Primal Coach and former Pro MMA Fighter, Costas Doru, shares his personal story about his battle with anxiety.
I’m going to tell you a story I haven’t told anyone before...
As a child I had crippling shyness and anxiety. Not the “oh he’s just a little bit quiet” type of shyness; the “stand by the fence alone when dropped off at school every day until I was picked up by my parents again” type of anxiety!
I couldn’t talk to the other kids, I kept my head down and generally tried to make myself as small as possible. It took me a long, long time to make friends, and when I did it was with people who were like me, the outsiders.
"Every fibre of my being wanted to stand up for myself, but I just couldn’t."
I was never really the victim of bullying, but any time a kid would test boundaries by taking a toy that was mine, or saying something to test my resolve, I’d freeze, like a rabbit in the headlights. Every fibre of my being wanted to stand up for myself, but I just couldn’t.
I remember the exact moment I realised what kind of confidence I wanted. I watched Frank Bruno coming into the ring to face Mike Tyson for the second time. I had stayed up late to watch it - the first boxing match I 'd ever seen live.
Watching Frank Bruno cross himself so many times during the walk, even at my age, I remember thinking, “he’s scared to death”. It was like watching a lamb led to slaughter. During the stare down Tyson was intense. He exuded confidence and menace, and you could feel all of Bruno’s resolve just melt away, before a single punch had even been thrown.
I wanted to feel confident like that. I wanted to be able to walk around the playground at school and see the kids who'd made fun of me, or tested me, give me a wide berth instead. I wasn’t fussed about making friends at that point, I just wanted people to be to afraid to mess with me and just leave me and my band of misfits alone.
When I found martial arts, the plan was never to fight - inside I still had the little boy who was afraid of confrontation. But there was also a little voice telling me, “Yeah but, you can’t do it. Not really.” I knew if I wanted that air of confidence, that presence, I would have to fight, just once, to prove it to myself. Just once, and I knew I could silence that voice and feel proud at what I had accomplished.
I won my first fight within 2 minutes of the first round... but something strange happened. When the dust settled, I was still full of doubt!
“Yeah you won, but it was luck,” said the little voice. The confidence I sought still eluded me, I felt exactly the same.
Every victory, there was the voice again: “Yeah, you won, but it was a small show. You got lucky.”
When I got the call to fight at the MEN I knew this was the one. I was fighting a tough guy, who would go on to become the bare knuckle boxing champion of the UK.
I was fighting on Sky TV, and I was fighting in the arena I had seen my heroes fight in growing up. This was it. I had made it, if I could win this fight I’d have proven myself finally.
I won the fight, again in the first round. But the doubt was still there, always there, even then. It was like I couldn’t believe what I had done, like I was just waiting to be found out.
Things changed in my next fight. I was fighting at Wembley, in front of my friends and family. I was on Sky TV again, and I was fighting a guy I respected as my most tricky opponent.
We fought to a draw. After the fight I was despondent. When I saw my dad, he hugged me and I struggled to hold back tears.
Finally, the voice in my head all these years was right. I had failed everyone who had come to watch me. I let everyone down. Even writing this now makes me well up, remembering how I felt in that moment.
Before going for a meal with my parents and friends I told them I needed to go and collect my money for the fight. I snuck out the back with every intention of leaving because I felt so bad for failing everyone.
As I was lingering outside a shop, I felt a little tug on my sleeve. Behind me was a small boy, maybe 8 years old, and his father. The boy asked me if he could have his picture taken with me. He had his head down, and he was shy, and I couldn’t figure out why until it hit me...
He was looking at me the same way I looked up to the fighters I admired growing up - seeing them as that superhuman beacon of confidence and self-assuredness that I'd been striving to achieve in my own life!
I took a picture with the boy and shook hands with his dad, who told me he thought I won the fight. I went and found my family and friends, and my mood had lifted.
What I realised in that moment was that my heroes felt the same as me. The self-doubt, anxiety and fear; it was all part of everyone’s psyche. We all carry it, we’re all the same in that respect. My heroes weren’t achieving what they were achieving because they weren't afraid - they were achieving it in spite of being afraid.
"Anxiety wasn’t a barrier I needed to remove in order to fight, or do anything else I wanted. I just needed to do the thing. Fear be damned."
Fighting wasn’t something that would just give me the confidence I wanted, it was something I had achieved in spite of how I felt. Anxiety wasn’t a barrier I needed to remove in order to fight, or do anything else I wanted to in life. In the words of one of my closest friends, I just needed to do the thing. Fear be damned!
When I started working as a Coach at Primal Gym, I zoned in on a few people with anxiety issues right off the bat. Years of carrying it around made it fairly easy for me to see the signs. Some people who, for them, coming to the gym was their fight.
The doubt I felt, the fear about fighting - they have that every day just showing up. But they show up anyway, day after day, contributing to the Primal community, helping others like themselves and helping to build something I’m proud to be a part of.
So this confession is for those people. If you are one of them, I know it’s a challenge for you but every day you face that challenge, you do good not only for yourselves, but for others like you who look up to you. You’ve all been a part of creating a safe place for people who need it and, even if you don’t feel it, you have helped to make a difference.