In Defense of Self: The Real Mental Value of Self-Defense Training

My journey learning self-defense took me on an unsuspected path – that the real value of self-defense is not physical, but in learning to defend who I truly am, and in discovering who I truly am.

Before I found Brazilian jiu-jitsu I was never a joiner of fitness classes, preferring the freedom to do my own thing, run in my own direction. My Brazilian jiu-jitsu journey started with a once a week, eight-week course in Self-Defense in December 2005. It was difficult to say the least to commit to an eight class series – to make my own commitment, for something I wanted to learn; to put my desire first; to show up and not let other events overtake; to defend Monday nights from 5:30 – 7:00, for eight weeks. I had to defend against my need to put others needs first, to put myself in second place.

When I first started I was in physical therapy for a running injury. My pelvis was tilted back and to one side, giving me a false short leg. I couldn’t bridge and turn to the left side to save my life. My core was weak. I was overweight. I looked older than I was. I was trying to get back in shape and was training to do a triathlon in the summer, and thought learning some self-defense skills would be helpful when training alone on the trails.

2006 proved to be a challenging year. Not only was I in physical therapy, but I was in mental therapy, too. Turns out I wasn’t going to just learn physical self-defense techniques and walk away at the end of an eight week course. Turns out I was actually on a journey we’ll call “In Defense of Self” – a defense of health and fitness, of spirit, of happiness, an integration of mind and body. A self that needed to be recovered, found, dusted off and put back together.

Definition: Self-Defense

  1. Defense of oneself when physically attacked
  2. Defense of what belongs to oneself

Perhaps the second definition should be listed first. You need to know what belongs to you – your space, your body, and your mental or emotional status in order to be able to defend it. You need to believe in your self-worth in order to defend yourself. You need to know it is not okay for others to take from you – whether it’s something physical like your wallet, or something more intangible like your motivation and dreams.

As I continued to sign-up for eight-week session after eight-week session of self-defense, it became something to hold on to. I learned to escape all the headlock holds, wrist grabs, and throat grabs. How to block a punch, how to clinch, how to fall and get back up again. I started to figure out how to move my body. I figured out I had a body. And my body wasn’t the enemy. Having spent so much time with sports injuries, chronic sinusitis, and endometriosis, I had dissatisfaction in and distrust of my body. It did me no good and did nothing but let me down and cause me pain.

But something crazy happened. I reclaimed my body as a partner. These hands, these arms, this bridge, this twist, and I could toss someone off of me. I could control my limbs, my core, and the space around me. It was possible – I could have physical say over what could happen. My body was no longer the enemy, no longer a constant source of disappointment, but a reliable partner.

Physical Training vs. Mental Training

The physical body and physical training of self-defense techniques are only part of the equation. The mental aspect is perhaps even more difficult to train. I’d propose that physical training is in fact significantly easier. Lift this weight 10-20 times, with sets sets, twice a week and you will see a difference. But change a thought pattern you’ve relied on for 15, 20 years, or more? That is a significant challenge.

Jiu-jitsu taught me to feel or, rather, to connect the mind and body. To balance my strengths and weaknesses, to see when strength in one context became weakness in another context. I apologized for the first two (okay five) years of jiu-jitsu to my partner – first out loud, then to myself, and then just with my actions. Holding back there, letting up there, feeling their pain, or discomfort. Identifying with their pain, discomfort, their ego, their trying to hang onto themselves in a bad position. Recognizing my own symptoms of pre-panic in others.

I’ve had to practice focusing on my game, to be what feels to me a little selfish, to go for attacks and dominant positions, and to trust the other person to take care of their own mental and emotional status. They are here to train and fight and don’t need me to take care of them. In fact, it takes away from their training and does them a disservice. They, too, need to practice not escaping to a safe mental place when stuck in a tough situation, but to stay in the room both emotionally and mentally and to tough it out. They too need opportunity to manage their ego.

These mental aspects can be trained and you need to seek out the tools that work for you. I’ve been working on this aspect the past six months or so. I got two smart bits of advice that really helped me make progress.

  • First – Do a Self Check: Do a self-check before entering a situation, whether it be a sparring match or a difficult conversation at work. What is my mental and emotional status? What am I feeling? What in essence am I bringing into the room, the match, or the conversation? When I leave the room, the match, or the conversation, I should be leaving with those same things. I don’t need to take anything from the other person with me; I don’t need to take their frustration (its theirs, not mine), their personal angst, or their workload. My wise friend Mark says “Don’t be greedy with other people’s problems.” This bit of advice has helped me immensely to defend my Self and not let it be consumed by others. Not that others ever ask for me to do that, it’s just a bad habit that needs to be broken.
  • Second – Protect Your Energy: The second bit of advice was from my acupuncturist. Essentially, I needed to protect my chi, protect my energy. I did this by imagining a protective shell around my core before slapping hands for a match, or before a difficult conversation. They are them; I am me.

Stop Being Too Nice

This being “too nice” aspect has other ramifications for self-defense. Too often women are taught to be nice, to not offend, to not potentially hurt others feelings. This can cause issues that can actually put you in danger. In a parking lot, or when someone comes to your door, you might ignore intuition or let someone get closer than you should, because you are being too nice. It is hard work to undo this lifetime of training. I have finally learned I don’t have to open the door just because someone knocks on it.

This is similar to the weak no. Controlling people look for the weak no. They push the limit to override your decision. This is an aspect of self-defense that is completely mental and but can be trained with practice just like physical self-defense. This is well covered in The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker and should complement physical self-defense training. I’m still learning the strong unconditional no and to not apologize for it.

Believe Your Self-Worth

A key to self-defense is belief in your self-worth. Self-worth is different from self-confidence. I can have boatloads of confidence in my abilities, my brains, or other attributes. Self-worth is different. It’s deeply internal and hard to see, it’s an internal nugget, whereas self-confidence radiates outwards. Self-worth says you are worth defending.

When we teach self-defense to teenage girls, it always brings a lump to my throat to talk about self-worth. To tell them they matter for more than their looks or who they date or how perfect they are in school, but for what they as individuals have to offer the world. It’s a precious commodity that can easily slip away. Self-worth says you are worth defending – in more than one way, from more than just physical danger.

Self-worth says –

  • You are worth eating healthy
  • You are worth the time it takes to put on your running shoes
  • You are worth the time it takes to seek out health care
  • You are worth taking a moment to breathe deeply
  • You are worth having your ideas heard and your opinion considered
  • You are worth not losing yourself to someone else

I get asked, “Have you had to use what you’ve learned in your training?” I used to say no, not since I’ve learned it but I could have used it in the past. Now I have a new answer. “Yes, every day, every day I use what I’ve learned in self-defense – in defense of self.”

My goal now is for other women, the women who need it most, to find an open door to the beautiful game of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’m not worried about the field hockey players, the rugby players, the has-been high school jocks who find their way into the dojo. They’ll do just fine. I want the ones who aren’t quite sure who they are or why they are there, but have an inkling that somehow it matters they have taken that step to walk in the door and onto the mat. That somehow they matter and that is worth defending.