Dealing With Fear, Doubt, and Anxiety

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Two types of stressors exist in our lives. Classical psychology refers to the first as eustress, which you may privately know as good anxiety and nervousness that keeps you sharp. Its more paralyzing cousins, however, is known as distress, but also goes by fear, doubt or hindering anxiety. The latter has a slew of negative consequences for its bearer. It materializes in many forms, from poor performance to panic attacks. Its common curse for many is a fear of public speaking.

I’ve had a fear of heights my whole life. Because of anxiety it caused, I avoided field trips to the top of bell towers during high school, never climbed a mountain peak, which seems to be a national sport of my country, Slovenia. I didn’t even rock-climb indoors until I had no doubt and a complete trust into my belayer. When a New Year’s Eve of 2018 struck, however, I was surprised (a gentle way of putting it) with a gift in the form of a tandem parachute jump. It took some planning, but luckily my then girlfriend kept it under wraps until the day before. Once I did it, it changed my outlook. I had turned, or rather, it was set for me. Something that was utterly unimaginable just a few short years ago into something that I’ve done and look forward to doing.

We can do the same in our lives. Not all victories will be that big or will result in such a drastic shift. However, even small, incremental, but consistent steps over even most trivial obstacles can have had a profound impact on the course of one’s life. When compounded over time, it can take our experience into a significantly different direction that we would’ve otherwise imagined.

On the other side of fear, doubt and anxiety is confidence. One of my favorite movies from childhood, Dragon the Bruce Lee Story, played by Jason Lee Scott, has an opening scene where the narrator says: “We all have inner demons to fight. We call these demons fear and hatred and anger. If you don’t conquer them, then a life of a hundred years is a tragedy. If you do, the life of a single day can be a triumph.” In other words, when fear, doubt and anxiety bind us, we generate a lifetime of undesired experiences.  Worse, with a slew of harmful coping mechanisms and habits, which compound over time and result in anger, resentment, and disappointment, we also influence others: parents, children, spouses,  and many more. If conquered, however, something utterly unimaginable just a short while ago becomes a cornerstone of our new reality.

Of course, pushing the envelope, changing that mindset, and raising the proverbial bar will come with its challenges. I distinctly, remember going to compete at IBJJF American Nationals as a brown belt adult (18 to 29 year-olds) three weeks after leaving the corporate world behind, as an out-of-shape, 35-year-old executive three weeks before. If you are considering or have already considered leaving your job to pursue your dreams, you can read a blog entry on my journey, preparation and eventual execution here.

My first match was against a then Brazilian World gi Champion. I was outclassed 15 to 0 with the only shred of pride being that I did not submit. Not even a month after leaving a progressive, well-paying career of 12 years, I was dealt a considerable loss. It was more than losing a match; it was losing an identity. All the fears, doubts and anxiety, I spent four years addressing before taking a leap of faith whispered in my head: “I told you so.” Was I a complete tool to do this? Did I leave a comfortable job only to have a very brief grappling career?

Fear, Doubt and Anxiety Never Dissipate

It is essential to understand that all these questions are reasonable. In fact, they will continue to reappear and permeate throughout your journey in their many forms. It is vital we answer as many of them as possible, and to the best of our ability before embarking on the said journey. As an alternative route is bound to be filled with peaks of elation and valleys of depression. It is these answers you will hold dear and close to your heart during your lows. Mainly as family and friends, who may be living more traditional lifestyles, will not understand or relate to your particular set of challenges. It is only in quiet moments of solitude and reflection, we strengthen our character and renew our commitment to excellence required to lift the vast hurdles ahead.
For me, this was the conversation I had, with my coach’s (Marc Brewer), black belt, University of Grappling Founder, UFC Star Coach and 3-time World Champion and youngest American to be awarded a Gracie BJJ Black Belt, Ricky Lundell late on a Friday night post-practice in Lindon, Utah.

“It’s chess, not chequers,” he said. “With hard work and the right people, you can definitely go far. I would just caution you to think twice about it. It is a lonely, challenging road, and most people, many of whom you hold dear, will not understand it. That said, should you embark on it, it will be the most amazing journey. Not only will you learn about life and yourself, but you will never view life the same way.”
It is that last sentence that profoundly resonated with me. If it is life-altering, then clearly, I had to do it. If I had a chance and didn’t take it, won’t I die twice? Once, whenever I physically, I do so, and once more, way before while still alive, when I decide not to take the leap.

Those Who Have Gone Before

It is words of wisdom of great men and women who have gone before whom you will hold on dearly as you begin your journey. While it is essential to leverage your existing support structure of family and friends, it is also crucial to understand that as things get profound, this same support structure will also shift and morph to accommodate your present realities. As those realities change, it is absolutely vital you solicit, objective, honest, and well-mannered feedback of those better than us that have been hardened by the test of time and track record of success. If the above sentence sounds confusing, let me clear it up. My mom, my girlfriends (see what I did there?), my best friend all may think highly of my pursuits, though they are simply not qualified to have a say. I need, you need – to increasingly rely on those who are better and more experienced in the pursuits you seek.

Now don’t confuse that with approval from the highest authority. As the pursuit of your goals rises, so will naturally, the level of people around you – it will be up to you, however, to discern their level of intellect, intention, and interest into the well-being of them and you. A proven track record of success, of course, doesn’t dictate purity of purpose, or even concern for you, but if you have a keen eye, you will be able to discern leadership and championship qualities and limit your involvement accordingly.

Overly simplified, you go to the dentist to check your teeth and not your broken foot. While there is a chance that a dentist could give you some general advice about your foot, mainly if they had attended medical school, those instances will be far and few between. Don’t get me wrong, I had cultivated some very intense, deeply personal and familial relationships in the grappling community, all of which I enjoy today, but for many others, there was a time and a season. While choking (grappling or sparring relationships if you are a non-martial artist) are amongst the most personal and intense, their continuation into other areas of life is rare. A gem to behold when found but never expected.

Incremental Improvement in Dealing With Fear, Doubt and Anxiety

If you navigate these waters correctly and can look at your life objectively, you will see, small incremental steps in the right direction. For me, that was the 2016 IBJJF Brown Belt World Championships. Unlike American Nationals six months before, my performance was not spectacular but a far cry from a disaster upon my corporate retirement.

I submitted my first opponent at adult, a Brazilian Onofre Cardoso Guimarães Junqueira from Gracie Barra BH, within a minute with my trusted footlock. Of course, the victory was short-lived as the very next round, I lost to Dante Leon, a world-class player who was promoted to black belt at the podium that shortly after. Though even in a match with Dante, I lost to a tightest knee-bar I ever felt, I did, even if briefly, employ a strategy against at a tournament. That was a big leap in the right direction for me, showcasing a general upward trend of the hard work I’ve been putting in. It was the first measurable sign that I had begun to successfully overcome with my fears, doubt and anxiety. I had suspended my regrets and laid a first cornerstone of my reality.  Despite it being a start, it would be far from enough. It is chess and not checkers, after all.


European turned American! Linguist, traveler, martial arts aficionado, BJJ Black Belt, and a retired executive who decided to pursue grappling full time at 35 and document the journey in order to inspire others to pursue their dreams. These are his ramblings.

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