How martial arts have changed me. (Results may vary.) (Guest post)

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I’m reflecting on my life at the moment. Maybe it’s the impending New Year, maybe it’s that a dear friend has just died, maybe it’s that a family member has recently had a life-threatening health scare, maybe it’s that the most recent chapter of my life has been one of huge changes – including my own breast cancer treatment, job loss, and ongoing career flux.

Whatever the reason, when I compare the woman I am now to the woman I used to be, I can see that “Now Me” is very different from “Then Me”.

“Then Me” was timid and afraid, always anxious, always worrying, nervous in crowds, afraid of public speaking and performing, a perfectionist who never measured up to her own impossibly high standards, and who avoided uncomfortable feelings at all costs.

“Now Me,” in contrast, is more at ease in social situations. She can get up in front of a large audience and speak without fear. She worries less – even when there’s more (like breast cancer) to worry about. She can let things go without ruminating too much. She does things that scare her, and isn’t fazed when they sometimes don’t work out.

I’ll give you a few examples.

In August 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was strangely (to others) calm about it. Even when I first found my lump, I didn’t worry. I’d had mammograms in the past that had led to a breast biopsy, and nothing bad happened. So I decided not to worry until I knew there was something to worry about. And when I discovered there was something to worry about…  I still wasn’t worried.

In September 2016, I moved to a new community and had to switch aikido dojos. I was seriously anxious about my new sensei (teacher) – I’d heard that he was very strict and old-school. But without batting an eye, I visited the dojo, met him, and signed up to study with him. (In the past I would have procrastinated for weeks before meeting him.) He has a very harsh teaching style – he will yell at you during class if you are doing something wrong, and during most classes I do something wrong. But it all rolls right off my back, and I just keep on correcting and adjusting my techniques without flinching or getting flustered.

In November 2016, I gave a speech to more than 400 people, about how aikido helped me be a happy breast cancer patient, and I was not – NOT FOR ONE MOMENT – nervous about sharing my story. (Contrast that to my 13 years of solo singing, when I couldn’t handle my crippling performance anxiety, and finally quit singing entirely.)

Also in November 2016, I started a temporary seasonal job in a popular bookstore. I had my cashier training on the same day as the beginning of the store’s Black Friday sale. I had a lot of information to take in, in an incredibly fast-paced environment, but rather than being stressed, I actually kind of enjoyed it.

As I look back at those experiences now, I am kind of shocked. “Then Me” would have fallen apart during any one of those situations – plagued by panic (in fact I used to suffer from panic attacks during my university years), self-flagellating thoughts, and fear of unpleasant future outcomes.

To be completely honest, when I was standing onstage giving the speech in November, I suddenly wondered if I were developing the symptoms of sociopathy – I truly had no nerves, and it was very odd. (Of course I realize I’m not a sociopath – if anything, I empathize with others too much, not too little. And I do still feel fear about many risky things – just a lot less fear than I used to.)

So what’s changed? What has given me, to use a popular self-help buzzword, so much resilience?

It’s probably a complex mix of several life experiences, including 13 years of classical voice training, a year of Toastmasters membership, several years of stressful workplace leadership experience, caring for my father through his death from cancer, a lifetime of enduring chronic pain – including migraines, endometriosis, back pain, and sports injuries – and some excellent psychotherapy.

But…  and…  I think it also has a lot to do with aikido.

I recently recorded this video of myself (below), sharing the speech that I’d prepared for the November speaking event. In the weeks leading up to the speech I realized that there were some very specific lessons I’d internalized from my aikido training.

The first was a sense of agency and self-confidence that came from the regular (and frequent) practice defending myself against physical attacks. Even though the real world doesn’t have the predictability of the aikido mat, practising for the worst can be calming. And in aikido, I practised. As in, dozens of times every class, several hours per week, year-round.

The second was learning to fall, and get back up quickly after falling. To be absolutely okay with being really crappy. Embodying a beginner’s mindset. Knowing that I was going to do badly at things when I first learned them, and that even after years of study, there would still be things to correct. I watched brown belts prepare for their black belt tests and leave each practice session shaking their heads, feeling like they knew nothing. I witnessed black belts admit that they felt like beginners, and I watched them diligently work to improve their skills. I learned to admit what I didn’t know. I learned to enjoy fumbling.

The third was learning the thrill that comes from the mastery of acting proactively against a threat. Of leaping into risky situations…  and doing it successfully, enough times to give me an appetite for more.

I really like “Now Me”. She walks, grounded and quietly unflustered, through her life. She’s good in an emergency. She has no trouble committing to a course of action. She can step back and see the bird’s-eye view. She’s happier, even when there’s more to be unhappy about.

I’m not sure that it’s the aikido. But I wouldn’t give back those hours on the mat for anything.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, drawing adult coloring pages, and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

About Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

I'm a writer and artist who works by day as a consultant for nonprofits, entrepreneurs and small businesses.

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