These last 2 weeks I’ve been outlining finding support after assault.  Self-care is a critical aspect of anyone’s overall safety plan, and the central pillar of self-care is knowing who among your family and friends could support you after any assault, regardless of outcome.  Two weeks ago I began outlining traits of those individuals, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human does.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Two weeks ago I described what listening looks and sounds like.  Last week I described what believing you and reminding you it wasn’t your fault looks and and sound like.  Today I have a few more words on blame and fault-finding, and then move on to creating community.

First, some words about those who habitually blame victims for their own assaults. This is chronic in domestic violence, where the abuser is manipulating the target’s perception.  Very often also manipulating the perception of those around, cutting off ways of getting support.  This is often described as “gaslighting.”  It is a long-term strategy for you to relinquish control and hand over decision-making.

Getting support? Not from them!

Getting support? Not from them!

A major process in our culture is an adversarial approach — our justice system and political system are set up to pit two sides against each other, there are defined rules and referees, they duke it out like a boxing or martial arts sparring match, and a winner is picked. So it’s not really a surprise that some of us expand that view, that life is a brutal competition.  It bleeds into other parts of our lives, where there are no explicit rules, no referee, and it’s not a good fit.  And it’s all about power.

There does not need to be a long-term relationship for blame-shifting to occur.  People who harm others often try to shift attention away from themselves and their actions to what the victim did “wrong.”  The stereotypical ones include “what was she wearing,” “how much did she drink,” and “she was flirting.”  Others in our communities, like ourselves, want to stay safe and part of their process, though, is to find out details about what happened to others and resolve to not make the same “mistakes.” Except there’s a big problem with this approach.  The person targeted may have done something different, and it may have made a difference, or maybe not.  There are people who do “wrong” stuff all the time — they smile at strangers, they drink a lot, maybe even pass out on a friend’s couch.  And didn’t get assaulted.  Because there was no assailant present.  The common elements of all assault isn’t clothing choices or alcohol consumption or flirting, it’s the person(s) who made the bad choice to take what they wanted, regardless of consent.

Do you want to wait until after an assault to figure out who your supportive friends are?  Probably not.  Rather, you can be cultivating those relationships now.

My colleague Yehudit Sidikman of ESD Global suggested in a recent blog post that you practice talking about “what-if” scenarios with those important people in your life.  One of her examples is, “mom, if something like this [kind of assault] ever happened to me, how would you react if I told you?”  Or begin a conversation with a good friend like, “ I’ve never had this happen to me, but I am wondering how you would react if I came to you and told you that [add story].”  Maybe there was a recent assault in the news, you could use that as your example.  Or a particular #MeToo story.  Their responses can give you some information about what they think about assault and blame.  We do all know that there’s often a gap between what a person says and what they will do, so please temper this with what you already know about them.   But, perhaps more importantly, it will also give them food for thought. And this does not have to be a “one-off” discussion, and should not be a one-off.  You transition that “what-if” into a conversation on what it means to be supportive, to be a friend, do you want to be supportive, when do you feel it important to be supportive.  When these conversations happen with a few people in your circle, and it becomes less awkward, you get a better sense of where people are at.  You find those who share your values, and you maybe even move others to really think about what support means.

Building these relationships takes a while.  And it is critical.  And that’s how communities begin, one relationship at a time.

Why don’t you begin with the very next conversation you have with someone close?  Today is not too soon.

Today, November 11, is Veterans Day.  The one day where we as a nation formally thank those who served our country with their military service. Parades, taking out old photos and uniforms, visits to memorials.  We recognize all those who served.  At the same time, as a nation we are less caring about veterans’ getting support they need.

For about 12 years (between 2003 and 2014) I worked with Dr. Wendy David, Dr. Ann Cotton, and the VA Medical Center in Seattle on the Taking Charge project.  This 12-week self-defense program was for women veterans who were suffering from long-term, chronic PTSD as a result of sexual assault while in military service.  (Unfortunately, the program ended when Dr. David retired.)  If you are familiar with PTSD, you know it’s not pretty.  Watch this short video for more on the effects and possible causes.

