Taking up martial arts, business, or anything else that takes you out of your comfort zone can be one of the best things you do.
But it also has a dark side that sabotages all joy and love in your life.
In this episode, you’ll discover the danger of being too driven in fighting, business, and life. And some easy tweaks you can make to ensure your happiness and fulfillment.
Listen to the episode now.
Show highlights include:
- The insidious way your subconscious passes down your deepest, darkest fears to your children (4:37)
- How turning off your empathy sabotages the joy in your life (even if you need to turn it off to thrive) (11:05)
- Why having an alter ego for your job can cripple your self-esteem (18:21)
- The toxic “Method Acting” psychological glitch that nukes your happiness (20:49)
- The poisonous “Psychic Separation” trap that leads to burnout and addiction (and how to prevent it) (22:14)
Does your neediness, fear, or insecurity sabotage your success with women? Do you feel you may be unlovable? For more than 15 years, I’ve helped thousands of people find confidence, fulfillment, and loving relationships. And I can help you, too. I’m therapist and life coach David Tian, Ph.D. I invite you to check out my free Masterclasses on dating and relationships at https://www.davidtianphd.com/masterclass/ now.
For more about David Tian, go here: https://www.davidtianphd.com/about/
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Note: Scroll Below for Transcription
Welcome to the Masculine Psychology Podcast, where we answer key questions in dating, relationships, success, and fulfillment, and explore the psychology of masculinity. Now here’s your host, world-renowned therapist and life coach, David Tian.
David: Welcome to the Masculine Psychology Podcast. I’m David Tian, your host.
In the previous episode, we were looking at the therapeutic value of martial arts, and I covered four points about the virtues, especially perseverance, integrity, and self-control, that are embedded in traditional martial arts and that are carried over in, I don’t know what to call it, respectful martial arts, whether they’re MMA, Muay Thai, BJJ or something along those lines.
The second point being the importance of skill over raw talent or raw athletic abilities, the third as a way of instilling a habit or practice of facing your fears and facing danger and risk. Then the fourth is the importance of long-term training and discipline, and the rewards that come with that. [01:07.8]
Overall, training in martial arts as a natural way of developing confidence, courage, self-control, and instilling self-reliance, and this being a natural way of showing your more vulnerable parts—the parts of you that might have been instilled in fear of being bullied or carrying over that terror of being bullied or abused as a child or a teenager—and showing them that you’ve got it, that you can handle yourself, that you can, over the long term, learn the skills of being effective in defending yourself from bullies or aggressive people who are out to do you harm, so that these more vulnerable parts can lean into and relax into their trust in you that you’ll be able to take care of them and protect them. [02:03.1]
This is especially important if you’ve suffered from any bullying or any abuse, and it’s especially important if you’ve suffered from abuse as a child, and it’s important that you get help therapeutically.
But then it’s also important that you follow through, through behavioral treatment or behavioral conditioning, or behavioral therapy, and martial arts done properly can be a really effective and enjoyable way of doing that that has a whole host of other benefits beyond just the therapeutic ones. But, obviously, the ones that are more obvious are self-defense, in addition to health and fitness benefits.
Now, in this episode, I want to nuance it even more and develop this even further. Assuming you have started your martial arts journey, some of the parts that you have that resist starting it might be those that are afraid of violence or aggression. In the last episode, I addressed the crucial distinction between aggression and assertiveness. That’s important, so you want to review that in the last episode. [03:06.5]
That’s important to point out to them that you can be somebody who is or could be physically dangerous, in the sense that you could defend yourself legally, if needed, but also, at the same time, be a person of compassion, of connectedness, of calm, and of clarity that it’s both/and, not either/or.
