From being on a girl’s volley ball team to competing at a national level in martial arts, I’ve had my ups and downs with being highly competitive while also being highly sensitive.
I take things like feedback, corrections and competitions success very deeply and personally, so it hasn’t by any means been easy to learn how to still stay in the game without having it wear me down completely.
I think on some level I even sought out highly competitive environments and opportunities to compete because I was dealing with self-esteem issues from an early age.
I felt like I had a lot to prove and making myself hard and winning seemed to be a pretty straightforward way of proving that I could cut it with the toughest of them.
My first love was horseriding and I did compete in smaller events, but never seriously. Mostly just things organised at our riding school.
My reward there was participating in and of itself and improving my skills and collaboration with my mount.
I got dragged into a girl’s volley ball team as a pre-teen by a friend. We sucked, mostly because our coaches were kind of bitchy and fostered a very catty culture inside the team.
I never really enjoyed, partly because of the culture and partly because I felt hampered by the team sport. We were on wildly different levels and didn’t play very well together.
So, even though we competed some – which I also hated because of all the travelling – I didn’t stick around for more than a few years.
Then I got into martial arts.
I’d been doing tai chi since a kid and karate seemed like a natural extension of that when I started casting around for a hobby after volley ball.
I took to it like a fish to water and pretty soon I was assisting in class.
I enjoyed the solitary nature of martial arts – it was all about me developing my own skill and physical control – and spent a lot of time perfecting my technique and pushing my limits.
The club I was in was predominantly white, middle-aged men who were there to relive some testosterone fantasy from their childhood and were obsessed with gaining rank as proof of your proficiency.
I was routinely pressured to move up faster through my qualifications because they wanted to push me into the international team, but I stolidly refused to move any faster.
I was obsessed with upholding tradition and was in it mainly because it worked as an extension of my zen practice. I was also there to learn self-defence because I didn’t feel safe being out and about on my own, especially at night.
My years in volley ball had made me iffy about competing and I wasn’t eager to start.
Eventually, I gave in and started competing on lower levels.
I did really well and that’s where the slide into being a prize showdog started.
My wax-on, wax-off mentality and incessant drills started paying off and I progressed through the levels to ever more challening opponents. Once I started going up against the really good fighters, I started getting more and more ruthless.
Since most of my sparring partners were much older men, who liked to hit hard once they got over the fact that I “was a girl”, they didn’t hold back and I’m sure I garnered more than a few mild concussions from practice.
It became a game to me.
Where I won by putting those old men in their place by being faster and hitting harder than they ever thought a girl could.
I took that aggression into the ring with me too, honing it to a pinpoint.
And it became my personal point of pride that I never hit anyone harder than was necessary to gain a point. No one ever walked out of the ring with me with more than some light bruising or a wounded ego.
It was only when I fought the old fuddy-duddies that I hit back harder, only schooling those that had something to prove because it made them careless and even less accurate which meant I could dodge the sledgehammers they were throwing my way.
Getting kicked in the head is no fun.
And repeatedly getting hammered in a two minute bout is even worse.
You master martial arts to be able to defend yourself, not abuse and humiliate people who’re kind enough to spar with you.
Even stubbornly sticking to my principals, I lost myself in the competing for a long time.
Losing became devastating because it wasn’t just that I was outmatched in the ring, it was a personal failure on a human level. If I couldn’t win in the ring, what was I good for?
Mistakes (perceived or real) and what I saw as failures nagged at me for weeks and months after. I became obsessed with erasing those things from me, scrubbing the failure out of my human potential like I was bathing my soul in lye.
Winning and training for winning was all there was in life.
It gave me a focus in life but it was ultimately detrimental because the way I was going about it was self-destructive. And my coaches were no help here, the gleam of the trophies was evident in their eyes and they pushed their star students hard in a military style I disapproved of.
Eventually, I quit because I realised that the people who were teaching me had completely lost touch with the principal philosophy of martial arts. To them, it was a bloodsport and they were just looking to train the next fighting hound.
When I finally realised what I’d let myself become in the process, I quit.
For me, competing with myself and besting myself had always been the challenge and the reward in itself.
Gaining that moment of clarity that I’d become just another fighting rooster in their ranks was devastating. I started resenting the whole sport and everything related to it.
The best thing I did for myself was to let it go and walk away from it.
It’s like they say, both men and women have to participate in the patriarchy to uphold it, and when I realised I was buying into their macho culture – and that there was nothing more behind that curtain – my inner feminist screamed with bloody rage.
That feeling of having become someone else’s tool – and willingly – is humiliating.
I felt ashamed of myself.
And did what I knew was neccesary and cut all ties to the sport and the people.
Instead, I gave myself over to my old love: dancing. And stayed away from any kind of competitive environments while I was getting my degree in Performing Arts it.
Which was a great thing because among the thespians, that philosophy of training to achieve a moment of fleeting perfection – competing only with yourself – was strengthened and I found myself back to my original principles of only ever competing with myself.
And that’s the secret to being highly competitive and highly sensitive.
You’re only ever competing with yourself.
And not even for lasting perfection, just to reach that momentary experience of perfection, of perfect alignment.
Becuase as a dancer you train your whole life – you go to class, work on your technique, care for your body and your mind, learn about the theory and practice of movement, of collaborating with the breath in your lungs and the gravity confining you – so that you can get up on stage and attain that height of your physical and mental ability, just for one evening, just for one moment.
You train and train, endlessly schooling and tuning yourself, just to achieve that one perfect performance.
And then you go back to training so you can do it again.
And your success is never permanent because that level of alignment simply can’t be maintained. You’re always working towards a goal that is, by its nature, impermanent.
Just like a musician who can only ever play a note once, so you as a dancer can only do that movement once, before it’s gone forever.
So, in dance, I found that life practice of zen that I’d been trying to find in martial arts.
That knowledge that meditation is only a medicin and that its use is only temporary.
Because once you’ve learned the quality of the meditation, then you can let go of the specific meditaions you do and spread that quality throughout your life instead.
Walking is zen, sitting is zen, dancing is zen, resting is zen.
That’s when the quality of your movement through life changes. You become filled with joy, centred, loving, alert, and you flow through life.
You don’t do anything – walking, sitting, dancing – for anything particular, you do it for the beauty of doing it.
And rather than chasing after those fleeting moments of perfect alignment with the universe, you learn how to find that alignment in every moment.
That’s when you can finally let go and enjoy competing for the fun of it and fully let go of the outcome.
Because once you let go of thinking that you can control the outcome, you’ll be free.
Journaling helps you to reach your goals.
Not being attached to the outcome of things – projects, competitions, life – sounds all well and good. But managing to get that into practice is a whole other thing.
I use journaling to achieve this.
Out of the many benefits of journaling, being more likely to reach your goals is but one.
Journaling helps you to clear your emotions around specific issues and to clear away the mental blocks holding you back. You’ll be more aware of yourself, more clear on what your goals are and why you’re doing something in the first place.
Journaling is such a simple practice, but a powerful one.
If you want to be able to remain highly competitive without getting caught up in it and genuinely enjoy it more, I warmly recommend you start a journaling habit today.
You can sign up for my free course Thankful which will guide you through the process of setting up this new habit. It’s a 21-day long daily practice that will help you to take that initial excitement and turn it into a sustainable practice so that you can enjoy the great benefits journaling brings with it.
Thankful is a free journaling course that I created for you when you want to feel happier and more grateful in life.
It’s a daily journaling email course where I send you a new email every day for twenty-one days with journaling prompts and knowledge about the science of gratitude and happiness.
When you’re ready to be guided through twenty-one days of journaling, you can sign up here.