While this blog post not an exposition on PTSD, I have to note there’s a significant correlation between social support and the likelihood of an assault survivor developing PTSD.  One commonality all the participants in Taking Charge had was a lack of support from those around them after their assaults.  Our culture does come with a large victim-blaming component, and sorting out those who can be supportive from those who won’t is likely to be critical to your long-term health and happiness.

Last week I began outlining how to find those individuals who would be supportive, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Last week’s post was on the first bullet point, listening.  Today I’m moving on to the other two.

They believe you.  Most women are assaulted by someone known to them, particularly in cases of sexual assault.  They may be a friend, a co-worker, a classmate, a colleague, a family member.  Because of that, others you know will also know that assailant.  When you confide in someone in that same circle, it can get complicated.  That person may be struggling to wrap their brains around what you are telling them, which may be totally counter to their own experiences with the assailant.  They’re trying to figure out how someone they know as a kind and generous soul could have done something so wrong.  We humans do not do well with that sort of cognitive dissonance.  That can come out as questioning your account of what happened, which comes across as non-supportive.  One option is to confide in someone from another social circle.  Another is to cultivate relationships of support, which is the topic of next week’s blog post.

Finally, a supportive person will remind you that the assault was not your fault.  Period.  End of sentence.  It is so common for the person assaulted (or targeted) to go over details again and again and again in their heads, trying to figure out if they could have, should have, done something different.  Maybe there is something they could have done differently.  It may or may not have made a difference.  It’s overlooking the fact that someone else made that choice to harm someone.  That’s right, the assailant is not like a fast-moving river into which you slip and fall.  Rivers don’t make choices to injure or drown people.  But people do.  The assailant is the person who is responsible for their actions.  If you are the listener, please make it a point to remind your friend/family member of that.

And, in a nutshell, that’s how you know someone is supportive.  But, do you really want to wait until you are in need to find those trusted, supportive folks?  No.  Next week we’ll look at building supportive communities.

I’ve been teaching self-defense for over 25 years.  And for most of those years I’ve been teaching that self-care is an essential part of everyone’s safety and self-defense planning. Self-care covers a wide range of actions, like exercise or meditation or listening to music or watching funny cat videos on YouTube or a glass of wine or seeking medical care or . . . pick your top three ways to calm yourself when upset or anxious.  My personal favorite is playing music — drumming along to some of my all-time favorite songs, or muddling through a guitar chord progression with overdrive and reverb.

But, if I had to pick just ONE self-care practice as most critical, it has to be getting support from other people. We humans are social creatures. Any assault, or attempted assault, regardless of outcome, often feels isolating and like a loss of control over important aspects of life. Connecting with another human helps offset that, but only when that other human is supportive. We do live in a highly victim-blaming culture, and have to recognize that not every one of our acquaintances (or even family or closer friends) will be open to supporting you.

Over the years I’ve heard from several students that, when confiding in those who they assumed would be supportive, were met with statements such as “what did you expect,” or “you sure won’t make that mistake again,” or “I hope you learned something from that experience,” or “how could you let that happen to you.”  As humans, we will often look to safety, or at least to mitigate and manage risks.  Some people’s interest in hearing about others’ misfortunes is to “inform” themselves so they won’t make the same “mistakes.”  And sometimes they will think they are helping by informing you of their conclusions.  It may not mean they are a bad person, but it does mean they don’t have (or are not willing to make available) emotional bandwidth for you.

But let’s get back to getting support. How would we recognize that supportive human? Is there a covert signal or secret handshake?

By what they do. Here’s my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

    One woman is getting support from another.

    Getting support from a trusted friend or family member is an important component in healing from assault.

I’m going to go over each of these three items.  In this blog post, it’s listening.  Next couple of weeks will cover believing and not blaming you.  And then we’ll tie it up with steps for the future.

First, though, I strongly suggest that you give a potential listener a heads-up that you’d like to share something uncomfortable.  Give them a chance to assess their readiness to offer support.  Or, if necessary, set their own boundaries.  Even the best supporters are not available 24/7 to everyone (self-care, remember?).  An important part of getting support is that the support has to be voluntarily given!

