I began scuba diving in 2016, thanks to a dear friend who is a Dive Master. Like everyone else, I was a bit afraid before going down into the deep ocean. However, after proper training, I was sold for more and wanted to be a better diver. Doing more diving helped me navigate life also. Especially when dealing with fear, the two basic rules of scuba diving taught me important lessons.
1. First rule: keep breathing.
Whatever happens, under the water we must (MUST!) keep breathing. We sometimes don’t realize that when we become afraid, stressed, or panicked, our breathing becomes erratic. In diving, control of breathing is essential to maintaining buoyancy (balance) underwater. And of course its a very minor fact that you do need the air… This training taught me to be extra aware of my breathing when I am feeling threatened.
2. Second rule: stay calm.
It’s easy to become panicked when afraid, but panicking underwater will create more danger for yourself and for your buddy (dive partner). The first rule of breathing helps to keep the second rule of staying calm. When you are calmer, then you can assess the situation including the fear you are feeling, and decide if it’s illogical, overreaction, or if it is indeed a real threat.
If your fear is a serious threat, then to do nothing is unwise. If its something you can deal with later without too much risk in the meanwhile, then perhaps it is better to deal with it later. This gives you time to see how the situation unfolds. If you realize that you were overreacting or being hijacked by your amygdala, then see if you can continue and carry on with more care and awareness. Later, you can review the situation and see how to prevent that fear from blowing up and controlling or limiting your actions.
I love to plan and make goals, especially at end-of-year time. The reason is because goals help you to measure how your life went this year, review what could be better (or could be worse), and set new goals for the coming year!
In order to increase the likelihood of reaching your goal, make sure that they are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). In addition to these, I’ll share three tips that have helped me in reaching my goals and increasing my performance.
1. Find an accountability partner.
It takes intense amount of self discipline to be able to follow through your intentions daily. If you are an athlete, classical musician, or someone used to being so disciplined, then you won’t have a problem. But if you are not used to the discipline, then daily life can easily distract you. An accountability partner is someone that is committed to hold you accountable to the goals you made yourself. A friend, spouse, or even a paid professional (fitness trainer, teacher, life coach) can help you do this. Simply knowing that someone is watching to see whether you did it or not, will help you to get it done.
2. Divide the goal into something you can do everyday.
For example, in 2021 I would like to be more fluent in Chinese. So my goal is not to be fluent in Chinese, but rather it is to study Chinese language for 10 minutes everyday. I do this on an app called Chinese Skill which has a cute big panda for its cover image.
3. Get the right tools to help you.
In 2019, one of my goals was to exercise more regularly. This goal inspired by a figure I really looked up to. I managed to exercise regularly with an app called Se7en, which creates a sequence of 10-12 exercises that last for exactly 7 minutes. Notice that for my Chinese language goal, I use the Chinese Skill app. Both of them are free, and will show a daily record of the progress. These days just about anything you need will already be available in the appstore, so take a look, try a couple, and settle on whatever works best for you. It might not even be an application, but you will know that best.
Last but not least: remember that the goal is important, but the real victory is in the daily habits you form as a result of trying to achieve that goal. Also known as the process, the know-how, the journey; there are many words for it. all of them points to this: what you learn about yourself through the process of trying.
Ready to set and achieve some goals in 2021? I wish you the best of luck, and a wonderful year ahead.
Up until my my early twenties I was my own worst critic. I had toxic voices in my head which imprisoned and almost destroyed my life. Now in my early thirties, I still hear that voice sometimes. However, through conscious effort, I now have some tools for helping me deal with the toxic voices inside. Here is what I do.
Identify keywords and phrases the toxic voice uses most.
For me, the keywords are “stupid”, “ugly”, and “not good enough.” The phrases sound like this:
I’m so stupid.
I’m so ugly.
I can’t, I’m not good enough.
Then, I looked deeper into the situation which triggered my toxic voice. I realized that in most situations, the intent behind it was really for my own betterment. However, the critic was not trained to frame the response in a more constructive manner.
Analyze the situation and reframe the statement.
