Kicking an Old Identity

I practiced martial arts for almost 20 years. At first, it was a great activity for me.  Martial arts aligned with my need to be active, my love for learning, and my appreciation for discipline and structure.  As time went on, things changed.  I plateaued–not that I couldn’t learn more, but my body just never was going to be able to do much more, especially given the limited amount of time I had to practice.  I had plenty of discipline and structure in my life thanks to that thing called “adulting.”  And, I was just in a different place in my life.  When I exercised I wanted to clear my mind, get in a good workout, and be done with it.  My learning needs were being met in other ways, and I preferred to spend my time alone or in smaller settings, rather than getting knocked around the dojang with all the hustle and bustle of flying feet.  Yet for some reason, I just kept going eventually earning a 3rd degree black belt.

I remember the day of that test.  Testing always started with each candidate having to answer questions on required knowledge–history of the art, number of movements in a pattern, explaining proper body alignment, reciting guiding principles.  After months of studying and practice I was prepared for any question that could come my way.  But then our Master asked “Why are you doing this?”

Suddenly, I was struck with panic.  I managed to spit out an answer, but in my head I kept asking myself the question over and over!  “Why AM I doing this?”  It suddenly dawned on me that I no longer had the desire to practice martial arts and that I was testing because it was just the next step in the order of things.  Now, I had 4 hours of grueling physical exertion in front of me, just to obtain something that really didn’t matter to me!

Over the next few months, I reflected on this realization but still couldn’t muster up the courage to stop.  My identity had somehow become intertwined with martial arts.  People knew me as a black belt, as a stick fighter (look up eskrima if you’re curious), as a cardio kickboxing instructor.  It wasn’t what I did; it was somehow who I was. If I quit now, who would I be?

What people know of us or believe us to be can shape our identity in ways that have no bearing on who we are internally.  It’s part of normal human behavior that happens without our awareness.  We meet a person, learn about them, and then attach a label according to what we’ve learned, regardless of whether or not that person would label themselves in the same way.   As a result, some people struggle with imposter syndrome–the internal fear of being discovered as a fraud or a phony.  And, some people try to avoid being labeled by not sharing parts of their lives or not engaging with their interests at all.  If you’ve experienced this, you know it’s not an enjoyable way to live your life.

So how do we combat this issue?  Start by taking the time to consider who you are.  What are your values?  What impact do you want to make?  What brings you joy?  Live into those things and let your actions show what really matters to you.  And listen for what really matters to others so you can know them for who they truly are.

I stopped practicing martial arts in December 2019.  I appreciate everything I learned and the relationships I formed during the almost 20 years of practice, but I appreciate even more how liberating it was to let go of an identity that no longer suited me.  What would you like to let go of?

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