Muay Thai and My Introversion

I am an introvert. Through and through. A common misconception is that introverts are always shy or have social anxiety, but this is not the case. Introverts are generally people who prefer less stimulating environments, who draw energy from time alone and who tend to listen more than they speak. Extroverts are the opposite. I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking‘ by Susan Cain, which struck a chord with me. Very early in the book, she says ‘at school, you may have been prodded to come “out of your shell” – that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals carry their shelter wherever they go, and that some humans are just the same‘. This was the first of many times that I internally shouted ‘yes!’ while reading this book. As I read on, I became more and more aware of how my introverted personality affects my lifestyle of training and fighting, and vice versa. In this post, I want to talk about that in detail.

I have always been aware that I was very introverted, but it sat in the back of my mind for the most part and was only recently brought to my attention again when I took a trip with some friends who came to visit – something that pretty much never happens. A friend of ours was getting married and everyone in the wedding party got together for a two-week trip. Some of them were people I knew, but there were also a great deal of new faces. Suddenly, I was thrust into a hyper-social situation, and only then did I realise how rarely I enter such a space. My day-to-day life consists of training, working and writing. I keep my social interactions as small groups, usually of 2-4 people whom I like and have common ground with, as that is where I feel most comfortable and operate best. It’s also very important for me to make time for breaks in social activity, where I can spend time alone writing or watching movies. This is how I unwind and recharge. Without that time, I become irritable. So, being constantly surrounded by people for two weeks and not even having a room to myself was a challenge for me. I only realised this after the first day, when I attended a party with all the wedding guests. For the most part, I enjoyed myself. However, as the night went on, I found myself feeling utterly exhausted, from doing nothing but socialising. I felt very out of place and could sense that people were aware of my awkwardness. Even after the first day, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to hide away by myself for a little bit. That night was a shock to the system for me and I suddenly realised how much my introversion affected my emotions and behaviour in social situations and how I had tailored my lifestyle to that.

I’m thankful that my current group of friends understand my introverted traits and are sensitive to them. In the past, there have been some whom not only didn’t understand it, but held it against me and attempted to persuade or even force me to change. They made me feel that there was something wrong with me and that I needed to change. At the time, I looked up to them, wished that I could be like them and was even grateful to them for what I perceived as attemps to help me. Only after pursuing my passion for Muay Thai, understanding and appreciating myself more and subsequently casting those people from my life do I realise how closed-minded and harmful they were.

There has been a recent increase in awareness of introversion, largely due to books like Cain’s. This is great for everyone and it has certainly allowed me to understand myself more and become more confident that not only am I not alone in my introversion, but that it’s something that makes me and that I should be proud of. Through childhood, I was always described as shy, a word which always carried a negative connotation. Through school, every single one of my teacher’s reports said that my downfall was that I did not participate enough in class and needed to speak up and raise my hand more, despite being a good student who always produced quality work. Even in adulthood, I’ve been called ‘cold‘, ‘awkward’,a hermit‘ and ‘anti-social‘, all titles that I felt were rather extreme and not at all representative of my true self. For the first time in my life, I am now proud of my introverted personality. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have graduated with a first class honours degree, I wouldn’t have gone travelling alone, I wouldn’t have committed to Muay Thai so heavily, I wouldn’t be as good a teacher as I am and you certainly wouldn’t be reading this right now – Under the Ropes would not exist.

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Details and Background of my Introversion in Various Situations

Childhood

I always shied away from contact with new people and public attention as a child. I’ll illustrate some examples with some descriptions of memorable home videos from my childhood. In one particularly cringe-worthy video, my siblings are performing karaoke in our living room in front of our parents. It was hard enough to get me to be in front of a camera at all, but impossible to get me to sing, so I adamantly refused to take part. It was insisted that I do the introducing between each song and I even protested that. My twin-sister, who happens to be my polar-opposite, was always fighting to be the centre of attention and was happy to prance around and sing for other people’s enjoyment. You could barely tear her away from the lens. In another home video, we’re playing in the garden with our skipping ropes. My mum is recording and my sister has her face right in front of the camera, repeatedly saying ‘Mummy, look what I can do!‘ and urging her to film while she skips (hilariously, not very well – she kept tripping over the rope and reminding my mum to keep filming until she got it). I stayed far away from the camera, and my Mum pans away from my sister to show me happily skipping away in the background by myself, not saying a word.

Social

In social situations, I often prefer to observe the dynamics rather than to be an active part of the group and there have been many occasions where I’ve felt pressure to exaggerate my positive emotions in order to feel falsely upbeat to cater to those around me. I might only speak excessively when I really feel that I have something of note to contribute. Sometimes, my minimal interaction can make people feel as though I’m not listening or interested. I couldn’t count the amount of times that people have asked me if I’m bored or have showed concern that I might not be having a good time, when I’m perfectly happy and enjoying myself. Admittedly, this is largely due to my bitchy resting face. If you’re not familiar with bitchy resting face, please see the video below. It explains it perfectly.

