Self defense is as mental as it is physical. There’s a mental shift that needs to happen before you are ready to defend yourself. It’s not just about learning how to use your body to fight back. It’s not just about learning to pay attention to your surroundings and look for potential dangers. It’s not just knowing how to react and what to do. It’s also about being ready to do so.
This involves a two-step process that you’ll need to embrace and embody. And the sooner the better, because you never know when it can happen to you. But it probably will.
That’s the first lesson.
Step 1: Embrace That It Will Happen To You
The first step is to embrace the fact that this can happen to you. And likely will. Every 73 seconds, someone in America is sexually assaulted. 1 in 6 US women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
I know how you feel. I never thought it could happen to me either. Not really. You hear the horror stories and the statistics, but you still think it won’t be you. I didn’t. I was the quintessential tough girl even at a young age. I was the tomboy who did martial arts and played sports and lifted in the weight room with the boys during PE. I was a regular at the arm wrestling table at lunchtime. I anointed myself the unofficial bodyguard to my friends. I got a bit of a reputation for being a fighter. And I got in fights. So it was a huge shock to me when it happened.
Now my story wasn’t nearly as bad as it is for so many others. But that doesn’t make it any less real or valid. And the same goes for you. Remember that.
How It Happened To Me
Our relationship was troubled from the start, or very shortly after the start — as soon as the honeymoon period wore off, which was pretty quickly. There were many warning signs, many breakups, and a lot of emotional abuse. But I ignored all of them. Excused them away. Assured myself that he’d change, that he loved me, that it was worth it. And despite the warning signs, I still didn’t think it could happen to me. I didn’t realize it was already happening to me. I couldn’t see the reality I was in. He was my first love. My first everything. I thought this was what true love was supposed to be.
The night it happened, we were actually broken up. Temporarily. For the second time. But we were still around each other all the time, constantly hanging out with the same group of friends. That night we were once again drinking with those friends, but the situation was making me uncomfortable, so I left early. He followed me to my room and started sweet talking me, trying to get me to let him in. He grew more and more physical, trying to force his way past the open doorway.
To this day, I don’t really know what he was trying to achieve or how far he would have taken it. He might have just wanted to talk inside. He might have wanted more. It’s all a bit hazy now. Frankly, it was hazy even then.
But what I do remember clear as day was feeling terrified.
I remember desperately trying to push him back, keep him away, get him to leave. Even if I didn’t know why, I felt certain that letting him in would be a horrible idea.
As we struggled in my doorway, his hand suddenly flew up and hit me in the face. To this day, I don’t know if it was an intentional hit or just an accident. But I do remember the hit. It struck me near my left eye. And I remember the very first thing I felt was complete shock. Stunned that it was happening to me.
Thankfully that shock didn’t last long, because the anger set in very quickly. This was me. A tomboy. A trained fighter. Nobody hits me. NOBODY. I leapt at him and fought back. I remember the surprise on his face as I did, but I don’t know if that was surprise at what he’d done or at what I did in response. We fought in the hallway for I don’t know how long. I don’t even entirely remember how it ended. But somehow it did and he left. He never got into my room.
The next morning, my eye swelled up. People asked me what happened and I made up some excuse about an eye infection. I didn’t know what to say.
I didn’t talk about it to anyone. For years.
It took me another year to even get up the courage to end the relationship for good. Yes, I still took him back. Even after that night. He came to me shortly after on his knees. Literally. He begged me to give him another chance. Apologized profusely. Swore he’d never do it again. Said how much he loved me. How no one could love me as much as he did. And I caved. I took him back. And it took another year of ups and downs and ons and offs for me to fully accept that it was toxic, that I deserved more, and finally end it for good. Then it took several more years to process what had happened in that relationship, attack and all, and find the courage to talk about it with others.
I’ve come a long way since and I’m stronger for it now. But that doesn’t change the fact that it happened to me. And it can happen to you. It’s not a matter of IF it will happen, but WHEN. That’s the first thing you need to understand and accept. You can’t control it happening, but you can control how you react.
That’s the second step.
