I’ll never forget the first time I tried to break a board. It was for my first belt test, and I was attempting the easiest strike in taekwondo — the elbow strike, which requires you to use the force of your elbow to break a board. My instructors had boards of various size and thickness, and they chose the thinnest, most pliable boards for us white belts.
They had drilled us over and over to go through the board, to aim beyond it, and above all not to stop at the board — but most of the white belts did exactly that. We hit the board and stopped, and the board did not break. But some of our skin did.
We got three chances, and I broke mine on the second strike. Having learned my lesson the hard way, I drove all way through the board with a vengeance, nearly nailing my instructor in the face. After that first test, our practice boards got harder and thicker, as did our testing boards. We practiced breaking nearly every day, and in the process conditioning our bones to actually become thicker and stronger. By the time I tested for black, I was able to break the hardest, thickest board with my fist, foot, and shin — a feat that likely would have broken a bone had I attempted it as a white belt.
This was one of the many ways I learned resilience through martial arts — and I’m not talking about the physical resilience of building thicker bones. I’m talking about the mental resilience of failing at a break and then trying again, without being paralyzed by the physical pain still radiating through your body. It’s a lesson in resilience unlike any other, and the way we built up to it in small doses is one of the most effective strategies for increasing resilience, according to Greater Good Magazine:
The Overcoming a Fear practice is designed to help with everyday fears that get in the way of life, such as the fear of public speaking, heights, or flying. We can’t talk ourselves out of such fears; instead, we have to tackle the emotions directly. The first step is to slowly, and repeatedly, expose yourself to the thing that scares you — in small doses. For example, people with a fear of public speaking might try talking more in meetings, then perhaps giving a toast at a small wedding. Over time, you can incrementally increase the challenge until you’re ready to nail that big speech or TV interview … In effect, this kind of “exposure therapy” helps us change the associations we have with a particular stimulus. If we’ve flown 100 times and the plane has never crashed, for example, our brain (and body) start to learn that it’s safe. Though the fear may never be fully extinguished, we’ll likely have greater courage to confront it.
Once I understood how effective this strategy was, I began to use it for literally everything. For example, I have an irrational fear of backing up cars. I’m not a great driver, since my near-blindness in my left eye hampers my depth perception. But the inability to reverse into parking spaces became a serious limitation once I became a Camp Gladiator trainer, since loading and unloading equipment from my trunk is a daily part of my job.
So I starting by reversing into my driveway. It’s wide enough to be more forgiving than the narrow lanes of parking spaces, and by doing it every time I came home, I began to learn to use my side mirrors to overcome my lack of depth perception. Once I had mastered the driveway, I started backing into parking spaces — first ones that were unoccupied on either side, then ones that were occupied on one side only, until finally I was able to reverse into parking spaces that were occupied on either side without inching forward and backward twenty times. I’m not going to pretend I can reverse into any space with ease now, but I can reverse into any space now. And I can do it without panicking and feeling helpless.
Facing our fears isn’t something we can or should do in one fell swoop. Courage is a virtue, after all — and it’s one we learn by starting small, and practicing it over and over until we’re strong enough to face the big fears that hold us back. You don’t have to be able to break boards to be courageous — you just have to keep trying, every day.
The secret of resilience: It’s a choice