Now, I’m going to say some things in a way that speaks directly to the martial arts example here in this episode, but in the broader sense, I’ve devoted multiple hours, several hours, to unpacking this from a psychotherapeutic perspective ,and also providing guided meditative exercises to help ingrain on the one side, compassion, connectedness, calm and clarity, and on the other side, both sides of the polarity, on the other side, this kind of killer instinct, this kind of powerful assertiveness, and the ability to defend skillfully and effectively with power and with precision, integrating both sides of that. [04:10.7]
I’ve created psychotherapeutic processes for this in my course, “Rock-Solid Relationships” and “Masculine Mastery”. You can get that separately or you can get a as part of the “Platinum Partnership”, and so I devote several hours and multiple modules to this because it’s so important, especially in the context of an intimate relationship for the man or for the masculine side of the relationship, and it’s even more important as you bring up your child. Over time, this becomes even more and more important in the relationship and as you create a family.
Whatever fears that you have in your masculinity, the fear of bullying, the fear of confrontation and all that, that gets passed down to your children unconsciously or maybe consciously, so you’ve got to pay attention to that. The consequences are not borne just by you, but also by your children who will be looking to you as the main model for their view and the worldview of how the world works and their place in it and how to be in it. [05:09.8]
There is a way to be both warrior and someone who is full of compassion and connectedness, and calm and clarity, and this highlights a common myth that I especially heard in the ’80s as a kid growing up, being a martial arts enthusiast back then, but even now among those who are kind of maybe in the New Age movement or from some psychotherapists who think that martial arts is about violence or that it’s about this kind of out-of-control aggression.
Violence or out-of-control aggression. That’s actually not martial arts. That might just be street fighting or just fighting, and there are some forms of this that you could train in, I suppose, that just train you to be just aggressive against all-out aggression against a mugger or something, which, if you have no skills at all, is better than nothing, I suppose. [06:02.2]
But it’s even better to have skills that you can control, like skills under your control, so that martial arts, by definition, is the opposite of out of control. The whole art part of it, the whole skill part of it, is that they’re teaching you to be in control, and the aggression, depending on how you define it, the way I’m defining it as opposed to assertiveness is not a necessary part of it.
In fact, if you become angry and you become full of rage, and you’re fighting somebody who has some skills and maybe even who is a little calmer than you, you’re going to open yourself up to all kinds of counterattacks and just get sloppy. There are so many examples of this in pro fighting of the counterproductive result of losing it, of becoming full of rage and anger, and being out of control. [06:56.4]
Being out of being out of control, rarely, if ever, serves you in a real fighting situation, unless you have no skills and just out-and-out aggression is all you’ve got going for you, which can just scare your opponents or the mugger or whatever and scare them off or just overwhelm them by surprise.
But that’s not a great strategy in the long run and that’s what martial arts teaches. The whole point of martial arts is that it’s an art that involves training and practice and skill, so it’s actually teaching control. It’s not out-of-control violence or aggression. Just putting that myth aside.
If you’re still curious about what martial arts might be and what you could get out of it, that’s what I focused the last episode on, so go to that. I do want to point out that I have therapeutic processes and have created multiple modules of multiple hours of material, unpacking this dynamic in my courses, “Rock-Solid Relationships” and “Masculine Mastery”. [07:52.6]
Okay, so I’ve got three points to share here with you and I’m just going to dive right into the first point. I’m going to focusing on this as an example, this case of pro fighters, because it’s the most stark when it comes to them in their career, but there are many people who will resonate with this who are in business, or maybe in sports or arts or music, and they might have a similar problem that they’ve discovered in their approach to the activities of their career. But with pro fighters, it’s really a catch 22, so I’m going to focus on them, but to a certain extent, this might be true of you if you’re in some other field or industry.
Okay, so what’s the problem that I’m pointing out here? When it comes to professional fighters, those who spend and devote themselves to professional fighting, prize-fighting, as a career, not just those who teach it, but those who actually are fighting for a living. Okay, in those cases, you’re an active professional fighter.
What I’ve discovered, and just from my own personal experience, not as a pro fighter, but just in training in pro gyms, talking with and getting to know pro fighters, is that often it can be beneficial to turn off your empathy with your opponent. [09:14.8]
I’ve discovered this in my own life here. I’ll just give you an anecdote. When I first started training in a more serious manner in Muay Thai—more serious in the sense of not just hitting pads and kicking or hitting the bag, but also sparring like sparring pro fighters or those who compete regularly—is that I was, in general, had a kind of knee-jerk empathy.