Step 2: Embody The Preparation For When It Does
Once you’ve embraced it will likely happen to you, you need to embody the preparation to do something about it when it does. It’s a mental shift, but it does reflect in your body as well. In how you walk, how you look around and pay attention, and how you stay ready to use all of your faculties, everything at your disposal, to fight back when necessary.
The ironic thing is that in doing this step, by preparing your mind and body for the inevitability of an assault, you are actually making yourself much less likely to be assaulted. You will be strengthening yourself from the inside out. You will carry yourself differently. And it will show.
You will make yourself appear like less of an easy target.
But you need to actually embrace and embody this for it to work. That starts with preparing yourself mentally and physically for the likelihood that you will find yourself in this situation someday. It may be someone you know and think you trust. A boyfriend. A friend. A coworker. A family member. 80% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. 33% by a significant other.
Or it could be someone you meet (seemingly) randomly at a party or bar. It could be a total stranger on the street or in a dark parking lot. The circumstances can vary and you won’t be able to control that. The only thing you can control is how prepared you are and how you will react.
Mind The Shock Wave
It’s the shock that will get you first. That initial shock that hits you like a ten foot tsunami because you can’t believe this is happening. That’s why self defense is so mental. Because it starts as a mental reaction in your brain which then manifests physically in your body. I know how that feels. I know how it can make you freeze and disassociate. And for all too many women, especially any who aren’t already trained, that state of shock can keep them frozen for a dangerously long time.
That’s why so many women freeze up and submit during an assault instead of fighting back. The shock freezes your body because your mind can’t comprehend how this is happening, why this is happening, or that it could be happening to you.
So it’s vital that you break yourself out of this state of shock. Fight off the freeze. In that fight, flight, or freeze moment, the only bad choice is the freeze. And the best way to do that is to embrace and embody the fact that this can happen to you, that it will happen to you, well before it actually does.
Remember, it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
Once you embrace this, you can be prepared to do something about it when it does. And hopefully diminish the chances of it happening at all. If you are prepared, then you can fight back. And look like you are ready to fight back. You can get yourself out of there and look back on it someday as a survivor. Like me, but better.
Sure my situation could have been handled better. But it also could have been a lot worse. I don’t know where it would have gone if I hadn’t fought back. It might have been pretty minor. A heated argument perhaps. Or it might have been far far worse. But I didn’t need to know that then, and I still don’t need to know now, to justify what I did to protect myself. All I need to know is that I felt in very real and imminent danger, and I wasn’t going to find out how far that danger would go.
Step 3: Then Talk About It
Then after you embrace and embody the likelihood that you will someday face the need to defend yourself, I also want you to remember how important it is to talk to someone you trust after the assault is over. As many people as you can. No matter how it ended. Self defense isn’t just about the moment of the attack, but also the many moments that follow. The aftermath is just as important as the preparation before and the survival during.
94% of women who’ve been sexually assaulted experience PTSD within the following two weeks. And for 30% of those, that continues for as long as 9 months afterward. What’s worse, 33% of women survivors contemplate suicide. And 13% actually attempt it.
So you can imagine how hard it is to face what happened for yourself, let alone tell someone else about it. As a result, over 75% of all sexual assaults go unreported. And less than 1% of the assailants are actually convicted and punished. That needs to change.
Talking about it also means reporting what happened to the authorities, both for your own sake and the sake of your assailant’s next target. Don’t let them get away with it. If they did it once, they can do it again. I know this is hard and will take an enormous amount of courage. But that’s why it helps to talk about it with others, who can support you and help you hold them accountable.
You do not need to face it alone. Because you are not alone. So many other women like you and me have been through it too. Whatever version of it. And the more we can all talk about it, the more support we all have, and the bigger difference we can all make. For our own recovery and for one another. We are stronger together.
True strength begins in the mind and continues in the body. It’s not the absence of fear, but rather feeling the fear and fighting through it anyway. If you are prepared to do so, if you can embrace and embody this eventuality, both mentally and physically, you will survive whatever dangers come your way.
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That’s how we do self defense the Tough Cookie way.