“I’m so stupid” often comes up when I am trying to accomplish a task, but failed. Saying the opposite of the statement (I’m smart) will make me feel better about myself. But it still doesn’t solve the issue. Instead, reframing to “I didn’t know this. Where can I find more information about this?” Then try to find out more sources of information to help in accomplishing the task.
“I’m so ugly” comes up when I look in the mirror and see a physical feature that is not Instagram Perfect. This is very difficult, because pictures in social media are often edited and far from reality. To look Instagram Perfect, what I actually need is a crash course in Adobe Photoshop.
So a possible reframing would be making factual observations. For example:
My skin is dry.
I have zits on my forehead.
I have bags underneath my eyes.
Then to help analyze, I ask the question of Why.
Why is my skin so dry? Perhaps I forgot to use my moisturizer. Or perhaps I need a different moisturizer.
Why am I breaking out on my forehead? Perhaps I touched my forehead too much with my fingers.
Why do I have bags underneath my eyes? Perhaps I didn’t sleep enough the last couple of days.
Everything physical has a cause. If I can find the cause, then I can begin to improve the physical ailments.
Dig into the details and then make sure the conclusion is really your choice.
“I can’t, I’m not good enough” is heard when someone challenges me with something, and I am surprised by the challenge. For example, a colleague asks me to present on a certain topic. My first automatic response is “I can’t, I’m not good enough!” But wait. Let me dig deeper into the challenge. I ask questions like:
What is it that I actually have to do?
What would I have to prepare?
How much time will I need to prepare it?
As you look deeper, you will grasp more of the real demands of the challenge. Then, if you end up not doing it, it will be because you choose not to commit to the preparation which was necessary. Not because you are not good enough, but simply because you choose to do something else with that time.
Do you have strategies to deal with the toxic voices in your heads? Share some tips in the comments!
To learn more about toxic voices, visit this article from Psych Alive. If you need a reminder of your self worth, visit this poem which I wrote.
In spring 2008, I won a music competition at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was studying piano performance. Now it is called Calvin University, but back then it was one of the finest private liberal arts school in the States. A liberal arts education meant the school offered well-rounded approach to the undergraduate degree, equipping the student with various disciplines of knowledge not only the major she / he is pursuing. For someone like me, this meant that even though I majored in music, I also had to take classes in world literature, philosophy, sciences, psychology, and even fun sports classes like tennis and karate.
The piece I won with was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major by Dmitri Shostakovich. I worked on this piece intensively with my piano teacher Ms. Hyesook Kim. By intensive I meant 6-8 hours a day, no matter what day, for about a year. I remember one cold winter-and winters are FREEZING in Michigan- when I was practicing with my eyes closed to focus on memorization of the piece. I felt the piano keys getting sticky, and when I opened my eyes I was surprised to see blood on the white keys. My fingers were dry and the skin was cracked. The vulnerable skin must have gotten caught while doing fast passages on the wooden keys, causing them to bleed without my notice. That was how much effort I put into the concerto.
However that year for me was especially meaningful not only due to winning and performing the piece with the Calvin College Orchestra (under the direction of Robert Nordling). It was important because that was the first time I really focused and worked SO HARD on something, with amazing results. For the first time in my life I tasted the feeling of satisfaction and how good it felt to have my hard work acknowledged. “Success breeds success” is a well known Suzuki concept in the music education world. For me, though, the success was more than musical.
For the first time in my life I tasted the satisfaction of having my hard work acknowledged. I had been a bulimic since my junior-high years in Bandung, Indonesia, way back from 2001. I tried to stop, but was constantly met with my own failure. In 2008, my daily piano practice routine was mixed with hours of binging and purging. I go into more detail in another post about my journey of healing, which included loving friends who struggled side by side with me. What I would like to point out here is that my success with the piano concerto boosted my confidence and happiness. The more I played piano, the happier I became. A happy Airin grew to be a strong Airin who would eventually win her 10 year battle with the disorder.
In 2018, exactly a decade later, Maestro Robert Nordling invited me to perform this piece again with the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra in Illinois. The performance is available here for your listening and enjoyment. The blue haired pianist is happy, strong, and very proud of herself.
