We most often see self-defense training with depictions of strong, confident people punching or kicking a bag. What we cannot see is the roller coaster of emotions it can take to get there. Coming to class often takes tremendous courage just to step foot in the door.
It seems that many people take up training after something has happened. So they are working not just on physical skills, but on working through the trauma and aftermath of their experience. I have seen this countless times with students. Then I experienced the aftermath of violence for myself.
I had been training and teaching for decades when my ex assaulted and stalked me back in 2009. I was able to handle myself alright in the moment. But what I wasn't prepared for was how my body reacted to certain triggers in the aftermath. I had gone from a confident martial artist and self-defense instructor to someone who suddenly couldn't breath at the mere sight of a training partner who had a passing resemblance to my ex.
Luck was on my side with supportive friends, instructors, classmates and therapist to help me recover. From that lived-experience I have gone on to study trauma and trauma-informed self-defense in hopes of helping others.
The following is a lightly edited message I shared with someone who was struggling with training after experiencing violence. I am honored to be one of many voices of encouragement that helped her reach her goals. I am sharing publicly here (edited to delete personally identifiable information) in hopes of supporting someone who may be struggling in a self-defense class.
You said you feel weak and worthless because you are having a hard time staying in the training room. That doesn't make you weak or worthless, that makes you completely normal. You’ve experienced violence. Now you are looking to learn how to protect yourself. That makes you a fucking badass.
How do I know? Because you survived your experience and you did it relying on your instincts. It may not have looked like a choreographed Hollywood movie, but you did it and you’re here.
I also know you’re a badass because you want to make improvements and that alone can be scary. Going to any self-defense class with the potential of re-visiting that trauma is no joke. You are brave to make it as far as you have with classes.
You’re also a badass because trauma induces chemical changes in our body. The hyperventilating, the fear etc is COMPLETELY NORMAL in the aftermath of violence. The fact that you are taking actions (however small they may seem to you) is huge and brave and badass.
Now that we’ve established that you are a badass, how do you move forward?
I have a couple of suggestions based on my experience as a self-defense instructor, martial artist, competitive judoka and survivor of violence.
First suggestion: keep reminding yourself how badass and brave you already are (see above).
Second, talk to someone you can trust about your experience. They may be a professional, or they may be a kind and understanding friend. You don’t have to dump everything out all at once. YOU control the pace, you control to conversation.
Additional healing work like EMDR is highly recommended to re-set your brain and nervous system to a more even state.
And for sure practice some physical form of release and empowerment. Self-defense training is a great tool for this. You may very likely get triggered by some classes and techniques/drills. THAT IS COMPLETELY NORMAL.
Again, you set the boundaries and the pace. It may feel like you are making no progress, but if you chip away, even little by little, you WILL make progress. Keep at it long enough and you won’t even recognize your old (current) self.
It is also a good idea to let your instructor(s) know you’ve experienced some trauma (you don’t owe them the story) so they can be more valuable to you. They should be sensitive to this anyway. If they don’t know how to work with trauma survivors look elsewhere.
And lastly, please be kind to yourself. There is no overnight fix. This is a journey, but it does get better when you put in the work. On days you don’t have it in you, just remind yourself of how far you have already come and do something kind for yourself.
I'm here if you want to talk - in the meantime, I am rooting for you.