What Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Has Taught Me

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is known as the gentle art. It was created by the Gracie family in Brazil in the 1920’s after Carlos Gracie learned Judo from a Japanese judoka. It developed into its own martial art through the years as BJJ evolved and techniques were developed. You might recognize the name or the style if you watch MMA fighting as it is a fundamental part of MMA grappling. 

I started BJJ in 2017 after I moved away from my hometown and quit a job that wreaked havoc on my mental state. The choice to start BJJ was more centered around self-defense than learning a martial art. I was living completely on my own for the first time and wanted to feel like I could handle myself. After some googling, I decided to join the local BJJ gym. I don’t think I knew exactly what I was getting into but I’ve learned a lot in the years I’ve been practicing. The pandemic and a move across the country has definitely slowed my progress, but I still practice weekly in a padded area in my home with my husband who also does BJJ. 

One of the first things you’ll learn in BJJ is get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

My first class I realized very quickly I would need to drop the need for comfort. People will be sitting on your chest, twisting your joints into uncomfortable positions and your face will get squashed into some awkward places. Nothing will feel good, unless you have the upperhand and when you start out, that will be pretty rare. Rolling, which is essentially the ‘wrestling’ part of BJJ, is hard, especially when you start. You’ll be gasping for air trying to keep up, your head will be spinning trying to figure out what you are doing.

As someone who is anxious and worried on a regular basis, this was difficult. No one likes being uncomfortable, but I was the type of person who would avoid so many things because I thought it would make me a little uncomfortable. BJJ has shown me that by putting myself out there, getting in uncomfortable situations, I end up learning so much more and leveling up my discomfort tolerance.

This also means dropping the ego.

When you roll with another person, there is a good chance the person you are rolling with is going to be better than you, strong than you, or even just bigger than you. Starting out, you’re probably going to be submitted a lot. For some, this is a huge ego buster. These people will either quit shortly after or ramp up the intensity in order to compensate. Neither of these groups are doing themselves any good. 

Just like anything, you have to suck before you can get better. The quicker we all realize this fact, the easier it is to be submitted. Because then we know that while it’s fun for everything to click and to be able to submit someone else, we have to lose to learn. Without losing, without being uncomfortable we don’t learn anything. It’s so easy to let your ego get in the way of learning something new and difficult, but the quicker you knock it down, the more fun you’ll have.

Sometimes we are stronger than we realize.

Oftentimes, young women are raised to feel helpless or weak. While my parents never actively did this, I was friends with young women who were taught this and therefore picked up those thought patterns. College definitely started the process of breaking those thoughts, but BJJ really showed me I am stronger than I realized. 

BJJ’s main focus is typically physics. Using momentum and angles in order to gain control or submit your opponent. It’s the kind of martial art where smaller people can submit larger people simply through technique. Because of this, I’ve learned that not only do I have more physical strength than I realized, I can handle myself among people bigger than me. I can handle myself in a situation where I could easily panic, but instead have learned to remain calm and quickly analyze my options.

To get to that point, you need to focus on the process, not the results. 

BJJ can be a long and arduous journey. It’s not like other martial arts where you test every so many months or weeks and get awarded a new belt color. Instead, many BJJ schools award their belts as they see fit. It can take years to move from one color to the next, take a decade or more to go from white,the lowest, to black, the highest. And oftentimes, you have no idea where you are in your coach’s eyes as far as progress goes.

Learning to focus on the process of learning BJJ rather than trying to achieve a belt will enhance your experience. You’ll have taken away another aspect of ego from the sport. Frequently people will quit because they can’t measure their progress or they feel they aren’t progressing fast enough to that next belt. This type of focus can mean your progress will stagnate. By only worrying about your next achievement you miss the learning that could be done in that time.

Also, remember that showing up is half the battle of learning something new. Just being there, getting yourself out the door, on the mat or whatever it may be, is the biggest, most important step you can take.

In the end, while I am no expert at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I can say that it has taught me a lot. I encourage you to check out your nearest BJJ gym and see what it can do for you.

Why Self-Help Doesn’t Work

So many of us love self-help. We ravenously consume the latest and greatest, hoping that with every page we read, we will become a better and better person. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably experienced the moment when you realize, “Wait, nothing has changed despite having read all these articles and books”. Now sure, some of you out there will have taken these books and become a better person, which is great. But I can bet that there are many of you out there that have wondered this same thing. 

So what’s happening? Well a few things. Have you ever noticed the content feeling you get after deciding to chase after a goal or how good it feels to make a to-do list for the next day, the decision that tomorrow is the day that everything changes? It feels great! It feels so good to say to yourself this is it, this is the moment that I’m going to be different.

But then you wake up the next day, look at that to-do list and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?”. Sometimes we can get started and keep the momentum going through the next day, or maybe even a few days, but for many, the momentum doesn’t carry us very far.

When we read self-help books, they elicit a similar response, we resolve to do better and are inspired to be successful. Many times though, that’s as far as it takes us. What’s happening is a brain response that creates a feeling similar to the one we get when we accomplish something. Essentially, we feel as though we’ve done something and therefore do not need to continue.

What I liken these responses to is a study done by Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues where they examined what happens when we announce our goals and the effect that has on our goal completion ability. 

This study looked at individuals pursuing higher education. The students were given a questionnaire regarding how they felt about their chosen field and their intentions in pursuing this field. There were two groups that answered this questionnaire, one whose intentions were recognized and those whose intentions were ignored. 

The study found that those who had their intentions recognized regarding their field worked less than their ignored counterparts. Those that had been recognized were more likely to end their studying early and feel a sense of completion sooner than the group that had their intentions ignored. Having our goals affirmed by others makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, leading to an internal sense of accomplishment.

I know for myself, I can create this feeling all on my own. Sitting down and reading an inspiring and interesting pop psychology or self-help book honestly makes me feel accomplished. Watching motivational Youtube videos? Yep, same thing. I feel as though I’ve done something, my brain rewards me with a rush of dopamine. All the while, I’ve accomplished nothing. 

This is why it’s easy to get in this self-help, motivational loop. We’re seeking that next hit to make us feel good, make us feel accomplished. We read another book, watch another video, make another list. All the while we’re accomplishing nothing.

What needs to be cultivated is self discipline. Self-help books can provide a framework, but they will not put the work in for you. Sometimes the books we read provide us with really great advice or anecdotal evidence we can take and apply to our own lives. More often than not, we don’t do this. Being able to put into practice all the information we’ve gleaned on how to stop procrastinating or how to save money, would lead to more success than just reading it and hoping it somehow changes your life.

Self-help books won’t help you unless you act on them. We all want a quick fix, a quick change, instant gratification. We are hardwired to find the easiest way to do something. We’re also hardwired to seek out things that make us feel good. Videos, books and articles won’t do the work for you, but they’ll make it feel like you’ve done the work. If you find yourself reading all these motivational, inspirational, how to improve your life books, but you don’t see any change, it’s time to rethink your strategy. Maybe these books actually do nothing for you and that’s fine. Maybe these books could do something for you, if only you put the work in.

Take a step back next time you put on an inspiring video or read an article on how to study better and ask yourself, “What can I take away from this?”. Then work to apply it. See how different things in your life will be once you are able to self-reflect in this way.