The Thief of Joy in Jiu Jitsu
I’ve struggled with comparison since an early age, when my middle school started publishing unofficial GPA rankings in the eighth grade. That’s right — around thirteen, when you’re the most vulnerable as a teenager in terms of your self-worth — the school introduces a metric that brutally pits you against your peers.
On the one hand, I used comparison as a way to motivate myself to be better. On the other hand, comparison served as a way for me to constantly convince myself that I wasn’t good enough. Looking back on this thought process, I see how destructive it was to use a form of scarcity in order to pursue the impossible goal of always being the best.
I would say that my efforts in being careful with comparison have been better as the years go by, mostly because I’ve realized how much better life is when I’m feeling calm, assured, and confident. In these bright moments, I feel the benefit of using alternative strategies or perspectives that don’t involve putting myself down first. That serves as an encouraging reminder to treat myself better.
But, it’s not always easy.
Certain traits in people in certain environments trigger comparison, which then spirals into jealousy. Jiu jitsu is rife with these triggers. Jiu jitsu has the potential for there to be a clear “winner” and a “loser.” When someone gets the better hand on me, I find myself being frustrated that I don’t have their talent or skill. When I’m not taking care of myself, a moment of passing criticism instead morphs into a weekend of existential crisis, sometimes more. Metrics relating to mat time or competition wins frustrate me as well — what do these numbers mean when they are shared with an outsider, if not to feed one’s ego.
I’ve wondered a lot about the cure for comparison, but I don’t think there is a true cure. Mostly there are things that I can do differently — that I must do differently — if I am to prevent comparison from sabotaging the good parts of my jiu jitsu experience. I’ve tried to find that elusive self-worth in becoming popular on social media, or in earning medals that I think will also earn me the respect of my teammates, or in the blind pursuit of a single goal. Yet the treatment for comparison is much more subtle, much more complex, and much more tricky than I want to admit.
Whenever I find myself engaging in a spiral of comparison, I try to take myself out of my head space and into my body. The worst comparisons occur when I let my mind run wild, or even worse, as I continually engage in scrolling. I have learned that the simple act of turning off my phone/computer, and stepping away from whatever physical space that I’m in, can interrupt my train of thought. At the gym, I’ve started to allow myself quiet moments of pause, to catch my breath and allow myself to steep in the physical sensations, instead of trying to move onto the next round right away.
Comparison, for me, is a strictly mental act. My thoughts create a narrative around a certain situation, and that narrative plays out in as many horrible acts as it will be allowed. So, when I instead turn that focus to my body instead, I end up redirecting some of that intense energy away from a fixation on someone else. Instead, I try to concentrate on my body’s signals and what they are telling me. If my body is all over the place, then I concentrate on my breathing and the sensation of the breath rising and falling, wherever I can sense it.
I also try to take a look at why I’m feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable. When I’m tired, stressed, hungry to begin with, I know that it will be harder for me to combat comparison. So, I’ll nap, meditate, or eat — at least as a stopgap measure to get the worst edge off my emotional rollercoaster.
Once I have done that, I take a look at the bigger picture of what’s happening in my life. Have I been procrastinating at something at work for too long, and that’s weighing me down because I keep thinking about it? Is the fact that my laundry hasn’t been washed or put away for more than a week starting to take a physical toll on the visual chaos that I see every time I go into my bedroom?
To some people, it may seem silly to ask these questions. After all, what does an overdue task or an untidy pile of clothes relate to the underlying psychological factors that drive toxic comparisons? Well, very little, I will admit, but they are certainly exacerbating conditions that make mental self-care a bit more difficult that it needs to. This is why I always feel better whenever I work to sweep dried cat food crumbs off the floor that I keep stepping on. I am doing something productive to make life a little better for myself, even if I feel miserable elsewhere.
This advice should not be taken to mean that simply changing your physical surroundings would help avoid the comparison trap. Avoidance of a problem for too long usually makes that issue worse, not better. Yet I would rather start to work on difficult feelings when my desk is a little less chaotic and to lay on a clean bed to meditate rather than throwing myself further into the deep end of chaotic emotions. It’s a little like putting on floaties if you realize you’re lost in the middle of the ocean — you’re probably going to have to get out of there at some point, but at least you’ve got something.
A longer journey, still in progress, is the journey of acceptance. I used to think naively that acceptance meant being complacent or too soft. I now understand differently. Acceptance is that gentle, loving embrace that one might not have received in the past. Acceptance is the ability to look at yourself without judgmental narratives. Acceptance means allowing yourself to believe that you are fundamentally good, without conditions or the need to earn it.
Acceptance, I realize, is not just a feeling state, but instead a series of conscious intentions that challenges the tendency for athletes or artists to be hyper-critical and neurotic about what is right or not. It’s still hard for me when people use their physical attributes to stall as I’m trying to pass their guard or take warm-ups too seriously. Or when someone is so hyper-competitive in training that they almost break your wrist out of frustration at not getting the first submission they settled on. I find myself asking: Why did I let this happen? Am I doing something wrong? Should I be more like them?
Instead, I am trying to make choices differently when these situations present themselves. I purposely drill with the person who has overwhelmed me in sparring so I can experience their intensity in a more controlled setting. I try to treat my annoyance towards stalling as an invitation to figure out what this means in terms of my gaps in my fighting psychology. I try to ask myself why I feel so resentful when someone uses their physical attributes against me, when everything about jiu jitsu is already physical.
In moving towards acceptance, I have sought to confront these feelings head on. Confrontation is, for me, acceptance. I have to let go of my desire to control, fix, and plan. I can’t rely on mental shields or avoidance. I have to just let whatever it is, be.
Sometimes, I hate how the journey of acceptance makes me feel. Because in that journey, you have to go through stages of grief — anger, denial, bargaining, depression — before you finally can emerge, however briefly, on the other side. There are days when I’m tempted to shut down and feel nothing at all. But I know that if I stay in that space, I will inevitably retreat back to my old comparisons and harmful narratives that I have kept me small for so long.
Margot Ciccarrelli visited us for two days at my current academy, and of all the life-changing things she said, it was in the context of the berimbolo. In remarking how she tries to take the back, she said so very casually, “Everyone needs to climb.” On one level, her comment was about how everyone needs to make adjustments (micro-adjustments?!) to eventually secure the back position. On other level, I took her comment to mean that no one can get it perfect the first time. As the saying goes, “Behind mountains are more mountains.” Even if one day we think we have conquered comparison, the next day, we find ourselves troubled, again, and so we must climb, again.
Far from being a cause for despair, I find solace in the fact that there are more mountains to climb. For each mountain I tackle, I find more new experiences, new perspectives, and new challenges to explore. For each mountain I tackle, I become closer to myself - and closer to who I am meant to be.