Today, the Green Beret Foundation sits down with Bill Anthes, former Green Beret and CEO of BTWN THE EARS, which provides customized training and coaching that is designed to work on simultaneously developing each client’s unique physical, mental, and emotional capabilities. Drawing not just upon his experience as a Green Beret, but also as an All-American collegiate athlete and CF-L3 Crossfit coach with a deep knowledge of performance psychology running the gamut from Brene Brown to the Samurai, Anthes provides insight into lessons he has learned from his own transition process and the healing power of self-knowledge.
In this society, for the most part, we view ourselves like the Container Store. We tend to compartmentalize things, and then work on them separately. For example, we’ll seek to build up our muscles in the gym; go to yoga or practice mediation for mindfulness; work for money, and so forth. It’s really a direct and overengineered state; clients will come to me and say things like, “I need to develop myself in this one area,” or, “I’m sensing a friction point in my life in this area,” and they’re seeking a one-to-one correspondence between what they see as the “problem” they’re diagnosing in their lives and its relationship to a solution.
The reason that this mentality rarely leads to long-term change for people is that it isn’t really how human beings work. We are far more complex creatures than that; anywhere in our lives that we are feeling stuck, there are going to be physical, mental, and emotional components to that. And there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution for these things, which is where a lot of coaching falls short. What works for me may not work for you, because I’m not you. This is where the self-knowledge aspect of coaching comes into play, and what I’m really seeking to do now in my work is help people to truly learn more about themselves.
When I left the Army, I wanted to find a way to provide people with approachable opportunities that helped them simultaneously involve their physical, mental, and emotional capacities in this pursuit. We can walk into a gym and just build up our muscles, or we can utilize physical training in conjunction with developing awareness of our mental and emotional selves in order to truly effect long term change and elevate who we are as human beings. That’s where this busines model came from.
As members of the SOF community, especially during transition, this becomes very, very important for us. The fitness space is, ironically, one of the most unhealthy spaces there is. You can see this in the way some people tackle physical pursuits from a place of self-loathing; they over train and get hurt, or make themselves sick with extreme dieting. Not only are these things physically unhealthy, but the mental and physical toll they reap on us is immense. Being Green Berets past or present, we are going to fall subject to this mindset that we should be “grinding it out” and “crushing it” every single day, but this mentality is dangerous and doesn’t give us the space that we need to actually develop ourselves as human beings.
What can result is an over-prioritization of the physical at the expense of the mental and emotional. I’ll give you an example. Some days, you just wake up and feel like you’ve been hit by a bus. There’s no explaining it; you’re not physically sick, but your energy is down, your mind is foggy, you have a hard time focusing, you’re generally disinterested, and you’re not even sure what emotion you’re feeling. Everything is just blah. Let’s say on a scale of 1-10, you’re rating your energy at a 4 that day. Then you walk into the gym, and hit yourself with that pressured feeling that you absolutely have to crush it today; no excuses. You tell yourself that everyone else is doing it; that these fit, lean, skinny, muscular people do hard things, and never give in to the voice inside their head. That is what is fundamentally wrong, and so unhealthy. It’s not how our systems work; if you’re at a 4 on any given day and you force yourself to grind it out regardless, your ability is going to be limited anyway, and you know that.
This is when the mental battle begins, as you start to internalize things in a toxic way. The voice inside your head tells you that you can’t go hard. That you’re a weak person. All of this simply because you weren’t able to listen to or except the physical, mental, and emotional signals your body gave you that morning when you woke up. The bottom line is that note very day is the day to go level 10 with all guns blazing in your workouts, and it’s ok to recognize and acknowledge that.
Still, we live in a culture which loves to sell that SOF ideal of waking up at 4 am and grinding out punishing workouts while the rest of the world is still asleep. There may be a time and a place for this, but it isn’t for everyone, and to each their own. There’s no place for self-loathing here. The problem is that, as a collective, we have a tendency in the self-improvement space to hand ourselves over to other people instead of getting to know ourselves and understanding what works for us personally as individuals. When we do this, we lose the internal connection to who we are, and that’s a dangerous downward spiral to be in.
