runs for Cookies. The author shared a weight loss story of a running friend that included this quote:
“Running didn’t change me. It just helped the real me find my way out.” I can say the same for taekwondo. The real me has been dormant for many years and it has literally kicked its way out into the sunlight.

The Best of Little Black Belt
This was tough, but I pared down the list to my ten favorites. Why ten? As the great George Carlin said, ten is a “psychologically satisfying number.” And he said a lot of other things that I can’t write here.
1. Accidental Elle Woods – the one where I discover with horror that my life is the plot of a romantic comedy. NOOOOO!!!!
2. Style Guide for the Fashion-Forward Fighter – the one where I write a funny list about juicing, makeup, and stretch pants
3. Everyday Struggle – the one where I first explore the concept of resistance…and yes, I’m quoting a Biggie Smalls song
4. I Traded Magical Thinking for Martial Arts – the one where I stopped being delusional
5. Sparring with Demons-A Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness – the one where I get super serious
6. I’ve Become the Person I Hated and I Couldn’t Be Happier – the one where I stop thinking I’m fat
7. Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism is So Much Cooler – the one where I delve into the law of attraction and make a sarcastic argument for smoking
8. Back to Basics – the one where shit goes down in yoga class
9. Ain’t That a Kick in the Head – the one where I get some sense knocked into me
10. Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD – the one where my pocketbook and waistline thank me

If you want more on the actual gritty details of taekwondo practice, check out the 8 posts in The Poomsae Series or anything tagged with the categories “Class Diaries” or “Training Tips.”

Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m bowing to you right now, you just can’t see it. 🙂

Hello, McFly, Your Life is Calling! HELLOOO!!!

phone-call

Okay, okay, aggressive creepy phone! I’ll answer!

“Is this a possible calling for you, career wise?” my brother texted me Friday night after I told him about my successful bo dan test and my plan to pursue higher black belt ranks throughout my life. I replied that taekwondo already is a calling but it wouldn’t be a full-time career unless I were independently wealthy. I just do it because I love it. If I can make a few extra bucks on the side teaching or get free classes in exchange for teaching then I’d be happy.

I would never want to own my own school because (1) it would take many years to get to the rank that I think would be a respectable level to own a school and (2) being a small business owner is a pain in the ass and there’s rarely much money in it.
…But is that really true or just limiting beliefs? Have I trapped myself in the American Dream (or nightmare?) of a corporate career and making lots of money just to spend lots of money so I can’t really be free? Is it too late to do what I really want to do?

More and more this past year I’ve started to figure out who I really am. The realizations are coming faster and the layers are peeling back more quickly. Beliefs ingrained since childhood have shaped the choices I make as an adult, and I am working hard to dismantle the more damaging ones. At times there are growing pains as I let go of comforting yet ultimately harmful beliefs and choices that I thought would make my life easier but only kept me smothered and unconscious. I’m already in a job where I help people learn and grow in a very supportive environment, which is awesome, but I don’t want to climb the corporate ladder or stay in the cubicle jungle forever. I love my four-inch heels but if I could spend most of the week in sandals or bare feet I’d be just as happy. (Wouldn’t we all?) Sometimes I waste the precious time I have to myself instead of savoring it, although one could argue for the importance of doing nothing.

Sometimes when you write things down it helps cement the beginnings of a new path. So if I had my way here’s how I’d really be spending my time:
-Life coaching
-Writing
-Teaching and practicing yoga
-Teaching and practicing taekwondo
-Learning languages and traveling
-Helping the homeless in my city find something to eat and a safe place to sleep
-Helping low income women in my city get their education and better jobs
-Retire somewhere warm and sunny near the ocean where I can be that crazy old lady doing yoga and taekwondo forms on the beach

That’s it. That’s what I really want to do. I’m open to receiving the steps to get there.
Today my mentor remarked that I was reaching some milestones of asking probing questions and shifting my values a little earlier than people typically do, like an early mid-life crisis. I joked darkly that it must mean I’ll die at 70. Hopefully by the time I get there I’ll be very true to what’s in my heart.

Storyteller – The Poomsae Series Part 8

storybook

The Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form (“poomsae” in Korean). My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

Everybody has a cross to bear, a story to tell, a lifetime of experience behind a single glance. Sometimes we need to hear the full story to appreciate someone or something. It offers perspective, clarity, and depth that is otherwise not visible.

Palgwe Pal-jang is…awkward…not busy and weird like Oh-jang, but it lacks the lyrical beauty of Yuk-jang and the dramatic fierceness of Chil-jang. When I first started learning this form I was very frustrated. I felt disjointed, clunky, unsure of what I was supposed to do next. Granted, it’s the final form in the color belt ranks so if it were easy then I would question the quality of my training. Thankfully I have top-notch instruction with exceptional attention to detail…so there’s no way I’m getting out of doing the damn thing.

This form didn’t make sense until I learned the story behind it. Every movement of every form is intended for self-defense training, therefore each form has a “story.” It’s not just a series of randomly choreographed moves, and if that’s all you get from it then you’re not delving deeply enough into it. Someone’s messing with you and you need to…you know…make sure they stop doing that. Sure, there are some flowery moves that provide a little flash, but for the most part they provide the opportunity to perform a variety of techniques in a single flow. You’re kicking ass and looking good while you’re doing it. From an artistic standpoint it provides form AND function.

Last week Grandmaster corralled the red and black belts to the back of the room, and we walked through the form piece by piece. Rather than just demonstrating the moves he explained the reasons behind them.

“Someone kicks at your left side, you turn to low block, and then punch them,” he said, turning his head to look at us to make sure we were following along. The explanation method isn’t new–we often do that when we’re learning new forms or fine-tuning old ones. What made this training special is that he took the time to explain the reason behind every single technique. It’s like getting a tour of an art exhibit with the curator or the artist herself. The story behind the work provides a much richer context than if you’re just muddling through on your own.

“Someone grabs your wrist,” Grandmaster continued, grasping my small bony arm and pulling it out to the side, “and you pull away.” He gently nudged me so I would yank my arm back and prep for a nasty elbow jab to the ribs. It clicked. As we practiced the form in unison I could suddenly see us telling the story with our bodies, our breath, and our intentions. What seemed disconnected and clunky became crafty and calculating. What felt awkward became strong, beautiful, and invigorating.

Everyone has a story–the boring guy you turned down for a date, the old lady who cut you off in traffic, the distracted cashier at the grocery store, the rude waiter at a restaurant you had been so eager to try, the beautiful woman who invokes your envy because you assume she has everything in the world handed to her. Our stories can be inspiring, heartbreaking, depressing, joyous, disgusting, funny, messy, cautionary. We don’t have to learn the details of everyone’s story to appreciate them. All we need to do is recognize that there is an ocean of depth behind every person who glides in and out of our existence.

And now I need to go practice that form again…and again…and again…