I had already become a therapist as one of the main things that I’d do during the week, and I’m constantly entering empathy as a default state, and I discovered this when a one-on-one trainer that I had, the best trainer so far in my life, we’d spar and, of course, he’d bring his level down to me to match mine. [10:02.3]
If I get a clean hit, I would just automatically say, “Oh, sorry, man.” I’d hit him, punch him in the face and “Oh, sorry,” almost like a knee-jerk reaction, and he would just keep saying to me, “You don’t have to apologize for a clean hit.” Then, “Oh, sorry.” I’d say sorry again that I screwed that up. I’m just constantly [repeating it]. I’m effective. I’m staying calm, relatively, and collected, and that was part of something we trained to not have a panic reaction when someone would catch my kick.
That was something we trained over and that was something I discussed in the previous episode, training perseverance, facing your fears, getting slammed down on the ground and not panicking. Then just also training out of you the reflex reaction of flinching when you have a punch coming right at your eyes, so we train in that.
But then I have this other psychological reaction of apologizing whenever I hit somebody in the face, and then just being in a kind of “Bro, hey, let’s have some fun here,” and that’s great if it’s just sparring and light sparring, especially. The other guy feels a lot safer if I’m apologizing every time I hit him. [11:04.8]
But then I was told in between rounds, “Turn off your empathy, David. Turn off your empathy,” because they actually don’t want that. What they want is just you want to have a kind of neutral [attitude]. You don’t want to be angry, and no aggression and no hatred or any of that against your opponent. That can be counterproductive, because you’re just going to swing wildly and you’re going to rush in and open yourself up to a counterattack.
But then you also don’t want to be like, Hey, let’s hug it out too much. That was my thing. It was almost like a bonding experience, having fun with all of these guys. It was, especially in BJJ, like, Hey, that was fun. With BJJ, it’s almost easier because you’re now in a dominant position, you’re applying the choke. You can do it slowly and you could also say, “You’d better tap. You should tap,” the kind of thing I would say, because I don’t want to actually put this guy out, right, so I’m giving him lots of opportunity to tap. I’d appreciate it when the other guy said that before he’d apply a leg lock or something that takes a little while, a few seconds too late probably for a beginner to register that I’m in trouble. They’d give me a warning like, Okay, you need to tap now, and I appreciated all that. [12:07.4]
But when it comes to a pro fight, I’ve discovered just through my level of basic beginner sparring, that it’s actually counterproductive to have too much empathy, so I was having to practice turning off my empathy—and you know what? It didn’t feel that great. I didn’t like that so much. I didn’t enjoy the sparring as much, but I did learn to tone it down, to turn it down.
It helped when we were just focusing on leg attacks and body attacks, because I don’t know, I’d just have more of a reaction to punching somebody in the face than I’d do with leg kicking them or something. We’re learning to turn up the intensity on the legs and the body, and then trying to match that, getting up to 50 percent from, let’s say, 20 percent strikes to the face. I’m still working on that, just working on turning off the empathy for three to five rounds for that day, just reflecting on that and then just doing a lot of research into what happens with pro fighters. [13:06.7]
Just pointing out that the fighter can’t get away from that. You want to just kind of be a neutral machine almost, right? When you enter the ring, it’s not a sparring situation anymore, and in a pro MMA fight, you could actually kill someone if you go too far and the ref doesn’t stop you. Having the calm, clarity and wherewithal, and that kind of state of mind, too, when you see your opponent is out and not responding before the ref does, not putting in those final killer blows.
This is a lot more common, by the way, it seems to me in the Asian fighting context, like ONE FC or in old-fashioned Muay Thai—I don’t know, I shouldn’t say old fashioned, but traditional Muay Thai—than it is in the UFC, which has a lot more of the toxic machismo in it, that kind of restraint on the part of a fighter at the end of the fight when there’s a knockout or submission. [14:03.0]
But that is a necessary part of fighting, because pro fighting is actually emulating a real fight, for real, and that’s part of the reason we like to watch it because that’s the closest we can get as spectators to a controlled fight. This is something that, I know, plenty of New Age pacifists and some bleeding-heart therapists won’t understand and I think, like I explained in many episodes, part of it has to do with their own shadows that they have not come to understand or integrate more deeply. But this is a real problem for pro fighters.