The sensationalized, Hollywood ideal of the superhuman SOF operator is the glamorization of a lie that is bought and sold in mass quantities. Unfortunately, that narrative is literally killing us. The suicide rates are unacceptably high, and it’s devastating families, friends, and the lives of the people connected to us. Furthermore, those of us within the SOF community already know the dirty little secret that this “superhuman” myth is contrary to how we know the real studs in our community really are. The cream of the crop are just regular people; they’re not beating their chests and doing the “I’m Superman, look at me” thing. They’re just being Green Berets and living like quiet professionals, but the public doesn’t get to see that. Nobody is out there telling the public that “Wake up early and don’t be a bitch” isn’t the magic bullet solution to everything.
We can’t be letting people believe that “don’t be a bi**h” is a good solution to our challenges if we don’t already believe it ourselves, and that’s a very slippery slope. What do you say to the teammates and families of the fallen, if “don’t be a bi**h” is our answer to everything? Is it wrong to grieve, and to mourn? My first Senior Team Sergeant is a Gold Star family member, which I didn’t know for a long time; he had lost his brother Justin in Iraq in 2008. One of the first things he ever did was show me a picture of his brother, and tell me, “Don’t forget about your roots, and who came before you, and those we’ve lost.” What it means to put on this uniform, wear this beret, and be in this unit…it’s bigger than yourself. It’s worth putting your life down for. When we start to feel like big badasses, we’re making it all about the individual when this is supposed to be about the collective. We have to remember that SOF is about being a part of something far greater than any one individual alone could ever embody.
I’m not saying that I think it’s healthy to wallow in misery of draw out a long state of suffering. But letting your feelings out, from an emotional standpoint, is always going to be far healthier than suppressing them when they need an outlet. Our emotions are survival instincts; they’re not meant to be ignored! Emotions are just signs and signals from the body to the brain. Don’t go in that cave, because a bear might be in there and it will rip you apart; that’s a primitive instinct where emotions can save us. Emotions evolved first, and rational thinking came later. So there’s no shame in acknowledging, expressing, and working through our emotions, and in fact I would argue that this is a critical facet of developing our mind, body, and emotional capacities in conjunction with one another. When we don’t do it, we face a whole host of new problems ushered in by the behaviors that we tend to turn to when plagued by unexpressed emotion: addiction, self-destructive escapism, and numbing habits. The dysfunctional narrative that badasses don’t feel things is literally killing people.
When we numb, busy, and distract ourselves—whether purposely or subconsciously—we’re turning a blind eye to the thing we most need to be focusing on. When we refuse to look within, or have an inability to sit with ourselves, it is definitely a problem. We’ll wonder why we can’t experience joy, without understanding that joy can only be found in being present. If we can’t be in the present moment, we can’t feel joy. I remember witnessing this in myself in a situation with my family; I would look at my beautiful, smiling wife; my kids busy playing; watching it all like it was a joyful and happy scene on a TV screen. I remember thinking that I should have been feeling something, but I couldn’t feel anything. Mentally and emotionally, I was numb; I wasn’t present.
It was a tremendous challenge for me to get past this. When I transitioned, I was lost. I thought I had hedged against having the military and Special Forces define me, but it turns out I had let every accomplishment in my life define me. I had gone to college, played sports, worked in corporate America, become a Green Beret, gone to this training and that training and this school and that. While on active duty, I was focused on getting right on a team, getting the combat deployments and mission sets. That wasn’t my experience, though. I didn’t get to do the Afghanistan and Iraq deployments with all of the sexy high-speed stuff.
My challenge was that I had attached so much of my worth as a human being to that particular mission set. When I finally separated, in order to be back with my family who had been at home in New Jersey the whole time, I was still growing in my profession and starting to excel. I felt like I still had a lot more to give, which I wanted and continued to search for even after I transitioned. When a buddy of mine called me up and said his National Guard unit was deploying to Afghanistan and they needed a good guy, I was ready to go. I said I was in. I was still seeking this external form of validation.
