As a self-defense teacher, I talk a lot about boundaries. Mostly about setting boundaries with other people. While some of those people may mean harm, most just have different ideas of boundaries and could use some guidance as to where theirs and yours more happily connect.

Today I’m looking at a specific set of boundaries you set with yourself. Many of us — I’m certainly in this group — want to experience a lot. I want to travel to Provence and to Tuscany. I want to learn some French and Italian. I want to learn to play guitar better, as well as bass and drums and piano. I already cook well, but I want to be able to de-bone a turkey in 10 minutes. (Why? I don’t know, I don’t even like turkey!)  I want to learn to draw.  I want better photography skills.  I want to write a book.  I want to create an online class. I want, I want, I want.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of my wants.

I’m going to tell you something that you probably already know. I certainly have known this for many years, and yet I still need reminding. Of all these wants, the ones you get will be those you MAKE the time for.

For many years I had wanted to understand the social dynamics around domestic violence and to more effectively work with survivors. Because DV is our greatest single risk to personal safety, and as a self-defense teacher that’s an important topic. And yes there are trainings available in my area. But it’s not just a half-day one-and-done workshop. I’d have to carve out a significant chunk of time. Fifty hours of training, then at least a year of volunteer work. I’d been telling myself I wanted to do this for years, yet I never made that time. Until I did. Until I acknowledged that yes, this was a 50 hour training over several months, I may have to put aside another activity or two and re-arrange my schedule, be inconvenienced, drive more, and after the training commit to that volunteering, and was it really worthwhile?

I did it, eight years ago. I said to myself if I don’t ACTIVELY MAKE the time it was not just going to happen. Piss or get off the pot, so to speak. Yes it was inconvenient and time-consuming and some days frustrating. I did forego some income those three months. Afterwards I volunteered each week at the center working with women in different stages of abusive relationships, which isn’t easy to hear (let alone experience). And yes it was worth it. A lot of what I leaned got incorporated into my classes, partly as recognizing “red flags” and partly as how to help or support family or friends who were in unhealthy or abusive relationships.

I often ask my students how they found the class. A lot say they’ve meant to take a self-defense class for a long time, and just happened to be looking through a Seattle Central or Bellevue College catalog, or an online class listing, saw the class, saw it fit into their schedule, and signed up. That’s convenient, and how most of us live most of our lives. Not everything we want will drop into place that easily.

Right now I am looking at my list of wants. What is most essential for my professional development, for personal development, for relationships, and for self-care? What will I actively make time for this year? How about you?

All of us have had difficult conversations with friends, co-workers, family, etc., where we’ve had to set boundaries. Maybe, in the course of such boundary-setting, the other person took exception and voiced their objections, and you left shaking your head, feeling verbally or emotionally beat up. You’ve just experienced the “conversation web.”

There are many reasons to set boundaries, as well as many possible reactions. The other person may just say OK, and respect your boundaries.  They may say OK, but often “forget” (maybe just because they forget, or they’re doing it deliberately).  They may be surprised or puzzled because this isn’t something you’ve done in the past.

Or they may express surprise, sorrow, or anger.  Among the reasons (and this is NOT a comprehensive list) could be:

  • fear that you are looking to end a friendship/relationship that they still value
  • you are looking to change some of your habits that no longer are good for you, but they know you that way (and even may be enablers or co-dependent) and see this as a loss for them
  • they are manipulative, and manipulators just hate it when they hit boundaries

So they get aggressive.  One tactic they may use is the “conversation web.”

You’re chatting with one other person, and they are standing too close for your comfort.  You set a boundary.  “Hey, my space bubble is a bit bigger than yours,” you tell them as you take a half-step back and bring your hands in front.  “I’m more comfortable here.”  Most people will just say OK, and leave it at that.  But this person takes offense and challenges you.  “What, do I smell bad?  It was OK yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.  Chris and Jamie are OK with it, why aren’t you?  That’s just RUDE!  Are you PMSing?  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.  You’re just too sensitive!  I thought we were friends.  You are SO selfish!  That attitude is messed up.  No wonder you don’t have any friends.”

This is the “PARTING SHOT,” where they shoot back negatives hoping to deflate you.  It really isn’t about you at all.  It’s just them taking their frustrations out on you for daring to have boundaries that are inconvenient (for them).  And you can get caught trying to justify why, but no explanation seems good enough for them.

