I knew I was pushing myself to my limit, but I thought I could handle it. My plan was to take my first set of board exams to become a licensed naturopathic doctor on a Tuesday and fight at a Muay Thai event on the following Saturday. From the moment my school term ended until last week, every single day, I studied and worked out. And I did both to my absolute breaking point. I wrote about that feeling of burnout here. I thought I made it through. I thought the burnout had peaked. I was wrong.
After writing that post, I had probably the most difficult week of my entire life. It was the week before the exam and fight. For the first time in my life, I actually didn’t know if I could handle the stress I was feeling. I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to pass my exam and I felt like I wasn’t strong enough to win my fight. It was painful, but it didn’t stop me. I kept going. I kept trying.
My self doubt blossomed into a paralyzing weight on my shoulders during an evening sparring session after a full day of studying. I couldn’t stop the incessant negativity going on in my head. “I can’t do this. I’m in over my head. This is all too much. I’m not good enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m not smart enough.” But I kept training. I kept trying. I kept fighting. Round after round.
About 2 hours into the evening session, I sparred with a training partner who’s better than me. He predictably beat me up pretty good. Usually, getting torn apart in training is a great learning experience that I enjoy, but this particular round proved to be more than I could handle. I was giving him everything I had and it simply wasn’t enough. I could only see the mistakes I was making and couldn’t see anything I did right. I felt completely defeated. The round ended, we rotated partners and after a 30 second break, another round started.
For this round, I was a little better than my training partner. I was slipping his punches, blocking his kicks, landing jabs. At one point, I slipped past one of his punches and landed a perfectly placed kick to his ribs and he fell to a knee. I hurt him. He couldn’t continue so I stood next to him for the rest of the round. It is absolutely never a goal to hurt any of my training partners. I felt terrible. And I suddenly felt hopeless. The round before, I got totally beaten up and I was upset. This round, I beat someone up and I was upset. What am I even doing here? The round ended and we rotated partners.
I, once again, found myself with a training partner who was better than me. And every time he hit me, I felt myself grow smaller. With every punch that connected, my self doubt swelled up exponentially. The little confidence I had left dripped out of toes and onto the mat. Somehow, every movement I made further convinced me that I couldn’t win my fight and I couldn’t pass my exam. I didn’t study enough and I didn’t train enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m not fast enough. The stress I was putting on myself became completely overwhelming and my emotions started to take control.
I made it through to the end of the round but instead of rotating to a different partner, I collapsed to my knees, fell forward with my face in my boxing gloves and started crying.
It was too much. I couldn’t hold it back. I was so overwhelmed and defeated that I wasn’t even embarrassed about crying in the middle of a boxing ring in front of my teammates. I eventually pulled myself together, finished my workout and managed to teach a Muay Thai class before going home and sinking so deep into my bed that it felt like I’d never find my way out.
I woke up feeling a little better. I studied. I trained. The self doubt faded. After a few days, I was back to normal. I woke up the day before my exam feeling confident. Feeling ready. I was going to train early in the day so I could spend the evening mentally preparing for the next morning’s exam. I’d done the last of my studying and I only had a few training sessions left. And after all of that pain and overwhelming stress, I was ready for the exam and the fight. I was getting excited on my way to the morning training session.
I felt sharp during the pad rounds. My kicks were lightning fast. I was hitting hard. I was barely getting winded. I felt like a champion. Before we transitioned into sparring, my coach announced the one rule of the day, “James is fighting on Saturday. Don’t let him get hurt.”
During one of my sparring rounds, I threw a front kick at my training partner as he was thrusting his knee forward. My foot drove directly into his knee and I instantly heard the dreaded and unfortunate sound of a bone snapping. I completely denied what I’d heard and felt. My first instinct was to put my foot back down and immediately throw another kick just to prove that everything was fine. But as my foot touched down, instead of throwing another kick, I fell backwards. My foot was unable to support my weight.
I stopped sparring, but I was in complete denial that I was actually injured, so I continued to lightly train for another 20 minutes. It took all of my willpower to avoid screaming out in pain every time I tried to kick or put weight on my foot.
My coach asked me multiple times, “Are you sure you’re ok?” I immediately shot back, “Yeah, fine.”
By the time I returned home, my foot had swelled up so much that it looked more like a water balloon than a foot. I decided to see a doctor.
I spent the afternoon in an urgent care clinic going back and forth from an exam room to the radiology department. It took extra long because I refused the use of a wheelchair and had to slowly hobble my way around the clinic. I absolutely knew that I broke a bone, but I was in serious denial and started growing impatient waiting for the doctor to tell me that nothing is wrong. Of course, that’s not what the doctor told me.
She said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news. I don’t think you can compete this weekend, you have a fracture.”
The self doubt that I had worked so hard to get past viciously returned. This was so much bigger than having to pull out of my fight. Before this, my self doubt was limited to an intangible thought that maybe I couldn’t achieve the goals I set out for myself. It was a theoretical argument in my head. But now, with the clear X-ray of a fractured 1st proximal phalanx in front of me, it was no longer an intangible thought. There was no more argument. I actually can’t achieve the goals I set out for myself.
I broke down in the doctor’s office. She awkwardly patted me on the back as I cried. I assume I took the news of a broken toe a little harder than most of her patients would have. But it wasn’t a broken toe to me. It was proof of all the things I was worried about. I’m not strong enough. I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. I can’t win my fight. I can’t pass my exam. These theoretical worries suddenly became unquestionable truths to me.
I thought about not even going to my exam the next day. I’d convinced myself that I wouldn’t pass anyway, so why waste the day? I needed help getting through this. I posted a picture of my X-ray to Instagram (follow me!) and Facebook with a cry for help disguised as an attempt at humor.
The world did not disappoint. I received comments, private messages, text messages, emails, phone calls. I was overwhelmed with love and support. If you were one of those people: Thank you.
In that flurry of messages, one sentence stuck with me. Someone said something like, “You’re going to do great on the board exam tomorrow because nothing can break your spirit.”
It is such a heartwarming thing to hear. She believes in me. She told me I’m unbreakable. It was inspiring.
But the thing is, my spirit was broken. I started thinking about all of my heroes. The people that I believe in. I view them as unbreakable because they relentlessly push forward no matter what. They can’t be stopped. My favorite fighters have lost countless fights. My favorite writers have been endlessly rejected. All of my heroes have fallen flat and failed miserably on numerous occasions.
And I promise that after each one of those losses, rejections and failures their spirits were broken. But it’s not about being unbreakable. It’s about giving it everything you have. It’s about trying to move forward in the face of loss, failure, rejection, disaster.
My mentality began to shift. I pushed myself as hard as I could without any fear of breaking my spirit. In fact, I pushed too hard. My spirit did break. And I’m going to do great on the board exam because of my broken spirit.
If you want to ensure your success at something, give it so much of yourself that your spirit breaks. And then keep trying.
I showed up to the 5-hour long board exam the next day and I gave it my everything. I didn’t give a thought to my broken spirit, my broken bone or my self doubt. I simply went in there and answered every question as best as I could.
I won’t hear the results for a while, but it doesn’t matter much to me. If I failed, I’ll take it again. If I passed, I’ll push myself to achieve a new goal. I’ll set myself up for another fight. I might lose. I might win. I might break another bone. None of that matters. I will give it everything I’ve got every single time. And sure, I can be broken. But I can’t be stopped.