A few days ago I told my Grandmaster and fellow instructors that I would not be returning to the community center where we hold classes twice a week. I kept my explanation simple: my job is demanding, I have health issues to address, and frankly, I just don’t want to teach anymore.
That was the simple explanation. I’m not sure it was truly heard or accepted, but that’s no longer my problem. I’m done. I’m out. I’m free.
I wrote this post for all the black belts and instructors who made the heart-wrenching decision to leave their martial arts school in the face of potential backlash and harmed relationships. There are tons of articles and posts online about quitting martial arts or a particular school from the students’ perspective, but I could find very little solace in stories of my fellow instructors who finally said, “enough” and cut ties. (Although I did get some hits when I paired the search terms “martial arts” and “cult,” which is telling.) I know the stories are out there. This one is mine.
“Quitting” is such a taboo word in the martial arts word where we all proclaim to be white belts who never gave up, and those who quit really aren’t dedicated and blah blah blah. We all like to make ourselves feel good when we say, “I’ll never quit!”
Sometimes quitting is exactly what one needs to do depending on the situation.
I once heard someone describe their religion as a “prison of the mind.” Religion can be a wonderful thing for many people, but like any institution or philosophy or way of life, it can be a trap for those who are susceptible. I knew I needed to leave my taekwondo situation when I realized I had mentally trapped myself in a state of believing I was helpless to change a situation that I have not been happy with for months.
The irony of my fascination with cults and my past history of staying in toxic personal relationships that were past their due date is not lost on me.
I brought the cult-like devotion on myself. I entered my taekwondo school when I was in a very vulnerable mental state. (And as martial arts imitate life, I happened to enter a controlling, emotionally abusive, classic gaslighting relationship around the same time) I was beyond thrilled at how wonderful taekwondo made me feel. I had traded one mind-numbing substance for another.
Recently as I was agonizing over whether I could muster up the courage to quit my Taekwondo situation I reflected on why I left my last job in 2011. I left that job and the library profession because there was no opportunity for growth (an expanded position my manager and I had proposed to her corporate leaders was twice shot down so bye Felicia to them) and the department strategy overall changed very little. At 30 years old I was about to hit the ceiling of my salary range, and I knew I had more earning potential. I wasn’t going to settle for a librarian’s salary, which for a professional with an advanced degree is on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. My manager asked me if I’d ever go back to a library job. At the time I probably said, “I don’t know” to be polite, but I knew I’d never go back.
Without going into too many details, that’s essentially why I left my school. I have higher “earning potential” for my own black belt capabilities elsewhere. I was bored. I was frustrated. I hadn’t done higher level black belt training since last year, and as much as I liked my students, I felt like I was teaching the same old stuff over and over again to the same handful of people. I was tired of teaching all the time and longed for the days when I could just be a student and work out. While I realize teaching is part of the black belt’s job, only teaching and not training caused an imbalance in my practice. I was having more fun in my Body Combat classes at the gym.
Taekwondo wasn’t fun anymore, and that’s what made me sad. It used to be loads of fun, including the times when it was really hard, even frustrating work. It was still rewarding for a while, especially when some of my favorite students tested for black belt, but even that wore off. Now it just felt like work. I already have a job that I am well compensated for. When I do things in my free time I want them to be FUN and STRESS-FREE.
I’d already bowed out of teaching the earlier class because I hate teaching white belts and little kids who are too young to be in martial arts, and I didn’t want to get pulled into that again. (Nothing against white belts; that’s just not where my teaching talents lie. As for four-year-old white belts? Get the f–k outta here. The last four year old white belt I saw was dancing around in the corner with a McDonalds Happy Meal box on his head. Let him be four. Just don’t let him do taekwondo yet.)
I didn’t see anyone making much progress during our very limited class time in a location I didn’t care for. It didn’t help that our rush to clean out the old school and coordinate the move at the beginning of the year happened during a time at work when I was also feeling used and stretched to my limits.
I’d like to say it’s not personal and it’s strictly business, but it is personal. There were practices and behaviors I deeply disagreed with (let’s just say I was in a cultural institution where saying “no” and taking back one’s independence was frowned upon), but I’d let my cult-like devotion take over, and as frantic and unhappy as I was, I didn’t see how I could leave.
I was making myself miserable with worry about how certain people would react–my Grandmaster, parents, students. It got to the point that I hoped not only for the community center to kick us out due to low numbers, but I also secretly wished for ridiculous things to happen like getting kicked out for my tattoo or hoping to get into a verbal altercation that would allow me to leave in a self-righteous huff. But in my heart I didn’t really want those things. I didn’t want drama or damaged relationships. Finally I stopped waiting for a deus ex machina to release me from an expired obligation. I decided to just up and quit. I stopped caring about how other people would react or what they would think about me.
And I don’t care how people will react. I had to make a choice that was best for me to regain emotional health and balance in my life.
I know I’ll come back to teaching taekwondo. I like helping other people learn, and I like being that positive coach, poking and prodding and guiding people to their highest potential. I just don’t want to do that right now.
You may be tempted to ask, “Why did you wait so long?” One could ask the same question about why I stayed in certain relationships when they showed their true unpleasant colors. I ask you not to judge those in difficult situations. For a long time you tell yourself that things will get better, and that certain disappointments were just flukes or one-time incidents. The sinking realization that things will not change is a blessing in disguise because it is the first baby step out.
Taekwondo, whether it went beyond the realm of hobby to addiction or not, was the impetus for me to get control of my mind and my life and become who I truly have the power to be. I am a much better version of myself. I’m confident, much happier, and according to some people, funnier than I used to be….and I let it burrow deep into my brain and inject my veins with the sweetest, most wonderful high you could ever imagine. I needed taekwondo to feel whole, and when I lost the comforting structure that I had, I kind of lost my mind too. I think that’s why making a break with the people and the place and the practices and that particular institution is what’s best for my emotional well-being.
There is a future for me in taekwondo—just not where it has been for the last five years.