I attended a PIAC conference this fall. The keynote speaker was Dr. Stuart Shanker, who outlined some of the differences between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. He also pointed the audience towards Dr. Mel Levine’s The Myth of Laziness. It was eye-opening as a parent to recognize how easy it’s been for me to forget my original parenting position which basically comes down to “kids will do good if they can and have the right support and guidance.” I’d fallen into some patterns of assuming laziness in my children for sure.
The premise shared by both Dr. Shanker and Dr. Levine’s books are that if a child isn’t succeeding, there’s probably something in their way. Dr. Shanker looks at stress and anxiety in particular, and how that kicks children into “red brain” — a stressed, anxious response as if a tiger were chasing them through the woods. And people who are trapped in their red brains can’t access the parts of their brain that help them to learn and perform at a higher level.
Ding, ding, ding. I know allll about the red brain, trust me. As a person with PTSD, I’ve spent a lot of time learning to (somewhat) manage my broad-strokes fight-or-flight response, sometimes better, and sometimes not so well.
I often (not always) do some of the right things for the “big” PTSD-related issues- deep breaths, calm down, get centred, “fake it ’til you make it,” etc. Five years of therapy helped. And in some ways I feel like I’ve mastered some of that to the point that I can turn around in my journey and start to more openly share some successes with other people to see if that helps.
My martial arts journey has been a big part of that, since learning to get grounded in my body and be in a place where I can learn skills, physically, that are completely foreign to me, and work through any triggers and upset, physically, has been huge. I spent decades of my life becoming an expert at not being in my body, so the idea of being expert at using my body is…ridiculous.
When I start a class, I’m always ready to be at the bottom of it. But I go anyway.
And because it’s martial arts, and that was just brand new to me when I started, I come to it without expectation. If this were a movie maybe that would make me really skilled at the martial arts part of it, but unfortunately, it doesn’t – I mean I even broke my leg doing it! But I am willing to fail 99 times out of 100, because I don’t confuse my beginner status with my own value as a human being. I don’t have a sense that I should do this better or that better. I identify as a martial artist not by my achievements but by my effort. (Technically, I guess, I have a growth mindset.)
And what’s more, I recognize that some weeks, my capacity to risk myself on the floor is more limited. And I’m okay with protecting myself that way and seeing it as part of the journey.
But…here’s the realization as I grapple with having a broken leg while starting a new job in a new field, which involves a lot of walking around and I can’t walk yet…I don’t always apply the same principles to other ares of my life.
I let my critical inner voice mistake inexperience for incompetence. I let the frustration of those around me impact me. I judge myself as not enough.
And to some degree, what I am always going for is what I’ll label supreme competence. I like to be good at my job, to be the expert, to be the one who can be relied on to think things through and do things right. I don’t think these are bad goals. I don’t want to be a lousy martial artist, and I don’t want to be lousy at other things that I do. I want to excel.
The problem is that in one case, I let myself really experience my incompetence, and work to get better, and it adds to my day immeasurably. In the second case, I experience my incompetence, and work to get better, while beating myself up and feeling like shit about myself, and stressing out and eating chips and being cranky about chores, and it eats away at my days. And it makes it harder because that tiger of anxiety that says “you suck, you’re ruining things, you need to be better” is actually contributing to lack of success.
I learn and perform way better when I am not generating a field of anxiety. Like…really.
So simple, and so not.