The antidote?  The “BROKEN RECORD.”  Saying the same phrase over and over and over and over.

Because the whole conversation web is not the other person trying to get to know you better via your explanation.  It’s all about you handing over your explanation so it can be shot back at you.

Here’s a dialog about how this would work, taking the statements from above:

THEM:  What, do I smell bad?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  It was OK yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  Chris and Jamie are OK with it, why aren’t you?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  That’s just RUDE!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  Are you PMSing?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You’re just too sensitive!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  I thought we were friends.

YOU:  And I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You are SO selfish!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  That attitude is messed up.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  No wonder you don’t have any friends.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

See the pattern?  We practice this in most of our classes.  Especially the online classes.  Pick a neutral phrase — short is great — that you  can repeat over and over and over again.  A phrase that references YOURSELF, not justifies WHY.  I a calm tone of voice.  With good eye-to-face contact.  And know when you can walk away.

HOW you express your choice is critical.  We not only want to say what we mean, we want our body language and tone of voice to support our intent.  Here’s a simple exercise in just saying “no.”  It just uses your acting/imitation skills.  In this video I’m going to say “no” in a few different ways.  Please follow along and imitate me.  Think of it as trying on that voice, like you’re trying on a shirt.  How does it feel on you?  Sincere?  Playful?  Firm?  Uncertain?  Confining?

Did you feel the differences in how you just said “no?”

Communication is not only your intended message.  It’s also how the recipient decodes it.

Sometimes the listener misunderstood what you said.  Maybe they really wanted to hear something else so kept pressing, trying to get you to change your mind.  Maybe they never intended to accept your choice.  You can learn how to handle these situations in our self-defense classes (which are all online through at least the remainder of 2020, and until further notice).  Most classes are for women, some are for teen girls.  Other classes can be held by arrangement.

What can you do when someone you care about disregards your boundaries?  The ones you thought you were so clear about?

Depends.

Today I won’t be giving the “one answer,” because there isn’t one answer most of the time.  I’ll outline more of a process. However, the crucial approach is your focus.  If your intent is to punish someone, it will be far less effective.  Your focus should be on YOUR comfort and safety.  Focus on YOURself.

We’ll begin with the assumption that this is someone you know, as most conflict happens with people you know.  Consider:

  • What’s the fundamental nature of this relationship?  Family?  Good friend?  Neighbor?  Work colleague?  Supervisor?  Social acquaintance?  Boss?  Coach?
  • What is the history?  What is your past experience in this relationship?
  • What are the power dynamics?  Have they changed over time?
  • What does this relationship mean to you?  Not what you think it should mean to you.
  • Where is this relationship on the continuum between adversarial and collaborative?
  • How important is this person in your life?

Think about that last point again — how important this person is in your life.  A more important relationship can generally stand more discussion about expectations, hopes, and trust.  Dr. Brené Brown has noted that having boundaries respected is a significant indicator of trust, and we confer more trust on those who acknowledge and respect boundaries (including their own).

Notice I’m not saying “use these words” or “that body language.”  Those choices should follow the contours of the relationship, where you’ve been with it in the past and where you see its future.

One instance.  a student had a romantic interest abroad.  He lived in Eurpoe — when it was evening over there it was past midnight in Seattle.  He tended to phone her in his evening, usually around 2:00 am her time.  They had a few conversations about it, she asked him not to phone so late, and he would always apologize and say he’d try to call earlier but just need to hear her voice.  And he kept phoning her at 2 am.  Yes, she kept answering.

Another instance.  Actually, a number of instances since I’ve heard this same basic story over and over.  Student is dating a very smart, witty, articulate, funny person.  They usually have a great time.  However, every so often if they disagree, this person’s cleverness would turn contemptuous.  The discussion would move quickly from whatever they disagreed about to student’s “fundamental flaws.”  In some cases they broke up but got back together.  They promised they’d change — until the next disagreement.

In both instances, there was little downside for the other person to continue their behavior.  In the first case, to keep phoning at his convenience since she didn’t reinforce her boundary by not answering. In the second, to keep up personal attacks instead of working through differences.  Why are these boundaries ignored?  Maybe:

  • They don’t agree with your boundaries but won’t say that outright
  • They continue to get what they want, with no appreciable consequences
  • They are solidifying a power imbalance
  • This relationship is not as important to them as it is to you
  • They have other needs they are reluctant to express

Remember, there will be disagreements in any relationship of value.  The issues lies in how those disagreements are expressed and processed.

