Almost exactly two years ago, I had a karate belt test that pushed me beyond my limits. I wrote an article called Tapping Your Reserves that captured what took place as well as the lessons I learned as a result. But reflecting back on that experience now, I realize that in the months that passed, I ended up learning more than I initially realized.
Here’s an excerpt of that article, depicting that experience:
Waiting outside the dojo adjusting my mouthpiece like a horse trying to acclimate to its first bit, I quietly prepared myself, breathing slowly and deeply. After my name was called, I was ushered into a circle of black belts standing around a plastic red padded floor until I stood face to face with my opponent – one of the toughest, most intense sensei’s I have encountered as a martial arts student. Our heads were swallowed up by the protective foam of our sparring gear, exposing only eyes, cheeks, noses and lips.
After bowing to each other, we began to spar. I threw a few of the punches I’d practiced every week in karate class and managed to get some kicks in. But for every strike I made, it seemed my sensei threw at least three more. I continued to circle, launching a few more tentative jabs here and there. The black belts surrounding us were shouting encouragement, their voices merging into chords of indistinguishable tones. And then I felt a sharp blow to my face. I instinctively curled toward my stomach and felt a burst of fluid that was not yet visible. When the blood appeared, the sparring session was stopped and a hand appeared with a wad of Kleenex in it.
As I cautiously dabbed at my nose and wiped my eyes, someone asked me if I wanted to continue. I heard myself say yes. Squinting through the sweat that was dripping from my forehead and feeling my heart beating in my face, I raised my gloved fists higher and took a few more shots. Before I knew it, I was taken to the ground. I was vaguely aware that there was at least one, maybe two other black belts in the sparring match now. As I grappled on the ground, fatigue set in. I struggled to escape the choke hold, forgetting everything I had learned and feeling like a spider’s prey wriggling and writhing to escape while the grip became tighter. And then, thankfully, that part of the test was over.
I wrote the Tapping Your Reserves article to process that experience and make the most of it. Ironically, despite the insights I gained, in the months that followed I found myself feeling far more fear about what happened than I did on the day that I got punched in the nose. The experience became exaggerated in my mind, a horribly warped version much like the image reflected by a fun house mirror. The sense of accomplishment I enjoyed after having completed the test was replaced by a fixation on what it felt like to be trapped with no recollection of how to escape. I felt the blow to my face over and over again as I replayed the events in my mind. And it was far more painful in my memory than it was in reality.
What is amusing to me is that often fear like this comes before an event – as I see in my mind’s eye all manner of things that could go wrong and then magnify it until it becomes a mental picture so horrid that I would do anything to avoid it. But this time, I was using a somewhat fictional account of an actual event to work myself into a frenzy that led me to avoid the future based on a past that was more imaginary than real. After all, when given the choice on the day of the test, I decided to jump back in and keep going after getting hit. My hesitance about the whole thing didn’t really set in until after it was over.
As my kids’ team practices and dance rehearsals began to conflict with karate classes, I was secretly a little grateful that shuttling them from school to field to court to studio prevented me from attending with the regularity I once did. God forbid I would be asked to test again – to spar again. No, not an experience I was eager to repeat. Every time anyone referenced sparring in karate class, I felt a shudder go down my spine. The idea of even putting protective gear on made me nauseous. I became overly concerned with playing safe – doing whatever I could to avoid getting hit again. But I knew at some point I would need to get over it and get back in the game.
Gradually I got tired of being scared, of holding myself back, of playing in the shadows. I was still afraid, but found myself growing more and more eager to face those fears and step into them. I began to pay careful attention in the strategy sessions that were being offered. I started to envision a different scenario than the one I was previously playing out in my head. And I even attended a special open sparring class just so that I could put myself in the experience of facing an opponent and replacing my fear with the tiniest shred of confidence I could muster.
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to test again. I accepted. The test is this Saturday.
I’m nervous. I’d like to be a little more prepared, and I realize that no matter how much I practice, the fear will still be there. But I don’t need to give into it. I just need to stand in its presence without letting it grip and control me. And I think no matter what happens in this test – even if I get knocked out cold or do something incredibly embarrassing, I will be victorious. Because the real battle I am fighting is with myself. And it’s not just a sparring match. It is a metaphor for overcoming resistance (and the illusion it creates) that keeps me from doing what I really want to do in all areas of my life.
In the end, the pain of holding out and playing small became far greater than the physical pain I can recall from the event that provoked the fear in the first place – perhaps far greater than any fear my little mind can conjure up. Enough already. I’m ready to play.
