Why I Left My Taekwondo School

walking out door

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.

Advertisements

When It’s the Right Time for You to Be In the Right Place

Peaceful place

I’ve spent some time away from taekwondo both physically and emotionally. I’m still recovering from what I now realize was a fairly traumatic change at the beginning of the year and accepting what is my new reality. I suppose it’s my own fault for letting myself get so emotionally attached to taekwondo, the affects it had on me/my thoughts/my actions, and the good thing I had going with it for years since you know…attachment leads to suffering…those platitudes that sound good, but our heart never listens.

There are certain aspects of my old taekwondo life that I can’t get back, but there are others that I could recover by leaving and joining another dojang. There are also some benefits to taking an extended break from it entirely to figure out what I want to do.

I went to class last night (not without a little feet dragging and thinking ahead to what I wanted to do when I got out). I was greeted almost immediately by one of my recent black belts and older students. This young man was soon leaving for college and had wanted his instructors to sign a framed photo from our April black belt test. The fact that he had been carrying out that picture and a black permanent marker for two weeks waiting to get everyone’s signature made me smile and broke my heart a little bit. Of course I signed it. We took a picture together, and then by request, he and I went through Koryo Two, the first black belt form he learned. (Black belt readers, I really mean the universal Koryo. Read why we call it Koryo Two in this blog post.) I felt a little shaky and out of practice–that’s what happens when I do my forms once a week at the gym, ha ha–but I enjoyed helping my student further his black belt practice.

The rest of the class seemed like it was designed to remind me of why I’m exactly where I need to be. The Universe was sending me a message saying, “This may not be where you want to ultimately be, but for now, this is the right place and the right time.”

I ended up teaching the entire time alongside our senior instructor, and I felt myself completely relax and enjoy myself. I led warm ups and a few drills and spent the sparring portion of the class running around the matches yelling good naturedly at the students. I always seem to toggle between being a responsible sparring coach and the goading little devil on their shoulders. I spent the last ten minutes of the class working with students on their forms.

During one of the sparring matches I got to see my aforementioned college-bound student make a perfect connection between poomsae (forms) and sparring, and as a an OD professional and taekwondo instructor, I couldn’t have been prouder.

“You should try using a sliding side kick, like in Koryo Two!” he yelled to his brother and proceeded to knock him across the room with a kick to the chest. He was referencing the stepping side kick in the middle part of Koryo, and smartly used an opportunity in the sparring match to apply his practiced technique.

“Ooh, good way to apply your learning! You made the connection!” I shouted. I couldn’t resist geeking out a little bit.
“Yes, ma’am!” he responded with a smile and continued chasing his brother around the room. (That’s for the critics who say poomsae has no realistic application. That was a mighty fine sliding side kick.)

I’m not where I need or want to be for my training, but I’m where I need to be for my students and for the other black belts. I can pick up training elsewhere, but I’m not ready to give up the rapport and relationships I’ve built. Besides, jumping around and kicking kids is pretty fun.

Falling Out of Love Can Be a Slow, Sickening Process

forever over.jpgThe first time I entered the UT Southwestern medical school library for a class in my library science graduate program, I KNEW IN MY BONES that I wanted to be there. I wanted to work in a medical library, and I was on FIRE.

And I did. After an internship at that very library and a year-long stint at an oil company I landed a job in the medical library of one of the largest hospitals in my metropolitan area. It was my dream job…until it wasn’t. After several years I realized that I had to leave. There were a number of reasons beyond my desire to leave that job, and out of respect for the company I’ll keep those reasons private. As much as I KNEW I wanted to work at UT Southwestern I KNEW IN MY BONES that I had to quit this hospital library job.

It was a heartbreaking realization and a yearlong process to find another job. I told no one other than my parents of my deep dissatisfaction and desire to get out. It was difficult to suffer in silence and alternate between the nervousness of changing to a new environment and the dread of staying where I didn’t want to be any longer than I had to. I didn’t love or even like my job, or the library profession itself, any more. I wasn’t progressing, and I knew I would stagnate and regress if I stayed there. But what would I do if I left that job? I got a master’s degree in that field so I could land a job like that. As much as I want to eschew profession as part of one’s identity, that job was a part of who I was.