Emotional

My friends would tell you that I’m not particularly good at communicating my emotions. They’d probably describe me as one of the least ‘soppy‘ or ‘touchy-feely‘ people that they know, and they’d be right. This doesn’t mean that I have a heart of stone, as someone whom I no longer count as a friend would often say. It just means that my means of communication and the realms in which I’m comfortable are different. Towards the end of ‘Quiet‘, Cain wrote about how introverts interact with extroverted partners and the difficulties they tend to face as couples. She wrote about a character named Celia, whose husband mistook her for being cold and uncaring because of her lack of ability to show emotion in a way that he recognised. She wrote that “Celia’s problem was not lack of feeling, it was how to show her emotions without losing control“. I am most certainly Celia. It’s only recently been brought to my attention that I can appear completely indifferent and void of emotion in situations when my inner feelings are the complete opposite of that, purely because of my own methods of communication or lack thereof. It’s something I’m working on. Quite aptly, Cain stated that many introverts have 2 gears: “overwhelming feelings or detached self-possession“. This applies most to me in conflict situations.

Conflict

Conflict is something that I’ve always had a problem with. Whenever it arose, I immediately swerved and avoided it, even at times when I felt really strongly about something and even thought I was in the right. It’s just never been in my nature and I usually have very little interest in causing any kind of disturbance. If I ever am placed in a position of conflict where I have to express those strong feelings, I’m likely to be overcome with emotion and cry before I can finish what I’m saying. Perhaps that’s another reason why I avoid it, as well as the fact that it simply makes me deeply uncomfortable. It should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve never been in anything close to a fight outside of Muay Thai. Cain described another character named Emily, who had similar problems with conflict. She wrote that when disagreeing, “her voice gets tired and flat, her manner slightly distant. What she is trying to do is minimise aggression, but she appears to be receding emotionally”. I am very aware that I do the same thing, and have done since I was a child. In conflict I have often become withdrawn and agreeable as a way to end it as quickly as possible. I just really don’t like to disturb the peace. As a child, if my parents ever left the house, I would have to stay there to ensure that my extroverted siblings didn’t fight because they were almost constantly clashing when they were alone together. I have always valued sympathy over hostility. I think that’s one reason why I find it very easy to live in Thailand. In Thai culture, the idea of ‘face’ is valued very highly and causing one to lose face or feel shame is something that’s taken very seriously. Conflicts or disagreements are often brushed off as unimportant and dealt with using a smile rather than displays of anger. I function rather well in this environment. However, I know that there have been many situations in which I should have stood up for myself and that, as many have told me, I need to learn how to fight back against domineering types, become comfortable with the sound of my own voice and say what I feel. I’ve definitely come on in leaps and bounds with this in recent times and I attribute that to Muay Thai. More on that below.

How my Introversion Affects my Muay Thai

One very specific area of my fighting that is certainly affected by my introversion is the manner in which I receive and interpret certain kinds of instruction from my corner. Experience has shown me that I don’t respond well to aggressive, forceful or negative feedback or instruction. Although some fighters find that this kind of talk makes them energised, more motivated and ‘pumped up’, I find that it has the opposite affect. During the few fights in which I’ve had this kind of cornering, I became withdrawn, doubted myself and shut down. The high level of energy, shouting and aggressive language was over-stimulating and over-whelming and actually hindered my thought process and therefore my performance. I always lost those fights. On the other hand, I have found that I respond very well to calm, controlled and minimal speech from my corner and always shone in fights where I received it. A study by Maja Matarić in which recovering stroke patients interacted with robots during physical rehabilitation exercises confirms that my response is indeed due to my introverted personality. The robots in this study were designed with the ability to be able to judge whether a patient was introverted or extroverted and to respond to them accordingly. Certain elements in the robots’ behaviour were adjusted, including “how far it positioned itself from the patient, the speed of its movements, and its type of communication“. When paired with extroverted patients, the robots moved closer, spoke with a higher pitch and at a faster pace and used more forceful language, such as “You can do more than that, I know it!” and “concentrate on your exercise!”. With introverted patients, the robots stayed further away, used less gestures, spoke more slowly and at a lower pitch with more complimentary and soothing words, like “I know it is hard, but remember that it is for your own good”, and “very nice, keep up the good work”. When the robots acted in a way that correlated with the patient’s personalities, patients were willing to interact with them for longer and responded better. It works exactly the same way for me when I fight.

