The final day in March, 2021, is another nice, sunny day in the glorious Emerald City. I love sunshine. Rain and darkness certainly have their essential restorative qualities, and inspire me to appreciate the contrasting clarity and brightness of daylight even more. And, on a more metaphorical level, yes of course it connects with self-defense, this IS a self-defense page, of course I’m going to talk about self-defense. To daylight something is to bring it to awareness, to attention. Usually that something is that which many people would rather ignore, like the elephant in the room.

This is coming up, again, in the wake of a slew of assaults committed against persons of Asian descent living in America. Yes, this America, land of the free and home of the brave. I’ve been reading that many of those targeted are reluctant to come forward, to report the assaults. To possibly bring further unwanted attention to themselves. There’s a hope that if nobody talks about the elephant, the elephant will go back to sleep in its corner (until the next time).

Of all the people in the metaphorical room, some may ignore the elephant because they’re unaware of the presence of the elephant because they personally are not impacted. Others because not only are they personally not affected, they are also choosing not to pay attention because it’s not important to them. And some because not only are they not personally impacted, they don’t think it’s a serious or even a real impact for anyone.

If a person not personally affected by the elephant can successfully ignore that elephant, they have some power (the word privilege can also used here) whether they want to acknowledge it or not. If they can define another person’s concerns as insignificant, well that’s more power. If a person can successfully silence those voicing concerns about that elephant, they have real power and privilege.elephant in the room

To ignore the elephant when you are profoundly impacted, isn’t that fear of someone else’s power. Fear of retaliation, of consequences for inconveniencing someone more privileged who doesn’t want to deal with your elephant.  There are many situations where using one’s voice at that instant is the best tool, but others where timing is also important.

Seattle-based author and activist Ijeoma Oluo wrote this article about living in fear and living anyways, about silence not helping her. Even though the article is almost two years old, it reads as relevant today as it did then. She also talks about the love and support she’s received from her communities to get her through the hate and death threats.

A significant reason many others don’t speak up is they feel they do NOT have that kind of support. And the burden to speak up should not fall solely with the victim, especially as we know they could be opening themselves to further threats and danger. Because they are not the problem. The problem lies with those committing violence and as well as with people who enable them directly, and indirectly encourage conditions that promote violence.

And violence thrives in silence.

Those of us who see the elephant but are not directly impacted also need to speak up for what is right and provide support.

Not sure where to begin?  Try one of these Bystander/Upstander Intervention Trainings.

STAY SAFE, LIVE LIFE

I used to work a regular 9 to 5 job, before shifting my focus on teaching self-defense. A feature of many regular jobs is having co-workers. Some you like, some you get along with, and others, not so much. At one job I had two co-workers who really did not like each other, we’ll call them Sally and Nicky. They pretty much did the same tasks for different supervisors, but often disagreed on processes. And every so often, their disagreements would get a bit loud. Specifically, Sally would get loud.

Now, when Sally got loud it wasn’t just that her vocal volume went up. She began verging on, and often crossed over into, verbal abrasiveness, even abuse. That’s not really surprising. When we take on expressions of anger, such as raising our voices, the emotion — even if we don’t intend it — will often also rise. (We discuss that in our self-defense classes, as one reasoTwo co-workers who dislike each other, an intervention may need to happen.n why using your voice is so important.)  Sally would ALWAYS deny that she was angry, her voice just got naturally happened to get loud. But the reality was, it didn’t JUST get loud. She’d begin throwing in derogatory comments on the other person’s overall competence and intelligence.

One day Sally and Nicky began one of their discussion just outside my cubicle. As usual, it began in quiet tones, but within a couple of minutes Sally’s voice began to rise. I got up from my desk, walked over, looked each of them in the face, and said, “indoor voices, please.” Then went back to my desk. They kept it down for another minute, but then Sally’s voice again began rising. Again, I walked over and said in a firmer tone, “indoor voices please.” This time the remainder of the conversation was held in conversational tones.

Later that day Nicky thanked me for intervening. Because Sally’s voice never rose to the point of agitation, she didn’t get to that verbally abusive level.

