Committing Through Doubt

One of my growing edges this year has been practicing a martial art. One of the important practices, as I understand it, is learning to do backward and forward rolls with confidence and consistency, so that one may more easily practice the techniques with their partners.

Amidst the difficulties I’ve had learning the practice, I’ve watched more experienced students be thrown with apparent grace, rolling across the floor and standing up as though nothing particularly serious had happened. I decided my goal was to get to that point. In a conversation, I recently made an offhand observation that I realized went deeper than I thought: “I think I would be more courageous if falling wasn’t so scary.”

The basic techniques of the rolls is its own challenge—figuring out how to make my body do what they are teaching me to do, getting my muscles to consistently respond in ways that soften my fall and protect me from jarring, painful collapses.

What makes the learning harder is my moments of doubt. When about to fall or roll, something in me wants all the action to stop. My anxiety instinctively moves toward freeze. My mind wants to fully assess the situation and decide the correct response. It’s almost like that self-doubt is saying, “Are you SURE you’re going to get through this? Better not do anything until you’re SURE.”

That self-doubt wants to get a teacher and ask them to walk me through it again. It wants me to ask everyone to go easy on me, so I can get more practice before I really do it.

A person in a pink bathing suit jumping from a dock into the water.
“Jumping Off the Dock,” photo by Erik Dungan

Recently I read through Steven Hayes’s Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, where he speaks of acceptance, daring, and commitment. He speaks to how “trying” to accept a painful reality is a half-measure that does not work. I can’t “try” to accept my sadness, because some part of me is hedging for safety, seeking an out if things get too hard. Similarly, I can’t “try” to jump off a diving board. I am either launching myself into the air or standing still. At worst, “trying” to jump off a diving board means I am more awkwardly slipping off.

What Hayes suggests is a full commitment to action. You can set limits—“I will accept my sadness for five minutes.” But you can’t accept your sadness in a conditional way. “I’ll accept my sadness unless I feel too sad.” The metaphor of jumping off a diving board is not incidental—acceptance is an act of daring that brings up anxiety.

The anxiety worries because it does not know what will happen when I accept. It fears something awful will happen, and wants to control every step of the way. Which comes back to trial. Though it feels more controlled, it is ultimately less effective and sometimes more dangerous than simply jumping.

That dance between down, trial, and commitment play out in my falling. When practicing with a partner who’s about to throw me, that moment of self-doubt is dangerous. It pulls me out of the moment and into my mind—but my mind’s not going to execute the fall. The throw happens too quickly for my mind to do anything but freak out and sprawl. 

For the past few months, my efforts at forward rolls have been clumsy and awkward. I’d be about to go for it then feel stopped by that moment of self-doubt. When I tried anyway, I would suffer for my lack of commitment midway through the roll. Since I didn’t launch myself with the energy and speed I needed, I would collapse on one of my shoulders or thump my low back. 

After reading Hayes’s work, I realized I needed to commit. So the next time I attempted the forward roll I bent down, noticed that moment of self-doubt, and decided to do it anyway. I put all the force and energy I could into the movement, and within seconds I felt myself smoothly flipping over my arms and rolling off my back to my feet. It was amazing. Then I tried again, and it was amazing again.

The third time, of course, I was starting to analyze what just happened, figure out what worked so I could replicate it consistently. Being back in that mental space of anxiety and control, my falls began to suffer and I had some back-thumping moments. I need more practice with this commitment, this daring.

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