Now, if you’re in business, you might think you’re in the same situation and that’s the situation of a client that I had named Donald, and I’m going to tell you more about Donald towards the end, after I go through the three points.
In business, he thought he couldn’t let up that he had to have that killer instinct to go for the blow, go for the jugular and not point out the advantages that he sees and the disadvantages in his competitors, and to just go for it and wipe the competitors out. Then he was wondering why his personal life was a mess and that, coming up to 50 years old, he had still not found fulfillment or peace, despite all of this worldly success he had accomplished. [15:15.8]
Pro fighting, I mean, you can look at it as a sport, and in that sense, being a professional footballer, especially in American football where you’re running into each other and tackling each other, is a very confrontational sport, and if you have too much empathy, it might make it very difficult. Especially if you’re on the frontline of attacking or defending, it might make it difficult to take out the person opposite you, the opponent. [15:42.0]
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This leads into the second point that often, what I’ve discovered, it has been beneficial to create an alter ego for the pro fighter, and the alter ego is like another name. That’s why almost always you have fighters who do very well, who have like this middle name that they’re known as, and then Bruce Buffer shouts it out in the middle, right? And that becomes like your alter ego when you walk in that ring or the octagon there, right? You become this other character and allow that character to take over.
It’s really beneficial that way to kind of offload this anger and to make it okay with this alter ego to take that role. You’ll find this same thing in sports, in arts, especially in music. We know a lot of these alter egos’ names like Sasha Fierce for Beyoncé. [17:13.3]
In a way, Beyoncé, just that one word, is a kind of alter ego, I’m sure, versus the person she is at home with her kids or whatever, with her husband. Almost always, these guys have another [alter ego]. Eminem is an alter ego, right? Prince is an alter ego. There are many of these.
If this is part of your job, it might be beneficial for you to get that separation between your private life and the public face of what you need to do, especially if you’re a pro fighter, because you’re need to turn off the empathy if you’re somebody like me or maybe toned down the anger and aggression to have a kind of neutral alter ego to take over that fight.
From an IFS perspective, this is a part that you’re allowing to fully inhabit this role and it might even be multiple parts that are working together for the five rounds or the 25 minutes or the one hour, depending on what fighting sport you’re in to kind of take over. [18:13.7]
Now, the beautiful thing about alter egos is, you know that it’s an alter. You know that it’s not your true self. What is toxic for false selves—and I’ve done many videos many years ago on this—is that especially in pickup, people develop alter egos, like I had one called the Rake. In fact, I had a URL called “Asian Rake” because I was just on a whim. I just liked the character of the rake, the persona of it, and that was my main one. It wasn’t the only one. I had a charismatic. I had a dandy. I had all kinds of other personas that I was working on and that I developed, but the rake was sort of like a default.
What’s dangerous in the pickup context is that you think that that is you now, because it’s either the rake or whatever your pickup persona is, this confidence, suave, dashing, or however you look at it, charming, charismatic you versus the nerdy, awkward, socially-anxious you. You want the nerdy, awkward loser you, so to speak, to disappear and go away and then be just and only the pickup you. That’s when it gets dangerous. That’s the false self. [19:16.3]
But if you know that that’s an alter ego, then there’s really nothing wrong with it, if the alter ego is happy in that role. If you have a part of you that just loves to fight and doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy for the opponent, but also doesn’t have anger and hatred for the opponent, it’s just another challenge—and you just love the skill of it and the feeling of it, and there are all kinds of other things that people love, and the intrinsic pleasure of the movement of the challenge of the fight—then it can be helpful to just give them a name.