The next level is to recognize that ignoring a boundary it yet another boundary violation, and articulate that. Possibilities:

“Honey, we’d talked about you phoning me so late, and you always agree to phone earlier.  But that doesn’t happen.  I love talking with you, and I need uninterrupted sleep.  I’m turning my phone off at 10 pm Seattle time.  Please call earlier.”

“Honey, we’d talked about you phoning me so late, and you always agree to phone earlier.  But that doesn’t happen, and I see that it really doesn’t work with your schedule.  I love talking with you, and I need more uninterrupted sleep.  How about if we schedule our phone calls, so I can plan for more quality sleep?”

“Every time we disagree, it devolves into name-calling and personal attacks.  That’s not how I want to resolve our differences!  I’m going to call a “time out” next time a discussion begins to get off-track.  Maybe I’ll take a walk, or go for some tea.  And I’ll expect that when I come back we can come to a better way of resolution.”

“Whenever we disagree, you get angry quickly and resort to name-calling.  We discuss this, you swear you’ll change, yet the next disagreement finds the same pattern on repeat.  Being able to talk about feelings and issues is important to me, and important in every meaningful relationship I’m in.  What do you need to honor that?”

The idea is setting a more concrete boundary, involving your level of contact and time with that person.  And then sticking to it.  While ehe intent is your self-care, the other person may feel it as punitive.  So be sure it’s a boundary you are willing to enforce!

using your voiceYour voice is your most effective safety tool.  Yet it’s the tool most folk, especially women and girls, are reluctant to use.  “Do I have to say anything?” is a too-common question in class.  The answer is no, you don’t HAVE to do or say anything you don’t want to, and there are some cases where saying nothing may be your best choice.  That being said, there are reasons why using your voice is an essential tool.

  1. BREATHING.  Show of hands, who thinks breathing isn’t that important?  Yeah, that’s what I figured.  If you are using your voice you are breathing.  Breathing is critical to life, and critical to managing your reactions in challenging situations.  Which brings me to the next reason . . .
  2. FREEZING.  Inability to respond.  Using your voice can break that freeze.  The assailant is, in fact, often hoping you will freeze.  Which brings us to . . .
  3. STARTLING the assailant.  Assailants, like any predator, are looking for easier prey.  Targets who will be afraid, unsure, easily intimidated.  Using your voice, especially LOUDLY, by itself has a good chance of chasing off the assailant as that’s not what they expected.  Which can . . .
  4. ATTRACT ATTENTION.  Maybe any people around will look.  Perhaps some will whip out their phones to capture video.  If you’re super lucky, someone might try to intervene.  Most assailants don’t want to risk attention.  But maybe nobody is around . . . you may want to . . .
  5. INCREASE YOUR ADRENALINE.  Adrenaline, at the right level, can increase your physical effectiveness should you need to actually fight your assailant.  It can increase your speed and strength.  It can make time feel like its going slooooowwww.   (Note:  too much adrenaline, on the other hand, can begin shutting down your responses and effectiveness.)  And, finally, using your voice can . . .
  6. ENGAGE YOUR CORE.  Which brings in more muscle groups, connects parts of your body to work together like a power drive train, and increases your physical effectiveness.

There is a world of difference between an intellectual knowledge of your voice’s importance, and actually using it.  As in your ability to not only recognize but to state your needs, your preferences, and your boundaries. That’s why we practice using our voices in our self-defense classes.

Do you sometimes find yourself in situations (social, work, family) where you kinda go along because it’s just not a big deal?  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — a crucial life skill is navigating and prioritizing choices.  But also recognize that we are often socialized to feel uncomfortable standing up for ourselves.  If you default that that, do you find yourself constantly left unsatisfied?  Do you feel more like a spectator rather than player in your own life?

One student told me that when a guy on the street bumped into her friend — she’s sure deliberately — the friend apologized right away and asked the guy if he was OK.  I had to stop the story to make sure I heard it right.  So this guy, on purpose, almost knocked her over and SHE said sorry?  Yup, I heard it right.
Apologies carry a complicated burden.  A heartfelt apology can mend fences and relationships.  A sincere apology can save face and begin to heal hearts.  An inauthentic apology can infuriate the receiver.  And a social apology can superficially appease others and make you seem more likeable — really?
I began to consider apologies after reading this article, where author Lindsay King-Miller describes how offering apologies has totally transformed how others relate to her.  Got some pithy quotes, too:

“So these days I apologize a lot. Everyone tells me all the time that I don’t need to, that I have nothing to be sorry for, that I shouldn’t be so insecure, but in between they tell me how likable I am. How personable. How pleasant. How I set people at ease.