Someone who is listening is really LISTENING, rather than trying to figure out their snappy reply.  Listening is NOT letting you talk for 10, 20, or 60 seconds, then interrupting with “hey did you try THIS?  You coulda done THAT, you shoulda done THAT, I woulda done . . . ”  Thank that person for their time, and move on.  They don’t have bandwidth for you.

Rather, listening involves taking in what that other person is offering.  A really good listener will treat what you’re saying as a gift, and if they have the emotional space they will be paying attention to what you are saying and the event’s impact on you.  You may hear something more like, “That sounds horrible, I’m so sorry you had that experience!  I am here for you.”  And now is where listening is super important.  The listener could assess if you need to just talk, or if they are looking for advice, or if they have their next steps and want your help.  And, dear listener, it’s OK to ask.  Do keep in mind that part of the trauma of assault is the feeling that control over ones life has been torn away; one goal of the listener is to help empower those hurt by making sure their choices are really theirs.

Next week, we look at the other two items on my list, believing and reminding that assault is not your fault.

“Found weapons” is a common class topic.  What do you have in your pocket, your purse, your backpack, that can be used to help fend off an attacker?  A common response is “keys.”  Yes, keys can serve as a self-defense weapon.  However, most students show me a very awkward way to hold them, poking out between fingers like brass knuckles or Wolverine (the superhero) claws.  A better way to hold keys is how you’d open a door — it’s more stable and easy to aim, more maneuverable, and less likely to injury yourself.

I’ve heard that, in the right hands, anything can be used as a weapon (good chance you’ve watched the same bad movie and heard that too).  So watch this video (from my Facebook Live of 10/14/2020).  I do use some technical terms, such as “pokey” and “thwacky.”  These, along with “projectile,” describe different types of weapons.  Look around you, and pick up an object.  Is it pointy and fairly rigid?  Maybe it can be used to poke someone in the eye or throat or other soft tissue.  Does it have heft?  Maybe it can be used to hit someone.  Can you throw it?   That would be a projectile.

Now pick up an object of your choice and try to use it on an inanimate object (such as pillow or box).  Does it slip out of your hand?  Maybe find a better example, or alter your grip.  While it’s great to have an idea and even an object for a weapon, trying it out a couple of times is even better.

This year is winding down, and I’m considering my class schedule for the beginning of 2021.  Anything you’d like to see?  Contact me.  Or check back to see what’s currently online.  Maybe we’ll have a short session on found weapons.

A few years ago I taught two very short classes at a local high school. This school had set aside some time to bring in community experts for extra-curricular programming, and students were able to select which classes they would attend. My two classes were identical, or should have been. Both were for older high school students, both mixed gender though mostly girls, both had between 20 and 25 participants, both had the same class outline, same activities, same discussion topics. Both were even in the same room. One of the school’s teachers sat in on the classes, sort of as a proctor.  And I came away with a clear illustration of group dynamics and learning about safety.

As I mentioned, both classes were mostly girls with a few boys. But in the first class, the girls were more giggly, reluctant to show competence, especially in physical skills such as striking a mitt, and kept looking around as if to see who was watching. A couple of the boys were more vocal, in a participatory way, then average. It’s not like there was “mansplaining” going on, or those boys interrupting girls, or making disparaging comments. The girls were acting in a very self-conscious manner.

The second class was different. Similar size (a couple fewer kids), similar gender distribution. But different dynamics. In this class there was a lot less giggling. Everyone seemed to participate in class activities, including the basic striking skills, and striving for improvement. No single person, or group, stood out as sharing more than their due.Learning self-defense physical moves

After the two classes I chatted a bit with the room’s teacher. I brought up my observations of the different group dynamics. She thought the difference was in the specific participants — the first class included some of the “popular” boys. Boys who were admired, who she thought of as “good” kids but their opinions were given greater weight by other students. The boys in the second class were also well-liked, but they were not in the “popular” group.

Aren’t group dynamics interesting!  Now combine group dynamics and safety.  How does the interaction of group members affect learning skills to stay safer?

