The Pain of Not Belonging

I listened, recently, to a book about how women are mostly concerned/afraid about protection and men are mostly concerned/afraid about feeling shame. There was interesting research into how babies,...

I listened, recently, to a book about how women are mostly concerned/afraid about protection and men are mostly concerned/afraid about feeling shame. There was interesting research into how babies, just naturally, fall along the male/female line in tendencies to maintain or break eye contact. Because female babies can maintain eye contact, their caretakers gaze into their eyes lovingly for long stretches. Because males don’t maintain eye contact well (although after looking up or down or away, they do return to eye contact) their caretakers also look away. When the little boy returns his eyes to the caretaker and that person is no longer looking (even if they look back soon), the babies develop the feeling for shame. Likely due to these same inborn tendencies, females (and those socialized as girls) have much greater investment in social connection. Social connections offer protection; networks can provide resources, allies, comfort, etc.

Unfortunately for me, I have been socialized as a girl in the world and absolutely fear for my safety in a fairly average way, but I also carry a hefty dose of fear of shame, just due to the conditioning of my particular upbringing. Fun.

For the past few years, I haven’t had the kind of training that I spent the previous 6 years in Thailand developing for myself. This was largely due to Covid restrictions, shut downs, and consequences of those limitations on the practice and performance of Muay Thai led to a lot of fighters retiring and finding work elsewhere. So, the fight scene changed and gyms changed. Gyms change all the time, it’s part of the nature of their existence. And most gyms will have a peak and then decline; you can happen to be at the gym while it’s climbing, when it peaks, or in its decline. Or, if you stay long enough, be there for all of that. When I first arrived in Chiang Mai and fought out of Lanna Muay Thai for 2 years, I was there for its decline. I didn’t know any different, and ultimately that gym doesn’t exist anymore and a new gym bares its name and is experiencing its own trajectory. When I came to Petchrungruang, 2 years into my now nearly 11 years in Thailand, it was still in its peak. I’ve now stayed long enough to suffer its decline, which is just how it goes. Fruit ripens and rots, it’s all part of its nature.

But in the nearly 9 years I’ve been at Petchrungruang, I’ve veritably constructed the training I needed out of a number of different resources. When it was in its peak, I had plenty of young (pre-teen and early teen) fighters to clinch with; ultimately they grew up and the next class was never replenished. It’s natural for an active, community gym to have a kind of revolving door of peripheral nakmuay cycling in and out. They aren’t part of the core group, they might have different trainers or managers who come in with them and leave with them. The core group simply grew up, some of the best fighters got poached, and the pain of that experience discouraged the head of the camp from investing in a new class to come up and keep the gym thriving.

I’m not a boy; I’m not Thai; so while I was proximate to this core group and trained alongside them and with them for many years, I was never actually part of it. I can’t be. There is a definite “inside/outside” to Thai cultural acceptance and while I get a lot of “you’re Thai already” from folks who know me well and who I love, it is a compliment that isn’t truly believed or practiced. Thais are also largely cliqued by family, and even within a family (which sometimes are quite large), there are inside/outside qualities to those relationships. This isn’t particular to Thais at all, but as an outsider to this culture – not being born to it or raised in it – many of those qualities and signals are more evident to me than they might be in my own culture. Being ever the outsider, maybe particularly as a woman (which is also a particularly stronger “outsider” in a male-dominated sport and culture of Muay Thai), is very painful.

So for 3 years or so, my training has been limited from what it was when I was really in my stride. When I say that I piece together my training, I do not mean that I train myself. I am helped by many people and I could never do this alone, but what I mean is that no one place ever offers me the “full package” of what’s necessary to become the fighter I’m trying to be. Sometimes gyms are insufficient because of who’s there at the time, for example my size makes it so that I can’t necessarily work with the average fighter. Gyms don’t always have young fighters at all times. But sometimes those deficiencies are particular to me; a Thai, male, stadium fighter will receive all the training he needs in once place and be more or less pushed through it. I’m very self-propelled, will do what’s asked of me without complaint, which is a quality that’s often praised by my trainers with a kind of caveat of “if only Thai boys were like you.” The implied issue being, if only I were a Thai boy.

Now that I’m training for a big event in the next two weeks, I’m back to full training; piecing it together at multiple gyms, working with Yodkhunpon for an hour of sparring every day, running on my own and spending every other morning working myself through my own training regimen in an otherwise empty gym. That’s all physically exhausting, but that’s what training should be. It never gets easier. What’s so difficult is the emotional jiujitsu of being an outsider to multiple gyms, all at once. Kevin has been begging me to integrate into a new gym for years and I’ve rejected it all this time because I don’t have the emotional capacity to go through the inevitable process of arriving to a new place, having the coach and maybe some fighters be interested in me for a week or two, and then the unavoidable loss of interest or sidelining that will happen because, no matter how much I’m like a Thai fighter, I will never actually be a young, male, Thai nakmuay. This inability to belong is unbelievably painful for me. It is perhaps my ur trauma, in that I grew up the youngest and only girl in a family of 4 siblings.

Exactly this has happened. It took about 2 weeks for the gym I’m training afternoons at to put me on the side. It’s not that I’m a woman, or a foreigner, or older, or that I’m at a level of proficiency now that no trainer looks at me and thinks he can “build me” or “shape me” or “improve me.” It’s all those things, all at once, inseparable from each other. Every time we go to film for the Muay Thai Library now, the Legend or Kru will watch me shadowboxing and in some way or another mumble or laugh that they don’t know what to teach me. Usually within a few minutes of moving around they see things to improve and get really into it, which happens in regular training as well, but it doesn’t persist. They make a correction or adjustment, I adapt to it, and it’s not a big long project. Sagat, among a few others, has invited me to come train with him for a month in order to make me a new fighter. One month. That’s not a lot of time and it is, as beautiful an invitation and compliment as it is, another egg-timer with separation at the end of it.

I don’t have a community. I do, I’m cared for and cared about by a great number of wonderful people here, but at a distance. I want the gym to be my family, but it can’t be because I don’t fit into any of the roles that are required for that dynamic to work. Without that sense of belonging, I feel very exposed; it feels unsafe, at least in the sense of being unstable. There are a multitude of disadvantages to “belonging” to a gym in the possessive way, the way that fighters are supposed to belong in the fabric of how Muay Thai works, and so I’ve purposely moved in ways that keeps that from being a reality for me. But the trade-off is quite damaging. I don’t have a gym looking out for me in match ups or fight opportunities. I don’t have anyone vouching for me, arguing on my behalf for advantages or even “fair” circumstances. I don’t have the option of not thinking about my own process and leaving it in the hands of a coach or trainer who believes in me and knows the ropes better than I ever will, a fantasy I’ve entertained only in my mind for over a decade now.

It’s emotionally crushing. I am appreciated, to a degree. I am invited, to a degree. I am a point of pride to those I work with, to a degree. But I don’t belong. One of the most controversial articles I ever wrote was “The Myth of Overtraining,” The short version is: I don’t believe that “overtraining” is real. The symptoms attributed to it are real, but the correlation/causation isn’t how people think about it. You can train very little and experience those symptoms, or you can train well beyond what Google says is “overtraining” and not suffer them, and ultimately it’s not the training but the lack of recovery that is the problem. You’re not “overtraining” but “under recovering.” This lack of belonging, and probably the yearning to belong more than the actual absence of it, is like not having a place to stand or sit or rest. I don’t know that I was ever better at it than I am now – it has always hurt – and I don’t know that it’s something one can ever get better at. It never gets easier; you just get tougher. Almost belonging everywhere, but never belonging anywhere.

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Muay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see


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