Giving them a name helps you to externalize it to enough of a degree that when you step down from the fight and you come down from the ring, you can then tell that alter ego to rest. “Okay, now you can take a break.” [20:00.8]
Then maybe it’s another persona that handles the media, but whatever it is, eventually you get home and you can let go of all of these other masks that you were wearing for those particular contexts and specific situations, and be the compassionate, connected, calm you that you are around your kids and your wife. Then, also, a kind of leadership through your true self can also know that you are the leader of the alter ego that will handle the fight.
I can’t remember which fighter it was. I think it was relatively recent, sometime in 2021 when I heard it in an interview. I think it was Justin Gaethje who was talking about how he can’t do short notice fights very well because it takes six to eight weeks to enter into the persona that’s required, the sort of killer alter ego. It’s sort of like method acting, right?
It’s actually a lot like method acting where you’re entering a role and you’re inhabiting this role, and that becomes a role that maybe isn’t great to be around at home for dinner, but it’s what’s necessary for that fight. Just even putting it that way, it’s not great for your personal life. It’s great in the ring, but it’s not going to be great for a date with your wife or, especially, a play date with your kids. [21:15.0]
This is what brings me to the third point, the third point being, if you don’t manage this well, you’re going to experience a lot of burnout in the long term and a lot of toxic inbound.
Now, what I’ve discovered is that there are fighters who have transitioned successfully because their alter ego kind of retires or takes on a new role of a coach very often for the ones that are successful, and enjoys coaching and doesn’t need to seek the glory or the high of the pro fight again.
But I’ve also seen, more commonly, people who become coaches or trainers because they just age out of being a pro fighter and this is the easiest career to move into, to just be moving into the coach trainer role. But they don’t really embrace it as their identity anymore and this alter ego is not well-managed. It’s not fulfilled. Its needs are not met and it wants the glory again, because that’s driven by significance and it seeks significance from winning. [22:09.8]
That’s something that is a burden that, if you don’t address it through therapy, you will experience some long-term burnout. You’ll experience psychic breakup or psychic separation where there’s going to be a lot of internal conflict.
Then, of course, that will reflect in your day-to-day life as a kind of toxic imbalance in your life, and you might end up distracting or numbing through alcohol or sex or drugs, or just acting out and maybe getting back in the ring in your late-forties or sometimes I’ve seen in guys in their fifties, fighting opponents who are in their twenties and getting knocked out horribly and just not being able to walk gracefully into retirement. The result is this long-term burnout, if you’re not managing the persona. [22:54.8]
So, layers to this, right? Each of my points is a layer. The first layer is just recognizing that it is not helpful to bring especially therapist parts into the ring, into a professional ring, but also any parts that are feeling a lot of empathy, but that we need the empathic parts in our day-to-day lives to find happiness and fulfillment, and joy and peace, and calm and love. It is not practical to walk around all the time with the mindset of a pro fighter, but it’s necessary if you are, in fact, a pro fighter for that period of time.
Then, for that period of time, just kind of recapping the points, the second point being it is helpful to see it as a development of an alter ego or a persona, but also seeing it and recognizing that it is not your true self and that’s okay. Sometimes it can get toxic often if this is your first time just creating an alter ego out of scratch. You probably already have one or are inhabiting one and now you’re just giving it a name. It’s very likely this alter ego needs to have some therapeutic work around it, if you’ve never done that before. [23:54.4]
I highly recommend my courses, “Rock-Solid Relationships” and “Masculine Mastery” and/or, alongside that, getting a private therapist, depending on how severe this is, and then helping that alter ego or the persona, the part of you that enjoys the fight and the intrinsic pleasure of it, to be able to relax when it’s not needed and to not need or to meet its needs for significance and worthiness in ways that are healthier in the long term.
Then that leads to the third, which is preparing for retirement. As a pro fighter, you’re going to need lots of mini-retirements between fights. You’re going to need to get good at turning it off, just like a method actor, when the movie has ended or when you yell cut, you’ve got to go back home, to be able to turn it off, to not get lost in the character forever, to be able to turn it off like a faucet and re-enter civilian law life, so to speak.
