Who’s in Your Corner?

“Life doesn’t run away from nobody. Life runs at people.” – Joe Frazier

Remember the anger I talked about in the last podcast newsletter? A year ago, Jerry suggested I try boxing: ”Maybe you just need to hit something.” My eyes lit up and something deep in my body yelled “Yes!” The body doesn’t lie; I took that as a solid sign.

I eventually ended up at The Corner Boxing Club, a gym here in Boulder owned by Carrie and Kirsten Barry, two tremendous women who are partners in both life and work. I knew nothing about boxing. Up until then, I was just rolling with the punches of life. If anyone had asked me who was my favorite boxer, I’d have said Jake Gyllenhaal. (I’d still say that.)

There I was, every week, nervous, vulnerable, fighting the fatigue in my body from Lyme Disease, and the awkwardness of learning something entirely new. But you know what? I loved it. After an hour with Coach Carrie I’d leave feeling pleasantly exhausted, entirely sweaty–so alive and downright happy. I blame it on the vibe of the gym they’ve created, and the way their purpose and intention surround that space with an energy that’s all heart. There’s no machismo here. This is a place where love wins. It feels like puppy therapy, only dripping with sweat.

After a few weeks, I could see how the wisdom of the sport could apply to the bob and weave of entrepreneurship. (Carrie shares more of her story and wisdoms in this podcast.) Boxing is a sport of resiliency. Muhammed Ali said, “Inside of a ring or out, there ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”

I began to crave hitting the mitts. Admittedly, the thought of letting out emotional energy by learning how to box terrified me the same way that fully letting out my spontaneity and exuberance terrified me back into the very contained shell of what my amygdala determined was acceptable behavior. Some managing part of my psyche stifled my original impulses. It told me to “tone it down,” “keep it together.” It sounded a bit like ridicule. Sometimes, it sounded a lot like my dad. That internalized voice kept me safe and loved while maintaining my belonging in the family unit. Now, it kept me down. At this stage of the game, it was beginning to feel like a limiting force that I’d prefer to knock out.

This voice showed up big and loud while shadowboxing, in which you spar with an imaginary opponent as a form of training, and amplified the fight between my natural impulses and the governing voice of warning that kept me in my bubble of limited expression and safety. It was beyond awkward. I actually felt mortified–shame–in every round of shadowboxing. I wasn’t fighting anyone, but holy hell there were two heavyweights going blow for blow inside of me. Moreover, someone was winning.

Hello, inner critic. Who invited you into this ring?

(Cue note on the imprinting that shapes us in childhood: “A parent-child relationship provides our first experience of the harmful ways in which conditional and unconditional love get mixed up. Although most parents originally feel a vast, choiceless love for their newborn child, they eventually manage to place conditions on their love, using it as a way of controlling the child, turning into a reward for desired behaviors. The result is that as children we rarely grow up feeling loved for ourselves, just as we are. We internalize the conditions our parents put on their love, and this is internalized parent (the “superego” or “inner critic”) often rules our lives. We keep trying to please it, while it in turn continually judges us as never good enough. So we start to love ourselves conditionally as well.” John Welwood, Challenge Of The Heart)

In the movie Creed, an older Rocky Balboa makes the young fighter Adonis look in the mirror and says to him, “You see this guy here? That’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to have to face. I believe that’s true in the ring, and I think that’s true in life.”

Shadowboxing with our inner critic at large can be brutal, especially when we’re running companies. Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, writes that “Self-criticism is one of the most common obstacles to great performance in any field. It’s often called the silent killer of business, because so many executives suffer from it, yet so few dare to speak out about it. I’ve heard a variety of people, from junior associates to the most senior executives, privately admit that much of their workday was consumed by negativity, their inner critics constantly pointing out their failings, or predicting disappointing outcomes for their projects and initiatives. In some cases, they (and I) were amazed that they got anything done at all, considering that, as one executive reported, ‘Eighty percent of my day is spent fighting my inner critic.’”

My inner critic isn’t saying anything new in the 35 years we’ve been together, but I’m working to gain the upper hand on it. It’s a practice of moving from self critique to self care with my inner dialogue.

Part of that self care is finding myself in my own corner, and in the corners of my psyche where this drama plays out. David Richo offers this practice for working with the inner critic by also finding your inner advocate:

“When you hear the inner critic admonishing, reproaching, shaming, or inhibiting you, do not try to silence it. Instead, use active imagination to open a dialogue between the critic and another voice that you recall from your past or that you are aware of from life experience respond to the critic within. Let this voice defend you, stand up for you, be your advocate. This is your inner assisting force that gives a self-empowering answer to your inner afflicting voice…It is only a matter of letting the kindly voice be heard and letting it gain ascendancy.”

I have incredible coaches in my corner professionally and personally, giving me the solid feedback, a kick in the ass, reminders to get out of my head or cheering when I need it. But the work of finding myself in my own corner requires me befriending myself even more. (“Be mindful of your self talk,” I read on the internet this week, “It’s a conversation with the universe.”)

How is your current level of self advocacy vs. self judgement? How often are you giving yourself gentle/loving awareness vs. critical/judgmental awareness? How are you working to mitigate those voices and parts of yourself that seem antagonistic or misaligned?

While in my learning curve with boxing warm ups, technique and drills–with coordination challenges and seemingly innate bloopers–I hear Coach Carrie say: “It’s just like dancing!” or “If you make a mistake, roll with it. Pretend that’s what you intended to do.” Or, I’ll hear Kirsten: “So you missed a shot. Just keep going. Welcome to the ring.” or “Everyday look in your mirror and say, ‘My name is Ali, and I don’t give two f*cks.’”

Having someone in your corner bolsters your resilience in fortifying ways. You get feedback from a trusted source, someone who sees you and reflects the parts of you that you can’t always see. It’s motivizational. Your crew helps you find the courage of heart to keep going and to find your pluck when you’re against the ropes in life’s ring, or in your own mind. Those in your corner might not have skin in the game, but they got your back through whatever blood, sweat and tears you endure.

Who’s in your corner?

PS. Speaking of getting good folks in your corner, Fred Wilson wrote a great piece last week about the necessity of creating a self-supporting structure as a CEO in the form of a good executive team, a good board, peer support and a coach. “The team around the leader is critical,” he wrote. “… you can’t be a great leader without a great support system.”