Luckily I landed a job within the same healthcare company in the training and development department. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a learning curve and poor management (those people are no longer with the company). I wondered more than once if I’d made the wrong decision. I had zero experience in org/leadership development, but I worked hard to learn and carve a space of my own in that department.

Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve grown up in that job emotionally and professionally. I developed new talents and skills and have flourished. I’ve had more opportunities and more exposure in the organization, and it has proven to be MUCH more lucrative than staying in the library world. (Hint to companies–pay your young librarians more. Maybe they’ll stay longer.)

I tell this story to make my point that falling out of love is sometimes a slow process with aching, ever-growing clarity. I didn’t hate my old career or anyone involved. No one did anything wrong to me. It just wasn’t a fit anymore for who I was at that time or who I knew I had the potential to be.

And that’s how I feel about my taekwondo school. I’m not in love anymore. I continue to go to class out of some lingering, dwindling sense of loyalty, identity, familiarity, and fear of political repercussions if I quit in a public way. I’m afraid to leave because of possible repercussions, but I am not growing. I’m bored. I don’t like the new location. My potential is stunted. I don’t see a “lucrative” future in terms of training and opportunities. There are other reasons for my dissatisfaction, but like my old job, I want to keep those reasons private out of respect for and privacy of the other people involved.

One could argue do we have to be “in love” with everything? No, of course not. A job is a job. We don’t have to all “follow our passions.” I like my job, but my main passion is paying off my mortgage. I don’t have to love taekwondo; it could just be an activity I do once in a while…but that’s not my history with it. I fell hard and fast. I was in deep.

I know this drastic change in my relationship to taekwondo has affected my mood and emotional waves this past year as I have withdrawn from my involvement in the school’s current version of itself. More often than not, I don’t look forward to going to class. I don’t care anymore. As a result (possibly), I get more stressed out and overwhelmed in general more quickly, and I’m on a shorter fuse. I let myself become more emotionally involved at work, which I detest because I’ve always enjoyed a relaxed sense of detachment from the more silly parts of the corporate world. I’ve lost a big part of my identity that has been such a positive force for the last several years.

I do have my moments of excitement and happiness. I enjoyed very much getting to lead a black belt test we held in April. I had a lot of fun with my fellow black belts and students this past week. Taking an old familiar taekwondo class and getting to wear my black belt and uniform is a lot different (and still more emotionally fulfilling) than the Body Combat class at the gym. Maybe I just need an extended break, like I took from work a few weeks ago…but I know that will just be a bandage over a larger, deeper problem.

But it’s just not the same. What we had for the last several years (our camaraderie, our shared goals, our school) is gone, and part of my challenge this year has been accepting that loss and finding the positive in what exists now. But do I have to accept it? Did I have to just accept that library job (and salary) and say, “Okay, this is my career for the next 30 years”? I’d like to think that I’m still a black belt and retain all the mental, physical (although that’s dwindling because my training is minimal), and emotional prowess that comes with it, no matter where I go or what I do in life. I’ll always be a black belt. But I might be a black belt without a home.

My New Goal: Give Zero F*cks By Forty

relax on beach

I am celebrating my 39th birthday this week. While I won’t be eating complimentary cake in my dobok with my other black  belts and taekwondo students like I did last year, I’ve enjoyed some extended time off and have a few fun things planned. The biggest thing I plan on doing is embarking on a year-long quest to take me into the next decade of life with a smile: I want to give zero f*cks by forty.

Many people start improvement plans on their way to forty: some do a “Fit by Forty” exercise regime, which I don’t need because I already am. Some people get their financial act together, which I don’t need to do because it already is…Hmm, I suppose I could embark on a year of humility, but…nah!

So why the “Give Zero F*cks by Forty” program? Frankly, I have spent most of my life sweating the small stuff—and the big stuff that turns out to be relatively small in the big scheme of things. Work, school, what other people think of me, what other people say to me, my body, what I do or say, the worries and limiting beliefs and troubling thoughts that take up real estate in my mind–ENOUGH! I’m exhausted!

Giving zero f*cks about the  things that really don’t matter (which is most of “the things”) sounds like a dream. I would be calmer, more relaxed, more open-minded, and more accepting of the shifts and tides of my life.