While many see introverted traits as negative, I do believe that mine yield some very valuable benefits. Earlier, I mentioned the home video in which I’m skipping in the garden, doing so with ease but keeping myself in the background while my extroverted sister struggles to get it right but craves attention at the same time. This may seem like nothing, but it relates to something that Cain described in ‘Quiet‘, where she talked about the idea of introverts being better at committing to and becoming skilled at activities they enjoy.

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The above quote undoubtedly applies to my experience with Muay Thai, too. If it wasn’t for my introverted personality, I don’t think I would have been able to stick at it for as long as I have. It can often be an isolating experience and one that requires a large amount of solo work and restriction of social activities that more extroverted people might enjoy. Extroverted friends, even those who love Muay Thai as much as I do, have often asked me how I’ve done it, implying that it would be too hard for them. For me, it’s not a chore, it’s a privilege.

How Muay Thai has Affected my Introversion

Muay Thai has been a channel for my introversion in the same way that my introversion has affected the way that I train and fight. I’m not sure that I ever felt fully comfortable with myself until I found it, and from the moment I did, it has enabled a lot of personal understanding and growth.

Muay Thai allows me to work and socialise in a way that in which I’m comfortable. When I train, I’m in a relatively small group, working with one other person, such as in sparring or padwork, and spending a lot of time working by myself. It allows me plenty of interaction with others, while also giving me lots of my own space. I do strength and conditioning sessions by myself on Sunday mornings before I go to work, not just because it’s convenient but because the gym is usually completely empty at that time. It’s like some kind of therapy, having that space all to myself and being able to just get to work. I’ve sometimes found myself feeling genuinely annoyed when I’ve arrived to find that there’s someone else already there, although I know in that moment that it’s an irrational feeling. It’s just how I am. ‘Me time‘ is something that’s very important to me and I would go as far as to say it’s vital in order for me to function properly after certain lengths of time, so I am guilty of getting irked when it’s taken away from me.

Muay Thai brought a welcome change to my lifestyle. Psychologist David Buss said that introverts “prefer sincere and meaningful conversations over wild parties” and this is very true for me. As I left my teenage years, I became increasingly uncomfortable in nightclubs and bars, not only because they were sometimes socially overwhelming, but because those scenes just didn’t fit with what made me happy. I would always rather spend time in smaller groups. At that stage, I hadn’t found Muay Thai and was just into general fitness, but even then, I often preferred to be in the gym, something which my peer group never understood and sometimes ridiculed me for. Since moving into a Muay Thai gym, I’ve been able to throw myself into a lifestyle that suits me without those negative influences. Of course, there was a transition process where I was still getting prodded by friends to ‘have some fun once in a while‘. They couldn’t understand the fact that this was my kind of fun. Now that I’m surrounded by like-minded people and opportunities to keep doing what I love, I feel completely in my element.

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Muay Thai has helped me considerably to become more proficient in performing under pressure, something I’ve never been good at. The idea of doing anything in front of an audience, let alone the possibility failing publicly, is something that previously struck fear into my heart and Muay Thai has acted as a tool to fix this.

As I’ve grown in life and with Muay Thai, I’ve learned to become a ‘pseudo-extrovert’ in some situations. The first time I was forced to do this was when I began teaching English a few years ago. Now, when I’m in front of a class, my introverted tendencies don’t show. I’ve learned to perform, entertain and fill the room with my personality for my students. The second time was when I had my first fight. When I’m in the ring, I’m forced to bring something out, to show things I wouldn’t dare to in day-to-day life. This is part of the reason why I love it. Fighting is a form of creative self-expression, one which I’m glad to say has helped me grow tremendously. The quote below from LouAnne Johnson, the teacher and former marine who was portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in the film Dangerous Minds, explains how that has been made possible in a way that I don’t believe I could exceed. I shall leave you with that.

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5 thoughts on “Muay Thai and My Introversion

  1. Great article Emma. I also did an article on being an introvert on my blog 🙂 I know how it is. AND, I have the book “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain” in my possession but haven’t started reading it yet. A fellow introvert gave it to me saying she couldn’t get past the first 50 pages because it was too boring lol. I may give it a read.

  2. Emma this was a pleasure to read 🙂 And you should know that all those things about Muay Thai that fuel and are fueled by your introversion have been a great help and teaching tool for me. Your focus, single-mindedness and dedication to training are inspiring and make you an amazing training partner.

  3. All of this is so true, especially the part where other people don’t understand you and try to “save” you. I can relate 100%. I’ve also noticed that I perform a lot better with positive instead of negative coaching. I’ve never connected that with being an introvert though, I thought it was just the kind of person that I am.

    • I’m glad you could relate, Darina! I used to wonder why I didn’t rise to that kind of negative coaching, like some of my team mates did. It was really interesting to read about that and realise the reason why I react that way, and that it doesn’t make me any less of a fighter! It’s also great to hear from other people in the same boat 🙂

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