Do you know what makes YOURSELF happy? Do you remember moments when you were very proud of your hard work?
Ask me how many calories are in a pineapple smoothie. Or a bowl of noodles. Or a blueberry muffin. I can rattle the numbers off the top of my head, because I am obsessed with the food I consume.
There is an app called MyPlate which helps me calculate calories throughout a given day. It breaks down the information to the macro and micro nutrients level, so I can monitor if I had too much of any one element. I then average throughout the week according to suggested health guidelines, factoring exercise and water intake. The result : I never have to guess or worry whether I ate too much. I just look at the record.
This is me now, in my early 30s, implementing some heavy duty Military Discipline.
Let’s rewind back a decade, to a Me in her early 20s.
She’s in the bathroom, kneeling over the toilet bowl. Two fingers are in her mouth, poking her own throat to stimulate gagging. Her stomach complies, and starts to throw up. In reverse order, the Thanksgiving meal came back out. Brownies,pumpkin pie, the meat. The sour cream and chips which were appetizers her American hosts had prepared. They had a tradition of inviting international students over for Thanksgiving meals. Airin was an Indonesian student on F1 visa, studying piano performance in Michigan. Her fingers were long and beautiful – they looked like they were made for the keys.
They didn’t know her fingers were also adept at making her digestive system throw up every meal, every single day. On bad days, she would be hogging the common bathroom. It was common because she always lived with roommates and apartment mates, some of whom noticed very quickly her queer bathroom habits.
Back then, I looked in the mirror and hated who I saw. The binging and purging which started in my early teens stayed with me for 10 years. I had no control over myself, my mind, my eating habits. I lost the daily war with my own beast. And it made me hate myself more.
My saving grace came first in black. Seriously. It was a house mate who reached out to me. She was Ghanaian, and No, I was not participating in any intentional cross cultural living programs, although that semester many eyebrows were raised when I moved in to live with 3 African girls. They were loud, noisy, and laughed so much. They constantly fretted about their hair. My introverted Asian self was thrilled and amused, at the same time thoroughly out of place. We’re friends until now, keeping the Accra – Bandung connection alive via Whatsapp and regular Zoom calls.
She first reached out to me, asking me if I needed help. I denied everything, but she wouldn’t buy it. It also didn’t help that I left my diary lying around – for this I credit myself. At least I wrote. I wrote in my diary, and I accidentally left it on the common kitchen counter. So Ghanaian eyes had solid proof, and her loving heart wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily.
To have other people know my flaws and harmful habits was essential to breaking that hellish prison of the mind. The next semester I started living with other friends- lo and behold fate brought another fellow bulimic. This time I was the one who reached out to her. Together we stumbled, fell apart, held hands, picked each other back up, and began our healing journeys. Our sisterhood held strong over the years until now, across the vast Pacific.
The final unseen, powerful force which carried me to my liberation was Music. With capital M, because I believe Music is is not just sounds, or instruments, or musicians, or microphones. Its more than what you see on stage, on a computer screen, or on a piece of paper. Its more than what you hear with your ears, or through your headset, or blasting through gargantuan sound systems in a stadium.
Its something like the sweat drenching the drummers’ back, the drop of blood from the clarinetist’s lip, or the calloused left fingertips of the cellist. Its something like the chirping birds, the deep notes of the blue whales, the shrieks of the winter wind.
Its something like the silence after Amen, the unheard overtones of the harmonic fifths in the air, the rhythm of the rolling waves.
This Music is the language of the universe itself, and I was so privileged to experience shimmers here and there in my studies as a concert pianist. Being so close to such a force slowly yet steadily awakened my inner voice. The joy of a Bach prelude, the pathos of a Brahms intermezzo, the sublimity of a Beethoven sonata… The time I spent with Music continued to strengthen my inner voice, until I was slowly able to master, love, and be at peace with my one and only, dear self.
Published in FemAsia Magazine July 2020. With thanks to Devika Brendon. Click here to view.