It won’t be perfect from the beginning, and I know I will have many setbacks and have to re-commit myself many times between now and next July. I’m a control freak in many aspects of my life. It’s served me well academically, career-wise, and financially, but it’s left me pretty tightly-wound too. Letting go of my hatred for a particular body part will be hard. I’ve been failing at that since I was 13. Not being pulled into senseless panic over things at work that don’t matter can be difficult to resist if everyone else is doing it (although working alongside true lifesavers in the healthcare industry has given me a pretty good perspective on what is truly important and what isn’t). The political landscape and division in the United States is a nightmare. Social media is a tempting time drain. Sometimes I daydream about rude, hurtful things people have said or done to me in the past, and it can be a chore to yank myself away from those runaway thoughts and move forward. Letting go of the things I want the most out of life and trusting that they will come to me in due time and without desperate attempts is a huge act of faith.

Does this mean I won’t care about anyone or anything anymore? No, it doesn’t. My new mindset doesn’t mean I’ll stop loving people who are important to me (but it will mean I won’t waste thoughts on people who aren’t) or not put in a good effort at my job (but it will mean I’ll stop taking myself and all the corporate-ness so seriously) or stop trying in taekwondo class (but it will mean I’ll loosen it from my heart strings just a little; holding onto taekwondo too tightly is hurting me this year). What this really means is I’ll stop needlessly worrying about all the stupid petty crap that makes me miserable. We all get pulled into senseless worrying depending on what’s going on in our lives. It sounds so easy and so inviting to let it all go, but sadly we’re programmed to hang on tightly to the very things that make us unhappy.

I’m glad I’m giving myself a whole year.

…but I can do it. If anything I have that black belt stubbornness that makes me continue to challenge and motivate myself.

Join me. Sit back, relax, give zero f*cks, and let yourself finally enjoy the people, things, and experiences in life that truly matter to you and bring you joy.

Zero F*cks by Forty begins in three…two…one…

Little Black Belt is FOUR!

number 4

My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For

Catching water reflections (3)

“You are who you’ve been waiting for,” the speaker said with joyful tears in her eyes as she addressed a group of leaders. My colleagues and I were hosting the final event for a program designed for talented leaders in our organization. Our last speaker was reminding them that the future of the organization was in their hands, and the time to act was now.

She had moved up through the ranks in the organization and discovered at one point that her success and her future rested squarely in her hands. New and a little unsure in one of her first leadership roles, she realized she had the opportunity to be the person she always aspired to be and that no one else was going to do the work for her. It was a scary but ultimately liberating feeling. She encouraged everyone in the room to not wait for anyone else to solve problems, make changes, or meet goals. We could all trust and believe in ourselves.

We’ve been told to dress for the professional role we want or “be” the person we want to date. I also recently heard the phrase “water your own grass” rather than always looking longingly over the fence at the metaphorical grass that is supposedly always greener.

That advice could also be ascribed to martial arts: Adopt a black belt mindset when you are a white belt. Develop the heart of a teacher while you are a student. Train your coaching eye while you are learning. Be the type of black belt you admire. Don’t wait for your next class. Begin now.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done to make that type of change when we are nagged by those pesky human emotions of doubt, fear, envy, anger, and attachment. Sometimes those feelings can be overwhelming, and it’s very tempting to be critical of yourself or of others. Sometimes I struggle deeply with those feelings although I choose not to share my pain with anyone–maybe denial is another one on the list, ha ha. It’s easy to blame other people or circumstances, and that doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. It’s just a natural part of being human.

…but…with a little self-compassion, patience, and practice (okay, a LOT of practice) you can begin to change your mindset from one of seeing the world as an adversary to seeing it as an ally. Focus on what you can do and control rather than what you can’t. Pause, observe without judgment, and find ways to get back on track when harmful emotions overtake you. Forgive yourself for not being perfect and doing what you “should” do or having what you “should” have. (I’m still working on that one.) You may not be able to change all the situations or people in your life, but you can immediately change your responses to them.

And isn’t that a wonderful feeling when it begins to take hold? Isn’t it awesome that the person who could change your life is looking out from the mirror at you? You don’t have to wait until the right person, opportunity, project, or amount of money comes along. Change and improvement can begin right now with you.

Water your own grass. Be the person you want to fall in love with. Wrap that proverbial black belt around your waist.

You are who you’ve been waiting for.

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?