“Apologizing is a survival skill in a society where women are penalized, personally and professionally, for being abrasive, for speaking their minds, for not smoothing their sharp edges down, for not fitting in. Apologizing is a way of saying I know I’m smart but I don’t mean to be. I know I take up space but I’m trying not to. I want you to like me more than I want to be right.These are things the world demands from women. If you don’t provide them, it punishes you. Before I started apologizing I heard all the time, secondhand, that people hated me. That this girl or that girl thought I was a bitch. That I was too aggressive and guys were scared of me. I never hear that anymore.

“People tell me that higher self-esteem would help me apologize less. I think No, you don’t understand. I have to apologize because I can’t let people know how awesome I actually think I am.  The world is not kind to women who love themselves as much as I do — certainly not fat, queer, socially awkward girls. I am not supposed to have confidence. I am not supposed to think my opinions matter.” 

Personally, I had never thought of apologizing for my opinions as a way to make others comfortable.  I despise the idea that anyone would expect me to express regret for being smart or projecting confidence.  But it happens, and consequences happen. 
King-Miller describes her younger self as brash, confrontational, emotionally needy, and sensitive.  She says she hated how people would shut her out to not deal with her intensity and neediness.  At some point, when in her 20s, she found herself apologizing for all the crying, saying that she was over-sensitive, it was no big deal. And she found that was acceptable.  And people liked her better. 
I do not know King-Miller.  I’ve never met her, and only know what she says about herself in this one article.  But I do know intelligent, articulate, and opinionated women — who I would not characterize as brash, confrontational and emotionally needy — who were too readily dismissed as abrasive when they spoke uncomfortable truths (and most truths will make someone uncomfortable).  Assertive women can get labeled aggressive. And there’s a small yet vocal group of trolls who are eagerly watching to pull off-balance any women who dare to “lean in.” 
I don’t believe that women’s only two options are to blurt bluntly or cower contritely. Yes it takes some art and energy coming up with more appropriate and effective ways of expressing myself.  I accept the fact that there always will be individuals who just will not like what I have to say, regardless of how I couch it.  And I am a native New Yorker, so there are limits on how much I’m willing to care about others’ opinions.  But the article did get me thinking about how saying sorry can be used to stay safe.  
Yes, the apology can be a self-defense strategy.  It can be a tool of camouflage, of distraction, of social disguise.  It has a VERY big role as a de-escalation tactic.  In rare instances you have to chose between being right (and maybe physically hurt) and emotionally available (which may manifest as sympathetic, empathetic, or apologetic).  When you make safety your priority, learning the art of apology can pay off.  That’s good self-care, an essential component of your toolkit.
To make the choice that best suits your goals, you want to have all options at your disposal.  When you have to take out your self-defense toolkit — whether physical or verbal or emotional responses are called for — recognize that sometimes your choices are between bad and worse.  Do you want to pick your best response, or will you let someone else will decide for you?

Friend and fellow martial artist Jan Parker has been teaching a long time; she was already a master teacher when I was a mere novice two decades ago. She’s seen and heard more than a few wacky reactions when strangers and acquaintances find out what she does. And she just blogged about one such instance at a friend’s party years ago.  The perennial question that most martial artists invariably encounter.  Here’s an excerpt:

. . . [A] young man heard from someone else that I was a martial artist. Boldly, he came up to me to make sure what he heard was true. “So, you’re a martial artist?” I nodded, noticing the drink in his hand. He continued, “Soooooo . . . What would you do if I just hauled off and hit you in the face?”

Before you read on, what do you think her reply was?

Might she have said, “Yeah sure, I’d like to see you try”?  Or how about “I’d hit you back harder”?  Would she call him an ignorant jerk of an a$$hole? Perhaps she would have jumped straight up in the air and, Bruce Lee-style, executed a perfect flying side kick right into his nose!

Her response:

“I would charge you with assault. What do you think I would do?” “For crying out loud,” I said, “we’re at a party, why in the world would you hit me in the face?”

