This week I made the difficult decision of leaving my boxing gym.
They hadn’t done anything outrageously wrong. But for some time now, it has been a policy in my life to remove myself from situations that don’t make me feel good, and with a heavy heart, I had to admit that this had become one of those situations.
I had carefully selected it after shopping around at several places, liking it for its gritty atmosphere, experienced coaches, quality equipment and emphasis on sparring. But instead of waking up already looking forward to boxing in the evening, like I normally did, my daily workout had started to feel like a chore.
Few people at the club initiated conversation with me, yet it seemed I was a popular topic amongst them, in the Shanghainese dialect I didn’t understand. From snippets that I did pick up, it was clear that videos of me had circulated in messaging groups that I was not a part of. Several male members avoided sparring with me; if we were paired together, they jabbed unenthusiastically, sometimes laughing, waiting for the timer to signal the end of the round. Often, once we were finished, they would point out to me what I was doing wrong.
When put in a list like this, the infuriating bias in this behavior is obvious. But like most forms of bullying or discrimination, in real time, it was punctuated with just enough normality that I wondered if I was projecting or being too sensitive. Shanghainese was their native language; they weren’t deliberately excluding me. We had had a fun drunken dinner together after training one night; they didn’t see me as an outsider. Some of the members’ sparring tips were helpful. Was I imagining the laughter?
It went on like this for weeks, until one day I put my foot down. I had been in the small gym for nearly three hours, with nobody speaking to me. The final straw was a round of sparring when the coach asked me – nobody else – to put on a helmet. “You have to be more careful when you spar,” another member – who himself had just been schooled around the ring by a partner taking advantage of his poor defensive skills – chastised me. I nodded in his direction, thinking, f*ck off. Not a single one of them had ever hit me with enough force to even knock me off balance. And now you’re telling me to be more careful?
At that moment, I decided to leave. I was paying to come here. It should not feel like an exercise in group humiliation, regardless or not of whether it was deliberate. I was done accepting shoddy treatment.
Once I made that decision, it was like a weight had lifted off my shoulders.
I didn’t feel great about it – like most bullies, if questioned, they would probably call my appraisal unfair. But it wasn’t about what they thought. Someone in the wrong will always take a kinder view of their actions than the person harmed by it. (The oh-so-common defense of sexual harassers comes to mind: “Calm down sweetheart, it was just a joke”.)
By staying, I implied that my feelings didn’t matter. That I was less important than them, that my appraisals were in fact wrong, and that it was ok for me to feel unwanted and disrespected. Refusing to be treated that way was an empowering decision, and has reinforced my commitment to one of my life policies: if a situation doesn’t make you feel good, anywhere, any time, exercise your power of choice, and just leave.
Certainly, this is easier said than done in some situations. It’s hard to leave an abusive relationship for a multitude of reasons; leaving a toxic work environment is sometimes only possible if you have a financial safety net. But I’m not talking about these more complex scenarios. I’m talking about our tendency as humans to go with the flow of already-made decisions, and our common failure to constantly evaluate our surroundings to see if they are really benefiting us. Boring dinners; toxic friends; a bad movie; substandard living environments; unwanted interactions with strangers. How many times have you stayed at a party, not having fun? Or in a friendship that you knew was bad for you? Why do we feel the need to remain in these situations?
This week, I am reminding myself that life is too short to spend time – and certainly money – on things that don’t actively make you feel good. It’s empowering to know when to leave.