Distorted self-images, and why we need to fix them.

by Ryan Gregory, September 21st, 2012

“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It’s fair to say that Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know yourself” still holds true 2,500 years after it was written. Learning to know ourselves, both physically and mentally, is a major objective in traditional martial arts training. We practice basic techniques, kata, kumite, and bunkai so that we can learn how our bodies and those of our opponents work, and how they don’t. In modern parlance, we would call this developing a good understanding of biomechanics. It’s what allows us to generate maximum power with minimum expenditure, to use an opponent’s momentum and position against him, and to make our movements fast, balanced, and smooth.

We also seek to know and better control our own minds: to become more confident as well as more humble, to overcome (but not eliminate) fear, to push our tolerances for pain, to develop focus and discipline, and to rise above our more aggressive and violent instincts.

It takes a great deal of training, practice, and correction to become proficient in the physical aspects of karate, in part the movements and stances are not intuitive. Of course, the same goes for riding a bicycle, skiing, skating, swimming, driving a car, dancing, and pretty any other physical activity that requires specialized motion. Most karateka become aware of the physical challenge of karate training in their very first class, as the movements that look so fluid when performed by advanced students seem confusing and awkward when the first try to emulate them. This same sensation occurs repeatedly in one’s training, for example when learning a new kata.

No, this isn’t me.

The mental challenges are more subtle, and as such are often less well appreciated. Even as practice allows us to commit to muscle memory the correct placement of the hands, or the proper form of a stance, or the way to execute a certain block, many of us maintain an inaccurate overall mental image of our own bodies. For example, it is common for individuals to underestimate the physical dimensions of their own bodies. (Or, in the case of some eating disorders, they greatly overestimate their own body size). Many of us think of ourselves as being the same as we were as youths. I know that I still perceive myself as the skinny teenager I was in high school and not as the larger than average man that I actually am. It still strikes me as odd when fellow karateka refer to me, as they often do, as “a bigger guy”. Others may have the opposite misperception (or at least behave as though they do), namely thinking that they are much bigger or stronger than they really are. Teenage boys and small dogs — both of whom may feel compelled to challenge nearby alpha males — seem to fit into this category fairly often.

Why does this matter? One obvious reason is that there an inaccurate body image will result in less effective applications of biomechanical principles, which need to be

adapted to each person’s body in order to work. It can adversely impact the performance of basics and kata — for example, if you are supposed to aim a strike at your own neck height, you need to have a proper sense of where that is. Misperceptions of one’s own body can also be dangerous, for example if we underestimate our own size or strength when working with a partner or if we try to move in ways more suited to someone of a different body type.

So, knowing ourselves means developing an accurate view of our own bodies, which is something that takes work because of the various cognitive biases and optical illusions that can engender an inaccurate self-perception. We may hold on to an obsolete self-image despite extensive but gradual change over our lifetimes. Or we may have a distorted view simply because of how we actually see ourselves in a literal sense — for example, because we usually see ourselves from distorted or imperfect perspectives, as in the reflection of a mirror or in photographs, or because we view parts of our bodies from an odd angle that provides an inaccurate perception of relative size.

The same goes for assessing our own skill level, which can be either overestimated underestimated — again, with adverse effects on our martial arts training. In one well-known cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect, individuals possess an exaggerated perception of their own abilities relative to those of others. This is especially pronounced among non-experts, who often fail to recognize the limitations of their own competency. Those with significant skill, by contrast, are often better able to recognize areas in which they require improvement.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

– Charles Darwin, 1871

The pendulum of self-perception can swing from overconfidence to another extreme, commonly dubbed impostor syndrome. In this case, people may undervalue their abilities and attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than skill to the point that praise from others makes them feel like an imposter.

Whether one overestimates their abilities (most often beginners) or undervalues their skills (usually advanced students), this represents another example of failing to know oneself. Again, such distortions can be damaging to progression in martial arts training. An over-estimation of one’s skills may make one less receptive to constructive criticism, or less willing to look for and correct one’s own mistakes. (As an aside, I believe that videotaping oneself while training can provide a much-needed reality check). Insufficient acknowledgement of one’s own skill is also unhelpful, because it may prevent one from taking on new challenges that are within one’s reach. It may also cause one to avoid teaching or demonstrating techniques in front of others, both of which are excellent ways to improve one’s own skills.

Knowing ourselves is a crucial part of studying martial arts — the problem is that we often don’t know just how much we don’t know about ourselves.

Comments (1)

[…] a style, but across dojos within an organization. And, in fact, among students within a dojo. Misperceptions of one’s own ability aside, there can be pretty clear differences in actual level of advancement among students wearing […]

Leave a comment

Your comment