Surprised, at my answer, he walked away.

She called that a success story. And so do I.  She assessed his intent, decided this silliness was not a situation to escalate, and gave a response he was so totally not expecting.  Perfectly disarming self-defense.

Of course you can read Jan’s re-telling on her blog JanJimJam.org.  Jan Parker, you rock!

You know, those people hanging out on street corners, clipboard in hand, collecting signatures (and sometimes money) to save the children, the whales, the unborn, the undead, . . .

Apparently in downtown Seattle some canvassers are getting too aggressive. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen is considering a law to do something about it.

Hear about it, and some opinions, on KUOW-FM, where yesterday Mr. Rasmussen and others answered questions posed by host Ross Reynolds and listeners who called and emailed in.  http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=24293

Sure some canvassers are annoyingly aggressive. However, I don’t see the need for a law to deal with them. A simple “no thank you” and walking on should do the trick. (Yes, I do teach that, and other verbal safety skills, in some of my self defense classes.)

For instance, I am walking around Westlake Mall (seems to be Canvasser Central these days) and am approached by a young man (or woman) asking for just a few moments of your time to save the children. I will make a snap decision: to give them some of my time, or to say “no thank you” and walk on. Either choice is fine, as long as it is MY choice and I’m not just getting sucked into it because that’s what good folk like us do. My choice would be to say “no thank you” and walk on, secure in the knowledge that I’m already doing the right thing because have a charitable giving plan already in place. If that canvasser then feigns shock that I don’t care about the children, I will WALK ON. I do not feel I need to answer to him. I owe him nothing, and will not get sucked into a time-wasting, energy-draining conversation web.


Remember the sage advice of Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” It’s up to each and every one of us to spot emotional manipulation and deal. It’s just the right thing to do.



In classes for teen girls I’m often asked what to do when some guy, either a stranger or someone they barely know, approaches and begins asking overly personal questions.  A simple “I don’t want to talk at this time” is certainly polite, and right to the point. “I don’t give out that information,” said in a neutral tone, is also direct and sets a boundary without being nasty.

But some girls still take issue with a direct response. Because it’s “rude.” And I hear from some adults who work with girls that it’s just “who they are.”

Who are you, really?

Are you always the person you wish you could be?

Food writer Ruth Reichl faced similar questions, but in a different context. As the restaurant critic of The New York Times beginning in 1993, Reichl knew that her reviews would powerfully influence the rise and fall of restaurants big and small; a great review could mean vastly increased revenue and prestige. Restaurant kitchens, she found, had Reichl’s picture plastered on the wall and a reward for any staff member who spotted her. Reichl’s clever solution was to come up with disguises for her dining excursions. And her disguises went beyond wigs and makeup — she envisioned what kind of person she’d become. With the help of an acting coach, she transformed herself. And it worked, sometimes too well. She found herself falling into her roles–often to the delight, but sometimes to the dismay, of her dining companions.(Reichl details her escapades in her charming book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.)

“Chloe” was a blonde bombshell who seemed to know precisely how to intrigue men. “Brenda” was warm, funny, kind, and approachable. Elderly “Betty” blended into the furniture, and was treated as a castoff. “Emily” was brusque and bitter. All different  personalities, yet along the way Reichl recognized them all as elements within herself (and she decides she wants more Brenda and less Emily). Reichl had the epiphany that controlling how others treated her could be as simple as changing the way she dressed and projected herself. She tested this out, and for her it worked.

Reichl was able to effectively reconstruct herself for a slice of time, over and over, in different guises.  She got her job done.

Do you know precisely what you would do in any given situation? Do you ever do things that amaze you? That disappoint you? Do you ever say things you wish you could take back the minute it came out of your mouth for all the world to hear? Do you ever wonder how you had the presence of mind to say exactly the right thing, and wish you could do it more often?

That’s resilience in an uncertain world. Grace under pressure. Cool, calm, collected. What’s not to like about those qualities?

As I tell my class participants, self-defense has a performance component. Regardless of who you believe you are, you all have the same job to get done, of keeping yourself safe. You can act. You can project yourself as a skilled, confident person on your own mission, and pity the fool who tries to mess with you.

Personally, I believe my time is valuable. I feel I should choose with whom to spend, not squander, my time. Otherwise I’ll end up treated as someone else’s entertainment, emotional barf bag, or — at worst — victim.