How Martial Arts Gave Me the Confidence to Beat Social Anxiety


I was once told, by a teacher, that I jumped like a girl. A failed high jump earned me the sarcastic remark from my physical education teacher. I was 11. Little did I know that one incident would earn me two years of daily teasing and verbal abuse, and it would change my school life forever.

Being an ordinarily plain kid in the class, I was tormented every single day by the bullies and the popular influential classmates. At 11, children can be cruel, knowingly or not. The day when teacher turned critic instead of offering guidance ended my carefree and happy school days forever.

I spent every single school day trying to make myself invisible and avoid being the center of attention. I hoped all the teasing would stop and everything would be back to normal, but humans have a wicked side that gives them the joy of preying on the weak, especially in a group.

At a young age, I learned you don’t have to be cruel to beget cruelty. Life can be unfair and you have to deal with it. After two years of being picked on verbally and physically, I had changed from a cheerful boy to a quiet and distant teenager. At 13, I’d had enough.

(You’ll be wondering why I am sharing this untold story from my life. It’s not to lay blame on any of my classmates, nor the teacher who may have unintentionally triggered a chain of bullying. I’m sharing this chapter of my life to create awareness of how bullying can lead to social anxiety and how building confidence with martial arts helps to beat social anxiety.)

How Learning a Martial Art Gave Me the Confidence to Beat Social Anxiety

In my first year of secondary school, I joined my first Taekwondo lesson after witnessing a fancy demonstration by a team of students experienced in the art. It was partly for fun and partly believing that it could be a means for me to hit back at the bullies if push came to shove.

A few months of relentless practice allowed me to progress quickly in rank and skill. I was no longer the boy who “jumped like a girl.” The teasing stopped, and those who once picked on me hesitated before doing so. I started to walk with the much-needed confidence pulsing in my veins.

At 15, I earned my black belt through pain and sweat. I was no longer the shy and quiet boy I used to be. I became cheeky, bursting with confidence and would never hesitate to defend myself and others against being picked upon. I knew how it felt to be weak.

I am not the best fighter amongst my peers. In fact, I was just one typical martial art practitioner you might see in your neighborhood. But sometimes, knowing you can be better than yourself is good enough to fill you with confidence to beat social anxiety.

What Happens When You Stop Fighting Social Anxiety

Now I’m 35. It has been 20 years since I first beat social anxiety as a child, silencing the bullies in the process. In those two decades, I discontinued my martial art practice due to various reasons (or excuses). Indirectly, I stopped fighting my social anxiety.

It didn’t take long for social anxiety to hit back with a vengeance, particularly when I went to further my study in a university on my own. Back then, ragging was popular culture. Being subjected to one week of sleepless and torturous nights brought back painful memories of the past.

When you stop fighting social anxiety, you are unknowingly retreating to your personal shell again. That’s what happened to me in my early years in the university. During my third year, I forced myself to start training Taekwondo again in my university. It’s no coincidence that the years that followed are my best.

But that isn’t the end of my battle with social anxiety. I wrote about how I overcome both social anxiety and depression later in my life in my blog.

Why Training Martial Art Builds Warrior-Like Confidence

If there’s anything I could pinpoint as the primary cause of my social anxiety, it was the bullying I endured for two years. A study has found that bullying may cause long-term social anxiety disorder.

When you’re living with social anxiety, your self-esteem is at an all-time low. This lack of confidence causes you to stop believing in yourself. You might appear weak and choose avoidance instead of facing challenges head on.

There are many things that can give you the much-needed confidence to beat social anxiety. For me, martial arts training is an effective way. Back in my day, martial art training was much tougher under strict traditional instructors. When you’re put through grueling routines and find yourself still standing amidst the sweat and pain, your confidence grows. Sparring your opponents amidst the adrenaline rush in a tightly contested competition requires perfect control of emotion and enormous self-belief.

To Beat Social Anxiety, You Need to Start With Building Confidence

Today, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to the various methods of overcoming social anxiety. But without determination and self-belief, all your efforts could be in vain. You might find yourself trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for a few weeks and give up, citing the lack of progress. Then you try hypnotherapy and say it’s hard to focus on the hypnosis.

There’s no middle ground when it comes to overcoming social anxiety. I believe you’re either trapped in a prison you built, or you’re relentlessly hacking your way out of it. This is my approach each time I have a relapse, or when too much isolation lulls me back into my personal shell.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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