I know you are worth defending. If I saw you on the street, a stranger needing help, I wouldn’t doubt for a second that I should try. And if I can see that in you, why can’t you? Why do you say, “I’d really like to, but…” when you mean, “No”? Why do you let 16 things other people want from you keep you from getting enough sleep, making yourself a nice meal, enjoying a few minutes of peace and quiet?
Self defense begins not with strikes or escapes from grabs or life hacks like how to kick the headlights out from inside a trunk. It begins with believing, in your core, that you are worth defending. That the care of you is as important as the care of everyone else. That your health, and happiness and safety all matter. Because you do.
When someone says they want to learn self-defense, I usually ask what kind of situations they want to be able to handle, and what kind of skills they want to aquire. Some people want to know how to strike, and some explicitly resist learning strikes because they aren’t comfortable with the idea of hurting another person, on purpose. In practice, reasonable force training should cover the same ground either way – awareness, evasion, verbal skills, and how to physically engage in an effective way, if necessary. Inflicting pain or damage simply because you can, or because you want to, is never the goal.
Martial arts training can be really helpful for developing body confidence, trusting that after enough repetition certain techniques will be at your disposal if you need them under stress. (And sometimes when you don’t actually need them, but your body responds to a false threat. Hang with martial artists, and the stories accumulate.) Most martial arts are also sports, with defined rules and protocols, and expectations for good behavior between players. Limits are built in for safety. Your sparring partner will avoid hurting you, and will stop when you tap out, or speak up.
So martial artists can build up quite a tolerance for certain kinds of contact and physical engagement that people who don’t train do not, and they may react more calmly in the face of actual threats. Whether that means walking away from an obnoxious drunk, or putting an asailant into an arm bar on reflex, sport training can be helpful outside the dojo.
On the other hand, only knowing how to strike approved body parts, or respond with a throw, or whatever the focus of proper play under controlled circumstances is for that art, can also be a liability. You can be very proficient at techniques, and still not know how to defuse a situation, use the law properly, find escape routes when needed, or just deal with the adrenaline that kicks in when real conflict with people not playing by the rules you are used to arises (at home, work, school, on the street, or elsewhere).
These sorts of skills require just as much practice as striking and grappling, and are critical to your safety. So why do most self-defense classes start with building physical confidence? For me, it’s because once I know that if I have to, I can and will use my body however I must to defend me, you, or others, And I tuck that away like a concealed weapon. I can walk into a volatile situation and use my voice, meet the eye of a stranger on the street, calmly talk to someone agitated, or just be a solid physical presence. I don’t need to be aggressive or submissive when I know where my boundaries are, and what I’m capable of.
A situation with physical danger brings the need to defend right to the surface, and any training you have will click in. But what about the daily encroachments on your self care? Whether you love to spar in the dojo, or dread the thought of hitting anything ever, here’s your homework: “I am worth defending.” Look in the mirror, and say it out loud.
Now, pay attention for a few days to all the little ways you show yourself whether you believe this affirmation, or not. Are you sleeping enough, eating well, taking breaks when you need them – taking care of you? Do you feel undermined or beaten up by anyone you see regularly? Do you know where your boundaries are? Do you have tools to respect them yourself, and enforce them with others?
Self-care is self-defense just as vital as escaping a chokehold, or landing a knee strike, or ducking and covering during an earthquake. If you care enough about your safety to show up for a lesson in physical defense skills, you are ready to tune up your core strength. No, not your abs – your core beliefs about yourself, and your worth. Good news? Every day you have the opportunity to practice and improve your skills. And you’re worth it.