I’m not saying this will work in any and all situations. I had insider knowledge, a “special sauce.”  I knew the participants well enough to recognize that Sally did value the appearance of appropriate workplace behavior. I also believe she thought I had influence with the bigger boss. Those two factors probably contributed a LOT to why my “special sauce” intervention worked.

One critical aspect of bystander intervention is that while intervention is important, in our ideal world we’d all interact with other people in non-harmful manners, we’d all have that level of self-awareness and care. In that ideal world, we would not have to intervene, but if we did we’d be more comfortable and confident doing so. Maybe we’d all know and care about our friends and colleagues, so we have our own “special sauces” that would appeal to their better selves. We don’t live in that ideal world, so how do we signal to others joining our social and work groups that our norms are more respectful and non-harmful? We explicitly state those boundaries and expectations, we hold each other (as well as ourselves) accountable for actions, and we have appropriate consequences for inappropriate behavior.

I personally never overheard a Sally and Nicky argument after that. Unfortunately, they did continue, out of my earshot, because it seemed I was the only one to speak up. Was I the only person who had the recipe for the “special sauce?” No, but apparently I was the only one not too uncomfortable speaking up.  So even if you feel let off the hook because someone else already said something, no you are actually not off the hook. Please consider how to do your part to create a safer environment, so you can lessen the odds that you’ll ever have to use your more drastic self-defense skills.

This morning I was reading an advice column where the inquirer had told their family that, even though they hosted every year, because of the pandemic there would be no Thanksgiving gathering this year.  Yet that Thanksgiving morning family members showed up, each with an excuse why it was okay for them to be there. The inquirer wanted to know how to “lovingly” shut the door to uninvited guests who are putting you at risk.  How you can still be setting boundaries, effectively and without damaging relationships.

The responder, quite accurately, got to the point that there’s a difference between caring about others’ feelings and assuming RESPONSIBILITY for said feelings, and we should set our boundaries according to our needs and safety. Check out this article for the details.

The responder states the answer is patently obvious, which is true.  You could say (and I am paraphrasing and expanding what the responder wrote), “Cousins, Happy Thanksgiving!  What brings you here?  I already told you we weren’t having our usual gathering. Why would you come anyway? I am very much looking forward to a time when we can again safety be physically together.”

But what is also obvious yet unstated by the responder is the long-term effects of socialization, expectations, and fear of facing negative emotions.  Not to mention lack of support from others in the family.  Setting boundaries in families are among the most challenging interactions we can have.

It would have been another step for for responder to go into a bit about socialization, where certain people are expected to put others’ comfort over their own safety. When I ask, many students say they have not set boundaries in the past because they did not want to damage a relationship (note they didn’t seem to be as concerned with the other person’s actions in damaging the relationship). Second common reason was not wanting to deal with others hurt or angry feelings.

This is a lot to unpack for setting boundaries, and it is crucial to understand and deal with your own discomfort if you are to successfully set boundaries.

It happens to everyone.  You say or do something that offends or upsets another.  You care about that other person, and you recognize why your actions or words caused them grief.  You acknowledge it to them, and say you are sorry.

While knowing how to apologize is an important safety (and social) skill, it is not today’s topic.

Today I want to emphasize that your setting a boundary is not cause for an apology.

You should not have say sorry for treating your needs and peace of mind as priorities.  You should not have to say sorry for taking your own safety and comfort into account.  You should not have to say sorry for self-care.

You should not have to say sorry for taking up your personal space.  You should not have to say sorry for having your own opinions, and voicing them.  You should not have to say sorry for taking time for yourself.

But still, you may find yourself apologizing just to get by, just to get through the day.  Because it seems you’re judged more harshly when you dare to assert yourself.  And you still need to get along with others at work, or in some social settings.  If that is the case, if you decide to make that tactical decision to use the “s” word, do it with no guilt.  Because it’s your choice.  Sometimes, in considering personal safety, you have a choice between being safe and being right.  That is your determination.  You may not want to fight every battle, so choose which are most important for you.  Do remember, however, that this is the result of a specific power dynamic, a tug-of-war over who gets to define what is “acceptable” or “appropriate” or “normal.”

And remember that a truly crucial element of your personal safety is the choice you make to keep yourself safer.

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?