Standing Up to Fear: Why Losing in Competition Can Help Others

Standing Up to Fear: Why Losing in Competition Can Help Others

Over the school holiday break my family and I, along with a large contingent of people from my taekwon-do club made the trek to Sydney to compete in the 7th ITF Taekwon-Do World Cup. I was a late entry (thanks to recent surgery) and so my preparation for this event was far from ideal. The reality was, however, that the chances of this massive event coming so close to home any time soon is remote, so for better or worse, it was competition time. The competition was a massive success for our club and it was a privilege to part of such an awesome team.

Just a little back-story:

As a young martial artist, I didn’t compete. It wasn’t part of our club culture. In fact, it wasn’t permitted. I entered my first TKD competition when I was thirty-one, after a six-year break from training, and less than a year after having had my second baby. I got hurt—no surprises there.

Since then I have entered the odd competition, most of which were club-based. They made me so nervous that I finally decided that I simply didn’t have the temperament for competition. Besides, I was overweight and over-the-hill. It was better to leave the competitive stuff to the young ones.

Back to the World Cup:

After four months off for surgery, I had a mere 3-4 weeks to prepare for this competition and at a reduced intensity, I stood up in front of a thousand competitors and gave it a crack. The results (personally) were as good as were to be expected. I lost my first round of patterns, I lost my pre-arranged (choreographed fight, like in the movies) and I failed to complete any of my board breaks. Bummer.

There were many positives, however: I remembered my pattern and while it wasn’t the best I have ever done I didn’t let my extreme anxiety completely overwhelm me; the pre-arranged was pretty good and pretty fun; my power-breaking was by no means a disgrace. Of all the women that entered across all division only three or four made their breaks. Mine attempts came close and I didn’t injure myself—so I’m counting that as a win. I also got to coach many of my fellow competitors, the highlight of which was being in the coaches chair when my husband smashed his special technique competition to take gold (jumping really high and kicking a target).

At key moments across the tournament I asked myself the question “Why?” Why do I put myself in stressful situations for which I am hopelessly under-prepared, and leading to an inevitable sense of self-disappointment? There are a few reasons:

1: I’m an idiot.

2: My instructor is very persuasive.

3: I am constantly banging on that older women aren’t irrelevant and should put themselves out there more often.

4: To encourage other female members of my club (of all ages) that they should get up and try even if they’re scared. I’m proud to say that our team was almost an even split of female:male competitors.

5: I’m an idiot who doesn’t like to give in.

The highlight of the tournament for me came, however, at the after party.

Imagine this: hundreds of young, fit, competitive athletes who have been training for many months and have travelled from all over the world are finally let off the leash. That’s right, by nine pm the little pub where the function was being held was transformed into a shirts-off, dance-battle mosh-pit as everyone let off their pent-up steam.

As I stood having a few drinks with my friends, a lovely lady who was the ring coordinator for one of the rings I had competed in came up and said hello. She told me that she had enjoyed watching my pre-arranged sparring and that it was exciting to see women actually competing. She didn’t like competing, she said, because she was never sure if she would have an opponent or if her opponent would be twice her size.

And suddenly my disappointment in my own performance didn’t matter.

I had achieved something important and tangible.


P.S. Apparently we are going to compete in the next World Cup: Slovenia 2020 here we come.


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The Case of the Dinner-Time Feaux Pas: Boys, Mess and Feminism

The Case of the Dinner-Time Feaux Pas: Boys, Mess and Feminism

I’m sitting around the dinner table with my husband, daughter (10) and son (8), the way we do most evenings. I interject the usual excited recap of the day’s events with the the usual “finish what’s in your mouth before you speak”, “focus on your dinner” comments. The kids trip over the top of each other to fill us in on the minutiae of their day. It’s pretty standard family evening meal fare, and I have to admit that I’m not really paying attention. There is only so much schoolyard gossip and “Mrs such-and-such says” that I can absorb in a single sitting. I smirk at my husband whose threshold for inane chatter is higher than mine, but even he is at his limit.

“Anyway,” my son shrugs, “girl’s do the cleaning.”

