Almost every person has a list of things they would change about themselves if they could. Maybe you wish you were more fit, or smarter, or not such a perfectionist? There are hundreds of traits that describe each person. While some are good, others are not.
If I had to sum up martial arts in one sentence, it would be “a journey to overcome ourselves”. In order to effectively do this, we have to obtain an understanding of Balance. Not like the “stand on one-leg” type of balance, but the “every bad has a good, every weakness has a strength” type.
When trying to improve ourselves, we oftentimes try to ‘fix’ whatever the issue is. We work out to get more fit; we read to get smarter; we take a self-health day from work to relieve stress. While ‘fixing’ these traits does help for certain traits, there is more than one way to tackle any situation. Rather than trying to ‘fix’ ourselves, we can often find success by viewing our negative traits with balance. Meaning that we see the bad, but we also acknowledge the good and (more importantly) strive to use it to our advantage.
To illustrate this point, we are going to talk through a few examples of traits that are commonly seen as weaknesses, but can also be easily turned into strengths. Although I could probably write an entire post on each of these topics, I’m going to try to keep it concise and short(ish).
#1: Anxiety and Excitement
I have been an incredibly anxious person my entire life. While my anxiety levels are not as high as when I was a child, they are very much still there and hover around every decision or step I take. The butterflies would start up in my stomach, I’d become incredibly tense, and I’d feel like electricity was jumping around my body. It took all my effort just to push down the emotions and focus on the task at-hand.
While I did fight to better this trait with moderate success, a real breakthrough came to me in a different form. It was during a conversation I was having one day with a colleague of mine, who was the complete opposite of me. In every instance I was anxious, he was excited and rearing-to-go. One day I finally fessed up and mentioned to him that I was envious of that character trait. His response still resonates with me today.
He told me that while it was nice, that he wishes he could keep a lid on all that excitement. He told me that butterflies would start up in his stomach. He’d become incredibly tense and he’d feel like electricity was jumping around his body. He said it took all his effort just to keep his excitement at bay and focus on the task at-hand.
It was in this moment that I realized (as you may have from reading this) that anxiety and excitement are almost identical emotions. The way we physically and mentally react is almost identical, and that’s because both emotions are triggered by the same stimulus; an unknown challenge that we are being forced to face.
It was then that I realized that my propensity for large amounts of anxiety also meant I had a propensity for large amounts of excitement. The only difference was the mindset that the challenge was approached with. Whereas I would often focus on the unknowns as negative and potentially harmful, my colleague focused on the positives and the possibilities that existed.
Ever since this realization, I have been able to find great success in keeping my anxiety under wraps by focusing on turning it into excitement. This concept is one that has allowed me to do many things that I would never have done previously. On top of that, I am able to enjoy them just as much (if not more) than others because I am able to get so excited.
#2: Stagnation and Growth
This is a problem that many fellow perfectionists likely understand. Periods of our lives pass in cycles. There are times where we are able to grow easily and obtain new skills and experiences. There are also times where life becomes very busy and we are forced to stagnate and maintain what we previously gained. For many who are self-driven and are trying to push towards their goals, these periods of maintenance cause tons of stress. Much more than they would if the person wasn’t as eager to push onward.
One of my students came into class one day – a student who very much fits the description above – and admitted that they’ve been having a hard time. They recently moved into a new place and have been having a hard time balancing out schoolwork, finding a new job, and working towards the goals they’ve set for themselves. This intense juggling has forced them to cut back on their training to the point that they are primarily focused on maintaining what they have already gained. This change in their routine, although necessary for their current situation, visibly disheartened them.
I’ve had many students with this same issue; and I’m sure many people reading this have experienced this at some point in their lives as well. I’ve certainly been there and done that as well, and the problem turned out to be (once again) a shift in mindset.
We call it “maintenance” because we aren’t able to get any better and this leads to us becoming disheartened. What we ignore is the fact that this maintenance is happening under greater external pressure. In the example above, my student initially learned everything during a time of his life where things were much more calm and easy to manage. While he may have only been able to maintain since then, he has done so while also juggling all these other priorities and responsibilities – which is still a form of growth.
“If you can currently do 20 pushups and want to get better, what do you do?” was my question to him.
“Practice at home so I can increase my number to 25 or 30.”
“Okay, what if I put a weighted vest on you and told you that each week, I would add 5 pounds to it for your pushups?”
“Then I would focus on staying at 20 with the new weight,” he answered immediately. “Because once that weight goes away, I’ll be able to handle way more than before.”
And that is the lesson I think is important for us to remember. All periods of mayhem pass, and we come out of them more resilient and able to take on much more than previously. So whether we are literally “getting better” or not, we are always growing so long as we continue to not give up.
#3: Stress and Passion
“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we DO care about is called passion.”
This quote is by Simon Sinek, a well-known speaker and author of many great books, could just sit under this section and pretty much sum up what I’m going to say.
Our brain and body are designed to conserve energy wherever is possible. That’s what has kept our species alive for all these years. Expend energy to survive when necessary, conserve the rest so that it’s there in case another life-threatening situation arises. Human civilization has progressed quite a bit, however, and there are not nearly as many life-threatening situations as there once was.
This is made even more apparent by the fact that we are now trying to fight back against that primal instinct. The instinct to “eat more than necessary to store up on fat” once kept us alive, but now helps fuel an obesity crisis. The instinct to “stay awake if we feel a threat is imminent” has led to many having to battle insomnia throughout their lives. Having physical and mental stress is our body’s instinct when we spend large quantities of energy on something we don’t feel is meaningful or important.
Much like anxiety and excitement stem from the same branch, so do stress and passion. Many of the tips out there for fighting back stress (take a vacation, learn to be carefree, get rid of the stressors) are traits that may be helpful for eliminating stress, but they would also mess with my habits on the things I genuinely want to work hard on. I think this is a realization important for many people who are trying to battle stress while also finding fulfillment in what they do.
The issue is generally not that you’re a “stressed-out” person, because that also means you are a very passionate person. The question is why something stresses you out in the first place. Maybe you just don’t care about it? Maybe you do care, but you know that your effort won’t change the outcome due to some other person or thing being a factor? Maybe you used to care, but something in your mindset changed and made you lose sight of the initial goal?
In any case, these types of question are much more likely to lead us to a more fulfilling answers than “eliminating stress” as a whole. There are always going to be things that do stress us out, but we only have so much stamina in one day. By analyzing the “why” of our stress, it can help us focus on what may need to change in order for us to becoming passionate rather than stressed.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of traits that can be turned into strengths. I don’t know as there is a single trait in existence that can’t be turned into a positive in one way or another.
That doesn’t mean that every trait is worth keeping. There are some traits for us where the negatives may always outweigh the positives and its easier to just fight them and remove them. That isn’t the only way to fix the issue, though. Some traits are not ones we can get rid of, and others don’t need to be pushed away – simply repurposed. That is the idea I am hoping to share here, so that others can benefit from the shift in mindset as much as I and my students can.