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About two months ago, I successfully tested for my first degree black belt in taekwondo. Earning a black belt in a martial art was something that, for most of my life, seemed exactly as attainable as becoming an astronaut and walking on the moon … not entirely outside the realm of possibility, but pretty dang close.
Unsurprisingly, having a black belt is not what I used to imagine. I can’t, for instance, take down a group of armed assassins with only my fighting hands and feet. Nor can I one-inch-punch my way out of a buried coffin à la The Bride in Kill Bill. I can knock over a standing heavy bag with a flying sidekick, though, which is pretty cool. Even so, sometimes I feel silly when people find out that I have a black belt. Their eyes get all wide and they’re like, “Whoa, awesome!” and I have to fight the urge to shake my head and say, “No, no, you don’t understand — I’m not, like, a real black belt.”
That’s crazy, because I am, in fact, a real black belt. But my sidekicks aren’t as high as they should be, I can’t quite complete the rotation in a tornado kick, my round kicks aren’t as fast as I’d like, and my spin hooks are, frankly, kind of awful. When I’ve fixed all that, then I’ll really feel like a black belt.
Therapist Katherine Schafler recently wrote about a phenomenon Brene Brown identified in her book The Gifts of Imperfection as our “worthiness prerequisite list.” This is a basically an internal inventory we all keep of things we think must happen before we are truly worthy of love, belonging, success … or even a black belt:
Dr. Brown’s point is that unless we do the work to shake ourselves out of it, we all remain in this constant state of feeling “almost there” with regard to fully experiencing ownership over our lives and our self-worth:
“… We spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and proving.”
The problem with the “worthiness prerequisite list” is that it doesn’t actually drive us to learn and grow for the sake of learning and growing. It drives us to chase endlessly after approval from others so that we finally feel like we can bestow our approval on ourselves. In the process we ignore, minimize, or devalue our actual worth.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in taekwondo it’s that the more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. Mastering the basics opens up a world of intricacies and complexities that I could never have seen as white belt. A year of training for my second degree belt will show me all the things I can’t see now, but will have to learn over the two years it takes to train for my third degree belt. That’s why there are degrees — a black belt doesn’t signify mastery, it signifies that a student has learned enough of the basics to truly begin his or her training.
And that is something I have accomplished. I’ve earned my black belt, and the ability to identify the deficiencies in my technique is actually evidence of that. My crap spin hook doesn’t belong on my “worthiness prerequisite list” — quite the opposite. In fact, nothing really belongs on my “worthiness prerequisite list,” and nothing belongs on yours. There is no list of prerequisites that’ll make us worthy of things like love or happiness or even our actual accomplishments. There’s just who we are, what we’ve done, and what is left to do. Let’s start owning it all.
Brené Brown’s ‘Rising Strong’: Forging wisdom from failure