We all stop. Dead. We are the contents of a vacuum seal compression bag and someone has just hit the on switch. My daughter is frozen, mid-chew. It’s hard to know whether she’s angry, frightened of my reaction or a little of both, but she seems to have lost voluntary muscle control of her entire body—except for her eyes which dart between me and her brother. My husband has also stalled. And the 8-year-old boy? He looks at us all as though we have all gone mad.

“What?” he says. “They do.” He follows up his casual observation with another mouthful of dinner as though all is normal in the world.

Someone hits the restart button on the three of us, the three connected to reality, and we all speak at once.

“No, they don’t!”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Excuse me?”

My son shrugs again, “I don’t know. They just do.”

There’s long pause as we all try and piece together where this attitude came from. He isn’t trying to be rude, or inconsiderate. To him it’s just a fact in the same way that (to him) farts are funny or the dog will steal any food the second it is left unattended.

Eventually I say to him, “You cleaned the toilet this morning.”

“Yeah, but that’s only because you made me. I didn’t want to.” As if this solves it. Oh… now I understand. Girl’s do all the cleaning because that WANT to.

My daughter laughs.

“And why did I make you?”

He smirks, “Because I wee’d all over it.”

“Gross,” my daughter mutters and rolls her eyes.

I take a bite of food and look around our large, messy kitchen, dining and living room. The benchtops are covered in jumpers, paperwork, dishes and the kitchen-waste that needs put out in the compost bin. The couch has two dressing gowns, a blanket plus the dog draped across it. I can count no less than four and a half pairs of shoes strewn across the floor and I swear the pile of clothes on the laundry bench is attempting to seep through the door and devour us all, Blob-style.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that you could set a murder scene in my living room:

Two detectives stand surveying the crime-scene. The older, more experienced detective, a woman in her mid-fifties, shakes her head sadly as she takes in the clothes strewn across the room and the food decomposing on the counter-top. [This links to a backstory about a childhood endured in a messy house, courtesy of an alcoholic mother.]

“Poor bloody woman. There are clear signs of a struggle here.” She crouches down and lifts a bloodied blanket off the floor. Something unsavoury lies beneath it.

The other detective sucks in her breath. “An old bowl of cereal,” she says, retching and turning away in disgust.

“There’s more, I don’t think that laundry has been touched in, what, two maybe three weeks. There must be at least twenty pairs of underpants just sitting there on the top of the pile. God knows what we’d find in there if we went digging.” [Socks. So many socks.]


What, I wonder, in the eight years that this small boy has walked the Earth and lived in this house under my regime, makes him think that women do the cleaning? Then, as I look with distaste at the shamble of my living area, that this house and its untidiness is actually a feminist act. Not one that has worked to convince my son that it’s not mine, his sister’s or any other woman’s job to clean up after him, but a statement nonetheless. With that I console myself that he’ll learn, even if he has to scrub that damn toilet every day until he moves out of home.


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Exploring the Fear of Failure/Success Binary on a Rusty Bike

Exploring the Fear of Failure/Success Binary on a Rusty Bike

I’m sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from my kids’ school. You know the type: laid-back tunes piped around a rustic brick room, with polished concrete floors; bespoke, slightly wonky furniture that has been cobbled together from salvage yards and roadside collections; and eclectic jars and pots with cuttings of succulent plants from the owner’s granny’s garden. It’s a surprisingly creative space and I like to come here after I’ve dropped the kids off to reconnect with the adult world. The one that doesn’t involve yelling, begging, huffing and scraping hard-set cereal off the kitchen bench.

This coffee shop backs onto my local bike store, and I have my old (emphasis on old) mountain bike in the boot of my car. It needs some serious repair work and I was hoping to get it up and running. But I’m not at the bike shop. I’m at the coffee shop, sitting on my own, procrastinating. What is that about? I squirm around the uncomfortable knowledge that I’m frightened. Frightened of putting my bike into a bike shop for a service—think about that for a minute. That is all levels of strange. I mean, it’s a bike shop. They fix bikes. They want me to drop my bike in.

So what is it that I’m scared of? My bike is old and I’ve let it get out of shape (hmm, is there metaphor in that perhaps?). I don’t want the man in the bike-shop to laugh at me. I don’t want to be ridiculous. I want to be taken seriously. I don’t want the man in the bike shop to see me as a failure. Wowsers, that is some over-thinking. Yet, that’s how I roll.