I didn’t end up going, though. My wife said, “OK, if you want to go, but if you can’t find happiness here with us now, will you ever be able to?” That’s when I realized I had to stop running away from the void inside of me. The process of doing it was super tough, and the journey took me a couple of years. I remember thinking I had so much shame, and not feeling like I was functioning. I didn’t want to drag my family through my misery. And that’s when some of those suicidal ideations come in, and you just start thinking. When you combine drinking with that, it’s just a very dark place where you don’t ever want to be.
Ultimately, this was all my way of avoiding having to face myself, getting to know myself, and looking within. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with having to admit to myself that what I thought I was doing didn’t work. I had an amazing wife and family, and a great life outside the Army; I thought I’d be good, but I had an identity crisis. If I’m not a Green Beret who has had these combat experiences that I put so much worth and value into, who am I as a human being? I knew I wasn’t being a patient husband or empathetic stepfather at that point. I realized needed to get to know who I really was, but the recognition of that fact is one thing, while taking the step into the unknown and working to fix it is another.
There was no definitive moment for me when the transformation took place; it was more of a process of trying to look deeper. It’s something I now walk through with my clients: when do you feel the most you? It’s not always an academic answer; most times, it’s actually an emotional answer. If I ask you who you are, you might say, “I’m a Green Beret, a father, a veteran, etc,” but those are positions and roles; they’re not who you are. It may not even be an answer that you can write or communicate, but it should be something you can feel. It requires knowledge of who you are, and peace with that. The fact that it’s hard to communicate is just proof that our emotional fitness is so damn important to everything else.
Having things define you is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced and had to overcome. In my experience, I was a Green Beret, and an All-American collegiate athlete. Those were two successful accolades and accomplishments that I would hang my identity on. We all do it; we wear badges on our uniforms to show all of the schools we’ve gone to, right? But none of these things really define who you are. Once you walk across the stage and don your beret for the first time, you think something magical will happen, but that’s not when the transformation takes place. You realize in that moment that the transformation had been taking place every day throughout the course of your training. That resonated with me, because it was consistent with my experience as an athlete. My greatest athletic successes were earned long before competition, as a kid practicing in the driveway and backyard.
Social media only amplifies our tendency to define ourselves in these ways. Before our entire lives were online, maybe only a small group of our military friends would know the things we had done. Now, it’s about blasting everything out to the world, and it can be deceptive. Everybody knows that the cool guy, high speed pictures aren’t you on target; maybe you’re just out there doing rehearsals. It’s all a glamorization of a narrative that is very externally based, and doesn’t encourage the individual to know who they are. If you were to take your identity as a Green Beret away from the equation, or if you were to transition and not be active anymore, how will you define yourself?
I’ve found in my practice that one of the things which really helps combat these social and environmental pressures is the simple practice of journaling. Just journaling about your experiences, and securing a time and place to be present and connect with yourself in that way. Even just 5 or 10 minutes a day, over the course of 6 months, can help you go a long way towards breaking through the surface with yourself. It’s a lifelong practice that will help with this evolution, because are we ever really done with knowing who we are? When we transition, our whole lives change, and so does everything else about us. The more we develop the ability to define ourselves beyond our identity as Green Berets, the happier in the long term I think we will ultimately be. Having awareness of our own internal climate; knowing what influences us, so that we can be honest with others about our struggles and what we are doing to face them. That is authentic leadership, authentic living. Without the awareness, it’s just a guess. Life goes so much more smoothly when we have self-awareness about our behavior, and we aren’t just constantly reacting.
When I think about this, it takes me full circle back to thoughts about our Gold Star families and those team mates we have lost. Ultimately, our ability to live lives of honor, integrity, authenticity, and value are one of the best ways that we can honor them. We all have a duty to do these things in our own lives, because it’s our obligation to take advantage of the opportunities that we still have. When we sign up to serve, we commit ourselves to something that is so much bigger than we are. And what greater mission is there than to continue to live out your post-transition life as an act of service that honors the memory of lives that were laid down in defense of and service to our country? When we honor the life that we are given, living it as authentically, purposefully, and joyfully as possible, we don’t squander it because it is something that not everybody is afforded. We can always stand to be reminded of that. And I think that this is really what it means to live a fully engaged life.