I am in training for my third degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo.
I can kick higher than my own head. I can escape from a choke hold. I can break boards with my fists and my feet.
I am still training myself to be seen.
There are a variety of issues that women tend to bring to the martial arts. I’m not saying these things are innate and I’m not saying every female martial artist has them, but I’ve seen them often enough to call them a trend. And, I know that they affect me.
Most of us have been socialized against being loud, against being authoritative, against hitting or being hit. When we spar, we often ‘go easy’ on each other and apologize too quickly – even when no harm has been done. We carry the curse of that social conditioning, the need to be ‘good girls’, into our classes and it doesn’t serve us well. I try to coach other students out of it, and, I try to stop myself from doing it, but it doesn’t always work.
In almost every other context, I am quick to take charge, to step up. I know what my skills are and I am willing to show them. Yet, in Taekwondo, I have found myself reluctant to take charge of the warm-up, and hesitant to be the one to demonstrate the next movement. I have held myself back from a triumphant shout at the end of a pattern. I have made self-deprecating jokes about my skills and I have attributed my successes to luck.
I know better than all of this, of course. I know my TKD patterns. I know the warm-ups. I can demonstrate what to do. I have worked very hard to be where I am and I know what I am doing – even if I can’t always make my body do what my mind understands. I am much, much better at putting myself out there than I was when I started.
Yet, still, I struggle.
I have a second degree black belt and I am still having trouble letting myself be seen in class.
Sure, I have mostly gotten over my reluctance to be loud but, if I am at all uncertain of my pattern, I find myself quiet at the end.
Yes, I have become suitably aggressive when I spar but I hold back more often than I’d like. Especially if I think my partner might perceive me as ‘too rough.’
When I don’t quite understand what to do, I still find myself stepping back from taking up too much of my instructors’ time.
Even though I know where it all comes from, and, that it is hard to undo that kind of social conditioning, I still get annoyed with myself about it.
That’s why I’ve decided that, along with my physical training for my third degree belt test, I am also training myself to be seen. I am going to learn to be okay with being the one who demonstrates the patterns. I am going to find a way to confidently stand in front of my peers and lead the warm-up. I will get over myself.
Earning my third degree black belt will take a lot of physical effort but teaching myself to be willing to be seen is going to take many, many acts of courage. I have already invited my instructors to call on me more often, to ask me to show what I know. Now, I just need enough practice so I feel okay with following through.
I am determined to be a different type of ‘good girl’ this year. I am going to be a good example of how women can show up, go all in, and claim their skills and their knowledge. I am going to be the person that the other girls and women can point to and say ‘If SHE can do it, so can I.’
Christine Hennebury is a storyteller, writer, creative life coach, and, martial artist who lives in Newfoundland and Labrador. She is the founder and Chair of the Association for the Arts in Mount Pearl and the President of the St. John’s Storytelling Festival. She wishes she could help you be a little kinder to yourself – you are doing just fine.