My mind jumps immediately to another time I was frightened to face people. A few years ago I got into great shape. I lost twelve kilograms, was exercising heaps and people commented on how well I was looking. But then I didn’t, so I wasn’t.


I struggled psychologically to return to my sport because I knew that my friends at training couldn’t help but notice that I’d dropped the ball, so to speak. I panicked about facing that community again. What would they think? That I was lazy? Greedy? I almost didn’t go back. This speaks to a different fear.

Most people have heard of the fear of failure. It goes along the lines of  “I am frightened of failing, so I won’t try in the first place.” Hand in hand with this is the fear of success: “The more I succeed, the bigger my failure when I fall.” I used to mountain bike all the time, but now the bike-shop guy will think I’m a chubby, useless middle-aged mum. I was slim and strong, now the people I train with will think I’m over the hill and won’t respect me as much. The two feed on each other, and even knowing that these are the thoughts I am projecting onto myself doesn’t stop them from running rampant with my self-confidence.

As I sit in this coffee shop I can’t help but imagine how this self-destructive paralysis plays out in other aspects of my life. How do I overcome it? Try and care less? Push through the fear? Click publish, or send, or apply before my brain has time to wind itself up? People aren’t laughing. People don’t care because, in reality, they are too busy dealing with their own lives to spare much thought for that extra ten kilos, rusted chain or pending job application that seem to loom so large in my thoughts. And if they do care? So what? The challenge lies in pushing past self-doubt, past worrying what other people think, and being okay with showing the fractures in that carefully constructed and maintained self that we put forward to the world.

Easier send than done.


I did take the bike in but sadly its deterioration was terminal.

On a positive note, I get a new bike.


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On Quitting Veterinary Medicine

On Quitting Veterinary Medicine

Most kids go through a ‘I’m going to be a vet when I grow up, because I love animals’ phase. I didn’t that I can remember and maybe that should have been a warning to me that vet wasn’t a job I was cut out for. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my cats with a kind of sycophantic obsession that bordered on pathological, but the job itself wasn’t one that I’d fantasised about. Coming up to the end of year twelve it was obvious that I was going to get a decent enough score to get into something big: law, engineering, OT, physio, pharmacy, dentistry—vet. This was problematic because the competitive nature of my personality made me apply for the most difficult possible courses. (Yes, I did apply for medicine, and clearly no, I didn’t get in. Something for which I grateful every day.) I didn’t have a burning desire to do any course, so because I got the score, veterinary medicine seemed as good an idea as anything else. I adored animals, I liked science and I wasn’t grossed out by blood and guts. Bonus.

My five years studying vet at Murdoch were awesome. It was everything that I’d dreamed university could be. Gone were the flakey pot-smokers and heavy drinkers (I went to a pretty rough high school) that looked down on someone who knew how to spell their own name correctly and in their place were some of the most amazing people I’d ever met, who are still some of the most important people in my life. The course was exhausting, exciting and fascinating. The lecturers and clinicians were in equal measure inspiring, terrifying and objectionable. It was bliss. Everyday I was taught new things, pushed, encouraged and because vets have a unique perspective on the world, my dry and often scathing sense of humour actually made me friends for the first time (instead of solidifying my place firmly on the fringes). It was gratifying to tell people you were studying vet. After all, everyone had wanted to be a vet when they were a kid. They loved animals so much. It must be so satisfying to be able to help them.

They thought you were a little bit special because not only do you love animals but you were dedicating yourself to their health and welfare. It felt noble.

The hours at uni were brutal. The stress was immense. Everything not vet fell away. But the benefits seemed obvious. When I graduated I felt certain that my life was on track and my blazing future in the world of small animal veterinary medicine would be just as fun, and stimulating and exciting as my five years of tertiary education had been. I left uni passionate about my career.

Cue “ba-bow” sound effect.

My first job (after many months of searching for a practice that wasn’t over an hours drive away) was in an extremely busy small animal practice. My boss’s wife informed me early in the piece that I was a girl, and girl’s didn’t survive there. What bullshit, I thought. She doesn’t know me. Didn’t she know that nearly all vets were girls now? (90% or so of graduates). Anyway, I’d survived five years of gruelling study. I could do tough conditions with my eyes open (because new graduate vets don’t sleep). I was terrified of course, but the feminist in me, the arrogant achiever in me, brushed off these remarks and willed myself to do it anyway.

