I grew up on the South Side of Johannesburg in government housing (similar to the Projects in the USA). It was very clear to me early on, that how smart you were was irrelevant, and how tough you were was all that mattered. I was a sensitive child, and a creative soul — yet found myself plunged into what seemed eternal darkness. When I wasn’t being harassed by the school bullies, I was planning safe routes to get home by avoiding the neighbourhood gangs. But even once I got home, I wasn’t safe. Physically and mentally abused by my alcoholic mother for most of my childhood, life seemed to have little meaning. For much of my teenage years, I felt alone and misunderstood. I spent countless hours in my bedroom contemplating suicide.
Escaping Childhood Horrors
My escape from the horrors of my childhood came in the form of old Chinese Kung-Fu movies. I loved how the hero of the film, frail, afraid, with no skills to stand up to the bullies that terrorised his village—was able through martial arts training—to become confident, resilient, and fight off the bad guys. It was because of this that I began a deep, rewarding journey into martial arts. I immersed myself in anything to do with martial arts. At first, all I wanted to do was learn how to fight. It was evident to me, that no one picked on the tough kids in my neighbourhood, or in my school. By all accounts I wasn’t one of those kids and I wanted desperately to do something about it.
I started working on my body, and my fighting skills. My strength grew, my confidence blossomed, and for the first time in my life, the awkwardness of living seemed to ease. I remember it like it was yesterday. For years at school I was the target of the bullies. I never fought back, and simply resided myself to taking the beating. In grade 10, I finally had enough. Once again, the bully in my class picked on me, pushing me around, and embarrassing me in front of my classmates. This time however I fought back. My body, what seemed to be on autopilot, lashed out— and to my surprise, in front of me lying on the floor, was the bully that had tormented me for years. From that day forward, as sad as it is, everyone seemed to have a renewed respect for me. Overtime the bullying began to subside.
How You Show Up, Matters
After knocking that bully down, nothing obvious had changed. I was still the same kid I had always been. But something had changed inside. It wasn’t so much that I fought back, but rather how I felt about myself that made all the difference. The way I now carried myself was enough of a deterrent for the bullies to lose interest in me. In the subsequent years I would realise that how you show up really matters. How I felt in my body that day, not only changed my own perception of myself, but how everyone else perceived me as well.
Research backs this up too. For example, in one research study a spot is placed on the wall 20-inches above a persons head. When a person is then asked to stand at a slight distance to the spot on the wall, and to place where their height is in relationship to that spot, most people are relatively accurate. Then some participants are asked to close their eyes, imagine a time when they were in control, confident, possibly in charge of something — and then asked to open their eyes and rate their height. Most people tend to rate themselves higher than they actually are. The reverse is also true when someone is asked to close their eyes, and imagine a time when they were out of control, or someone was bossing them about etc, they rate themselves as shorter. What does this mean? Simply how you feel about yourself, changes your perception of the outside world.
Here is another example from research. People were asked to pull or push a joystick while looking at images either in portrait or landscape. They are then asked not to focus on the picture, but rather if it is in portrait or landscape. For example, to pull on landscape, push on portrait. It turns out if the landscape picture has an image in it of a beer, and you have a drinking problem you will pull the lever quicker towards yourself, and if the portrait picture which is to be pushed away has a beer in it, you push it away slower. In other words the body pulls towards itself what it likes, and pushes away what it doesn’t.
Change Your Body Attitude, Change Your Mind
Much of the literature on success is centered around IQ and the thinking mind, but little acknowledgement is given to the body’s role in success. In other words, your body attitude matters. How you hold your body, not only changes your physiology, it also changes how you think and feel about yourself. Scientists have discovered that some very simple gestures, such as how you shape your mouth, can affect your mental attitude. Bottom line, the fact is while our minds and bodies are different, they always go together.
My realisation that day when I stood up to that bully was that how you show up in the world matters more than what you ‘think’. Thankfully I no longer need to fight back to get the same results in life. I have learned that by simply changing my body attitude, by pulling my shoulders back, walking up right, and making direct eye contact with people – with a smile – is enough to defuse most tense situations. In other words, not only do I feel more confident, other people can see it too.