I’ve always had “socialization” as a class topic, and since then I’ve expanded the conversation. (Especially now that classes are online.)  Socialization is what behavior is rewarded, in a social way, or punished. Peer pressure. So you’re in school and say something, and a few others make faces that indicate your comment did not at all resonate with them, and they ignore you and don’t sit with you at lunch . . . peer pressure and socialization.  Can this happen at work also?  Oh yes.

For girls (well, not just girls), I ask them to think about when they wanted to say no, or set a boundary but did not. What were the barriers? How much of that is social pressure? We are social creatures, we look to others for acceptable behavior, for standards, for boundaries.

Never under-estimate the need to fit in. While this is most often connected with teens, it does impact all age groups in varying degrees. Sometimes social pressure and your needs are at odds. And part of your safety planning is in recognizing those situations, navigating those situations, and making honest and accountable (to yourself) choices.

Stay safe, live life.

In self-defense we talk a LOT about saying NO and STOP and BACK OFF!!!  But more often in our routine lives saying YES could be the more satisfying option.  What if the request is coming from a stranger?  Here I’m going to describe one instance of my process.

This happened to me only a couple of years ago. I live in a little house in the part of Seattle called Beacon Hill, which is south of downtown and even south of the baseball and football stadiums. A quiet residential area, except for the nearby highway and airports, which can be a bit noisy in a droning sort of way. Not exactly a cul-de-sac, but limited cross-streets and little traffic. That nearby highway is Interstate 5, and I could just cross the street, walk a few feet to the fence, go through the gate, and I’m a hop, skip, and jump from the road.

It was middle of the afternoon, middle of the week, in the summer.  I had arrived home after teaching a morning class, pulled up in front of my little house. Got out of my car, locked the door, and turned to go up my walkway. From the corner of my eye I saw a person. Now my neighborhood sees few pedestrians, especially in the middle of the day, so a pedestrian is noteworthy. Especially one carrying what looked like several gallon plastic jugs.

He called out to me, “Miss, hey Miss!”  I turned. He was on the sidewalk in front of my little house, and I was half-way down my walkway (so there was quite a bit of distance between us). He said his car’s radiator sprung a leak, and he asked if he could get some water.

I could have run into the house and locked the door, but like most humans I prefer to be helpful.  Saying YES would fulfill that, and how could I make sure I stayed safe at the same time?  I noted he did seem to be stressed. Could have been from his car’s breakdown, or considering that if I said no he may have to knock on doors which would be more stressful. Perhaps he didn’t have access to AAA or other roadside assistance. But the most important clue was that he stayed on the sidewalk. He did not try to get closer by coming onto my walkway, and seemed mindful of boundaries. So I said YES.  I would bring out the garden hose and he could fill his jugs. He asked if it were OK to come back a second time, and I said sure, just let me know when he was done. And I got the hose, brought it close to where he was and still kept over 10 feet of distance. I left him to his refilling. Of course I watched periodically as he filled jugs, left, returned, filled them again. When I figured he was done I went to my doorway, we made brief eye contact and he thanked me and left.  He even smiled! He looked less stressed. After he crossed the street and disappeared onto I-5, I retrieved the hose.

If you’ve taken any of my self-defense classes, you may remember that all attackers need both a target and an opportunity. If you short-circuit either, you’ll be safer. Signs of opportunities, also called red flags, I could have been looking for would be distracting chatter, self defense using your voice saying yesquestions of a personal nature, or questions about my neighbors that feel intrusive.  And simultaneously trying to stealthily move closer. Because any attack depends on proximity. That was my key indicator then, and it in this instance it worked out well.

Keep in mind this was MY response at that time. It does NOT make it the best response or the correct response.  I believe the thought process is far more informative than the specific decision.  And while I made a decision, I did keep the young man on my radar and was ready to re-assess that decision should the situation change.  Saying YES is an important choice, one which we should be able to consider.

And that’s all for today. Stay safe, live life.

Red flags. Those warnings that something is amiss. Also called trusting your gut feelings, listening to your intuition, paying attention to your instincts. That’s recognizing boundary violations, which is why we feel uncomfortable. We know what that feels like, and we also sometimes try to sweep those feelings aside. Have you ever ignored red flags? How does that usually turn out? Why do so many of us ignore them?