Bring it on, baby.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important.” ~ Ambrose Redmoon
For more on Overcoming the Illusion of Fear:
Karate image by Kriss Szkurlatowski.
Fire head image by Salvatore Vuono.
The other day I was working from my home office when I noticed a man in my back yard. I figured perhaps he was a meter reader from the utility company and went over to the window to get a better look. He was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a large straw hat whose wide brim angled toward the ground. In his hand was what looked like a window washer with a squeegee on the end. He looked all around our back yard, glanced over to the back fence, and then proceeded out our front gate. An unsettling feeling came over me as I began to realize there was a very good possibility this man had no business on our property.
I watched as he walked over to a maroon minivan and slouched into the driver’s seat with the door open, waiting, his foot kicked up and resting on the open window. Peering out my living room window, I strained to see if I could make out the license plate. The letters were fuzzy and I couldn’t quite discern them. So I grabbed an envelope to take to the mailbox thinking that from there I could get a better look and scribble down the letters and numbers on the paper. As I walked toward the end of the driveway, the man quickly closed the car door, started up the engine and drove away. I began to run – trying one more time to get a look at the license plate, but the car just went faster.
My heart was beating wildly. I sent emails to my neighbors encouraging them to make sure their gates, doors and windows were locked and to be on the lookout for the red van that I saw. A few minutes later, I settled back into my study only to glance out the window and see the red van again – this time across the street, with the door propped open, and the same man I saw in my back yard sitting in the driver’s seat waiting.
Still looking out the window, I picked up the phone and dialed 911. I did my best to describe the man to the dispatcher and relay the details of my experience and felt a wave of relief when I saw two squad cars roll up behind the van. A policeman walked over to the man and the two of them talked. A few minutes later the officer called to inform me that the man in my back yard was from the irrigation service that comes twice a month to open and close the valve that brings water into our yard.
And then I felt the sting of embarrassment and humiliation followed by feelings of regret and sympathy for this poor man who was just interrogated by the police while doing his job in triple digit heat in Phoenix, Arizona. Compounding my foolishness was the fact that my husband and I have actually met this man and had a conversation with him. He was warm and kind and gave us advice on how to properly irrigate our back yard after having some work done there. I even remembered that his name was Tom.
As the police got back into their cars I walked across the street to thank them and apologize to Tom. “I am so sorry,” I told him sheepishly. “I didn’t recognize you and I was scared.” Tom’s mouth widened into a smile that revealed a few teeth missing. He laughed as he told me, “You wouldn’t believe how many times people have called the police on me. Don’t worry about it.” It was then that I realized that the window washer I thought he was holding in his hand was actually an irrigation tool. I explained to him that what really alarmed me was that he drove away as I was running after him. Turns out he never even saw me – just realized that he was starved and had exactly five minutes to run and get something to eat before the next valve had to be closed.
We had a very nice conversation in the minutes that followed. His eyes sparkled as we talked about his work, his three sons – one of which was having a birthday that day, and his relaxed, let life happen as it comes philosophy. As I walked back toward my house, I realized the power our fearful stories have over our behavior and the way things play themselves out in our lives. I had experienced firsthand the distortion of reality caused by faulty information my mind filled the blanks in with as a result of my fear and panic. I took very few data points and wove them together to create a worst case scenario that had me acting as though it was true. And none of it had to do with Tom himself – only the story I created based on what I was believing about my limited observations.
I can’t help thinking about how that dynamic plays itself out every day of our lives. We all take in limited information and we all create stories about what it means. Most of us tend to operate as though those stories are true. And other people do the same thing when it comes to their observations of us. It was a wonderful reminder to always entertain the thought that perhaps I don’t always have all the pieces of the picture or every detail relevant to the story.
It also made me realize the importance of not taking personally the sometimes perplexing or inexplicable reactions others may have to me – to keep an open mind, and an open heart, like Tom did. To remember that things aren’t always what they seem – and people are not always who we think they are. And to entertain the possibility that at any moment circumstances can change from being frightful to delightful – if I am willing to look beyond what my eyes and my mind are telling me to see what is really there.
Copyright Synchronistics Coaching & Consulting 2010. All rights reserved.
If you liked this post, you may enjoy other articles written about Navigating Through Change, Challenge & Uncertainty. Download these and others for free at www.DianeBolden.com/solutions. While you are there, you can subscribe to receive a new feature article each month. You will also receive my free report on 10 Traps Leaders Unwittingly Create for Themselves – and How to Avoid Them.