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Why It's Awesome to Be an "Underdog"
Turning weaknesses into strengths.
Trigger warning/disclaimer: This article discusses mental health, suicide, anxiety, depression, and derealization, but is not meant to be mental health “advice”. This is a first-person account of the author’s experience, and nothing more. If you don’t want to read about these topics, you might want to skip this one :)
In some capacity in each of our lives, we all are underdogs.
This is not “a victim mentality”, it’s an objective analysis of reality. Everyone sucks at something.
For some, the underdog story lies in math class or when we open a book. For others, it’s on the basketball court. For some, it’s the Jiu-Jitsu mat.
For me, it was in my brain.
But the source of your underdog story doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that you experience an underdog story and learn how to overcome one. You need to learn how to beat the odds — your spirit depends on it.
This story is about my underdog story and how I learned to transcend the odds in the most difficult areas of my life — mental health.
This tale is not inspiring, but most underdog stories aren’t.
I am not a motivational speaker. I never will be.
I think it’s a gross and kind of selfish vocation if I’m being honest.
I’m not interested in motivating people. I’m trying to inform and express an idea through logic, words, and reason. That’s the goal of an article like this. I don’t think I’m qualified to write an article that does anything else.
See, in my life, I haven’t really achieved that much stuff. I’m good at Jiu-Jitsu, but not the best. I write pretty well, but you haven’t heard of me on any bestseller list or read me in The New Yorker. I have an online business that keeps me warm and fed, but I can’t tell you how to get rich quickly.
I am not particularly remarkable, especially considering the support and education that I have had throughout my life from others. I wouldn’t be the man, athlete, and writer that I am without my parents, friends, coaches, teachers (even the ones I hated), and even my haters and former bullies.
However, what I have done is come from a very unhappy mental state and worked my way to a very happy one. I’ve created a life that I truly love and that is full of adventure.
I did that by turning my weaknesses into my strengths — just like David, in David and Goliath.
The time I wished I died.
I don’t like talking about this much because it doesn’t always go over well and it requires a trigger warning, but at 21, I contemplated killing myself — pretty seriously. I even wrote a note.
It was late 2017, and my life was not going according to plan.
I wasn’t making friends or very good grades at school (I was failing out of the program I was supposed to “love”), I wasn’t making any money, I was living in my parent's basement (bless their hearts for keeping me alive during this period), and thanks to a mysterious knee injury, I wasn’t even able to do the only thing I was good at— Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
During this time, an episode with a pot brownie and a fight with my mom spiraled me into a 9-month battle with a rare form of anxiety called “derealization”, where I felt like I was living in a dream world and completely cut off from everything and everyone around me. This was the straw that broke my mental health. It took me years to recover.
I was depressed because life wasn’t going too well, and because I have a naturally anxious mind, the “wasn’t going too well” hit me a bit harder than most.
It wasn’t a crazy story, but it’s an honest one.
Some people have these crazy mental health stories where they get their life together by forcing the barrel of a gun down their throat or by drinking themselves a few inches away from death.
Derealization did not allow me to recover so easily.
Although there was more drinking during this period of my life than I’m proud to admit. For some reason, there’s a gene in my family that has tricked generations of Wojciks into believing that the answer to suffering is at the bottom of a bottle of vodka.
Regardless of symptoms, the way that I improved my mental health was through 5–6 years of (Cognitive Behavioral) therapy, antidepressants (yeah, they work sometimes), and a lot of practice with mindfulness and other personal mental management techniques — like journaling, meditating, and going on walks.
It was not easy. There were ups, downs, triumphs, heartbreaks, and tragedies. It was my own personal little hero’s journey, and I was lucky enough to star as the hero in my own little novel.
Considering where I was when I started this mental health journey, the results of the journey are stunning to me.
Even though I know that “making it” doesn’t exist, I feel like I “made it” a long time ago. Today, I’m very happy and I feel very mentally strong.
Making a weakness a strength.
In each of our lives, there is something that we will do where we will feel like (and likely be) underdogs. We will struggle to make progress, we will fail, we will get frustrated, and we will want to give up and quit.
We will think that there’s no way for us to succeed. I know that I felt this way when it came to managing my brain.
I thought that my mind was too neurotic to be peaceful. I thought I had too much anxiety to be happy. I thought that the stains of depression and derealization would never quite wash away.
In some ways, I have been right. The experience I had with my mental health in my early 20s changed my life forever.
However, what I’ve learned about happiness from my mental health journey is similar to what I’ve learned about myself through Jiu-Jitsu and writing:
Our greatest weakness can help us find our greatest strengths.
The self-awareness that I once wished would go away has taught me to think in stories, be a more thoughtful athlete, and never let my anxiety stop me from living authentically.
You can be too self-aware, but you can also learn to harness your self-awareness to make the world a better place for you.
Closing Thoughts: What this means for you
If I write something like the story above, which is (maybe too) personal, a bit self-centered, and kind of vulnerable, I feel obligated to extrapolate for anyone who might stumble upon or open up these words.
The lesson is this: in any personal tragedy, there is always a silver lining, but it is not always easy for you to see, accept, and reach it.
There are caveats to this — sometimes, being an underdog does not make you succeed. Sometimes, people start off with a raw deal, and the deal just gets worse.
However, without hope, we have nothing. I choose to tell stories with hope in mind.
I was an underdog when I was stuck in derealization, just like you’re an underdog in something else in your life. But sometimes, being an underdog and an outcast is just the thing that makes us unique. It’s the thing that gives us stories, strength, and purpose.
Have the courage to be an underdog.
“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”― Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
My other article from this week:
Do you deal with anxiety before big matches or events?
I talked about my ebook on competition anxiety earlier this week on Instagram, and I wanted to link it again.
If you struggle with anxiety about competing in Jiu-Jitsu, this ebook will give you the skills to overcome it. It encompasses many of the techniques that I used in the article above to build my mind over the last several years.
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