Then retirement and having a happy retirement, and having these alter ego parts happy moving into these new roles, or even for a while, just retiring for a number of years or months and just resting, and then moving into new roles that fulfill them. [25:04.0]
That’s something that you discover through a therapeutic process of really getting to know these parts as some personalities of yourself. This will protect you from that toxic imbalance and a life of a sort of neurotic psychic split of inner conflict.
Okay, I mentioned my client, Donald, and he was experiencing this in the context of his business and, in fact, when he came to me, had alter egos in his various businesses. He owned more than one business and was managing more than one at a time, incredibly busy, and when we started the therapeutic work, it was around the fact that he’d never had a successful relationship. They just never worked out and he had this kind of avoidance strategy around them, and that has led him to seek me out.
Our first sessions were very difficult for him in between sessions, because what he discovered was, because he’s so bright and so gung-ho, and relatively open minded to go with it, he would experience a lot of compassion for his parts, but then he’d have backlash from these protector parts who were afraid that take this empathy into his day-to-day life after the session. [26:11.5]
They couldn’t allow any kind of slack. They couldn’t allow any kind of relaxation, because their fear was, if they relaxed, then they would lose their competitive edge. A big part of what we did was just earning their trust. Then we moved away from the vulnerable ones and focused on these protectors who, when we first started in the first couple sessions, were in the background because they’d fully bought into intellectually the benefit of this in their personal life, especially in their relationships.
They wanted to have a steady source of sex that came from a relationship, but then they didn’t want the vulnerability that comes along with that. Hence the avoidance strategy later on in a relationship.
Then, instead of focusing on them and getting to know their fears and insecurities, ultimately it goes back to insecurities about worthiness, so we’ve addressed a lot of that in many of my episodes on entrepreneurs and on achievers, and that’s where that is. [27:04.5]
It has this connection to the pro fighters’ quandary, but it’s actually a lot easier and more straightforward to address because these are achiever parts and entrepreneurial parts that have their worthiness tied up with their accomplishments and don’t believe that they have any worth outside of what they can do for others or create in terms of business. Then if you have achiever parts that are akin to these business parts in my client, Donald, it’ll be similar.
But for pro fighters, just pointing out, you’re literally getting paid to fight somebody and you really have to turn off that empathy in order to react quickly, and it’s even harder for pro fighters, what I’m pointing out. That’s why I’m dedicating this episode to them, and so for them, the question is how they can transition these fighting parts, warrior parts, into a graceful retirement or into a graceful long-term role that will be more fulfilling and sustainable. [28:03.0]
But for Donald, what we did was just to really focus on these protector parts around his business and entrepreneurship, and as they were able to trust Donald more and more over the months, he was able to relax a lot more and then the material in “Rocks Solid Relationships” really kicked in to help him see the benefits of love and joy, and that that requires vulnerability, so that they could buy into relaxing enough to allow Donald to love them actually and for them to feel that they are loved, not just for what they can do, but just for the fact that they are, that they exist. As they were able to take that in and really have that sink in for them, the more and more they were able to relax into being vulnerable in an intimate relationship. [28:48.3]
Now Donald is in an intimate relationship and is very happy with his girlfriend in the relatively early stages of their relationship, but it’s really nice to see how, when he’s feeling those avoidant urges of clamming up and not sharing, he’s able to speak to those that are doing that and let them remind them that he’s there, that he loves them, that they don’t need to feel insecure about their worth, and then they’re able to relax again. It’s a process over time, but it’s going well for him so far and he has got the tools to continue to grow in that area.
In the next episode, we’re going to be covering how to best enjoy life or what I call “the art of loafing” and the importance of having leisure and the art of living, what living really means. If that intrigues you, because it leads in from, okay, so I’ve got these fighting parts, but is fighting and struggle, what life is really about? Is that going to lead to a life well-lived? That is a very good question and the question of our next episode, so come back to that. Come back to the next episode to explore that with me.
If you like this episode, please share it with anyone that you think would benefit, and give us a rating on Apple Podcasts and subscribe to this channel on whichever platforms you like, and I look forward to welcoming you to the next episode.
Thanks so much for listening. David Tian, signing out. [30:08.3]
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