I think a large part is that most of us do want to get along with most people — neighbors, co-workers, family, clients, coaches, acquaintances, friends. A lot of us also feel that the red flag in question, the words or behavior that jolted us into this questioning mindset, is so small it’s insignificant. And besides, different people have different boundaries, right?  That’s just their particular boundary, right? Not everyone with different boundaries means harm — most don’t! Though some do, and how do you tell the difference?

In the beginning, you don’t. It’s hard to determine if that slight boundary bump was inadvertent or a deliberate boundary test as you’re getting to know someone. However, what you can rely on is that feeling of discomfort. That’s what’s important. And you are entitled to have your own boundaries.

In my self-defense classes I often ask students what they are currently doing to keep themselves safer. Most answer along the lines of not going out alone at night, or parking their car in a well-lit space, or locking doors and windows, or carrying pepper spray, or keeping their keys in their hand at the ready. Most actions that people take to keep themselves safer involve threat from strangers. Yet women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know, someone who’s done boundary testing to make sure you’d be a good victim.

How do you stay safer with people you know? By setting your boundaries when you feel the red flags. That might seem Self defense class red flagsuncomfortable. You have boundaries with everyone, even your family and best friends, that’s healthy. Even small ones. In a matter-of-fact manner, with confidence. Manipulators hate having boundaries set. You might experience a bit of pushback, to see if those boundaries are real. So keep them real as you set them. And set them

You can use your voice. It is a really good idea to verbally articulate your boundaries. Use your body language. Your voice and your body language should work together. Take up some more of your space bubble. Use your arms and hands to take up that space — you can talk with your hands. Stand up straight. Good eye-to-face-contact. And when you’re setting a boundary you don’t have to smile at them.

In my classes I also ask students who they want to smile at. Responses generally are family, friends, pets, small children, people I like. People I want to encourage. If you are setting a boundary to discourage a specific behavior, you probably don’t want to smile at that person! It can send a mixed message, with your words saying no but your tone saying maybe or try harder or even yes if you convince me. You want your words and body language to be congruent, to work together.

Use your feet! Control the distance between you and the other person. If someone is standing too close during a conversation, you can step back and use your hands, talk with your hands, to occupy that space.

Sometimes students are worried about making the other person angry, or losing the relationship.  I think of it this way. If someone told me that I were standing a bit too close during a conversation, I’d feel a bit embarrassed that my action made someone I care about uncomfortable.  How about you?  That being said, sometimes setting new boundaries in old relationships will come with some pushback and discomfort, as the other person may be left wondering what’s going on and feel at a loss. It may take some emotional effort, some back-and-forth, communication of intent, and even some justification. But as a result, you may have better boundaries and better relationships.

Have you ever been out walking, for errands or exercise, and felt something amiss?  And you realize the same person seems to be consistently behind you?  Perhaps as you’ve glanced back it seems like they’re suddenly looking away.  You wonder, are they following me?  And you search your brain for your safety skills.

That’s happened to a lot of my students.  It’s happened to me.  This video is about that incident, almost 40 years ago.  Way before I began teaching self-defense, even before I realized that self-defense was a thing.

I still remember it in detail, even though this happened so long ago.  I occasionally wonder how it influenced my later choices, who I consider trustworthy, or my foundations of personal safety and safety skills.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book Talking To Strangers, proposes that unless it’s super obvious, we give people we just meet the benefit of the doubt and some of our trust.  After a while, it gets hard to change our minds about them, even when they begin to violate our boundaries and eventually cause us grief.  In fact, he infers that people who are  NOT inclined to trust others are lonely and unhappy paranoids.  (I reviewed this book on Facebook Live a few months ago.)  Not surprisingly, many students who doubt another’s intent express concern that they are paranoid.  Well, if that other person is pushing your boundaries and not listening when you correct them, you’re not paranoid.

In this story, a stranger does push boundaries.  A common response is to ignore that person, which is more likely to work when there is greater distance between you and them.  That tactic did not work in my case, and I moved on to others.  And one of the indicators of more likely success in self-defense is having a few tricks up your sleeve, and switching them until you find which works.

You’ll learn quite a few tricks in these self-defense classes, which currently are all online.

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.

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?