If I thought the hours and load and uni were brutal, I was wrong. My new shiny life as veterinary surgeon meant bigger, longer hours and the responsibility of being in charge. I worked three nights a week on call—and you always got called. At 12-15 hours a day—before you were called back for the emergency caesarian, gastric dilation, poisoning, car accident or my favourite, the midnight emergency toe-nail clip—it was tough.

Then there was the youth bias. I get it, we all have our favourite doctor, and no one wants their precious pet to be treated by the new kid. I almost understood that. I didn’t understand the gender bias. The ‘she isn’t allowed to touch my animal’ (often more sweary than that)—not even to take out some stitches. This was persistent, pernicious and degrading. Between the lack of sleep, the fatigue of the physically and emotionally demanding nature of the job and then the sense that some people were offended by your very presence was exhausting. I cried almost everyday (more even than when I was first at home with kids—I know right?).

On top of this my boss, whether through insensitivity, or his own struggle for survival, was not supportive. It was most definitely a sink or swim scenario. What got me through the day was my amazing colleagues, the nurses and vets who just like my awesome friends at uni, were funny and clever and made going to work possible. One in particular became a mentor and a support structure and without him, I would not have made it out of that place alive. My boss’s wife was right, I couldn’t cut it. It has taken me fifteen years to accept that.

I had other jobs too, after this one. But it was almost as if I’d given my veterinary career everything I had in those first two years and I couldn’t seem to find a way to recharge. Compassion or empathy fatigue is a phrase used a lot to describe the veterinary profession (an industry with one of the highest suicide rates of any profession), because not only do we look after animals, who we can’t help but form an emotional attachment to, but we also look after their owners, guiding them through the often difficult decisions that have to be made during their animal’s lives.

Euthanising animals for me didn’t get easier with experience. Rather, the emotional drain grew, as though cumulative. Successes on the other hand, were accompanied by second guessing and self-doubt. I found I couldn’t sleep if I had a critical patient in hospital, worrying whether I should be doing more. I found justifying the expense of medical treatment on a daily basis impossible. I couldn’t reconcile my ethical objections to hunting and animal cruelty with having to treat wounded dogs who had been gored, dehydrated or otherwise injured on a hunting trip knowing that they would be back after the next one. Then there were the rescues. Every vet practice (not just shelters, though they have it worse) has more “clinic cats” and three-legged adopted pets than they can handle because we just can’t put down another healthy animal. (The feature image of this post is my cat Tuna, who was found dumped on the side of the road when she was ten-days-old.)

When I fell pregnant with my first child after eight years in to veterinary practice I couldn’t wait to quit. That was it. I was out. I could stay at home and look after my baby and I’d never have to kill anything ever again. It was good. People would look at me shocked when I said I didn’t want to go back. “But all that training!” Yeah. Right. They could keep it. I did a few bits and pieces here and there but when my second baby came I knew it was over for real, and I was relieved.

Relived until it was really over. Until I’d let myself get so far out of my profession that I couldn’t go back (not easily anyway). Suddenly, I could no longer say to people “Oh, I’m a vet, I’m just not working at the moment”. I was studying for my PhD, but no one is as remotely interested in feminist fiction as they are about talking to you about their pets. I found my social traction slipping. I wasn’t as interesting to other people anymore. I was a mum (blah!) and a student (double blah!!). Then I felt a tug that maybe I had made a mistake. That maybe I shouldn’t have let my career slide into near oblivion.

Cue identity crisis.

Then I think back to that first job and I’m filled with dread.

It’s not completely impossible to return to vet, I could study more, find some kind-hearted practice to let me ease my way back—it’s all still there, just a bit rusty. But if I’m honest, the fear of the emotional burden of this job is enormous, like a big black cloud. If I went back in again I’m not sure I’d emerge out the other side. And the pay is terrible, so don’t tell your vet you ‘should have shares in this place’ or that they can ‘buy another Mercedes’ with the cost of your pet’s treatment. Chances are, your local vet earns a lot less than you do.

To my friends who are still in the thick of it. You guys are amazing, strong and important.