No training for you!

In my journey through self-defence I’ve had some serious WTF moments, but this one tops them all. I was talking to several allegedly reputable instructors on a forum about motivations people may have for taking up training. I mentioned actual risk of impending violence, either in terms of a specific threat (e.g. violent ex) or dangers inherent to a lifestyle. One guy stated very clearly that if he thought a student was facing violence, that would be a reason for him to refuse to teach them. Before I had a chance to parse that concept, a bunch of other guys (they were all guys) agreed.

They would not teach students who wanted to learn self-defence because they needed it, because that’s not what a person in actual danger should be doing. A person in actual danger should be doing “the right thing” to eliminate that danger.

I keep trying to fit that in my head, and I can’t. I understand that learning to reduce risks is better than training to face them, but nothing else about their position makes any sense to me.

Firstly, what if the prospective students are doing both? For instance, what if they’ve already gone through removing the violent partner, getting a restraining order, increasing their home security, etc., but they (realistically) still consider their partner an ongoing risk? Are you telling me that there are people operating under the misapprehension that a restraining order can keep baddies at bay, like a cross against vampires? Hell, are you telling me that any self-defence instructors believe that?

What if the prospective students cannot eliminate all risks because those risks are built into their lives, and they can’t just magically change them? I’m not talking about people living criminal lifestyles; I’m talking about people who can’t just stop living in bad neighbourhoods, using public transport, or working jobs that put them in danger, because that’s their life at this point. Because having a better life costs money, money that some people have to earn and save by taking the bloody subway to their dangerous job from their bad neighbourhood.

What if the prospective students can’t just remove potentially dangerous people from their lives because it’s illegal? For instance, if you have shared children or property with a partner you’ve grown not to trust, that doesn’t give you the right to take either from them. (Yes, you could give them up, but please before pushing this options think about the practicalities of it for a bit.) If you think you might have hired a problem employee, that doesn’t give you the right to fire them. People have to actually do something bad to you before “the system” can act to protect you. In the meanwhile, shouldn’t you be doing something to protect yourself?

I don’t get it. Do these instructors believe that people can achieve 100% safety by Doing The Right Thing? If that’s an actual possibility for them, I want to know their secret. I’ve definitely never lived a life in which I thought violence was an impossibility. At most I’ve managed to make it an unlikelyhood.

I wonder if the problem isn’t something else entirely. I wonder if, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, they wouldn’t teach students who need self-defence because they simply don’t trust their own training. I wonder if, in their heart of hearts, they know they’re peddling rubbish.


I keep having to answer the same question from people who don’t understand my fascination with self-defence, risk awareness, emergency planning, etc. Why I’m wasting all this time and effort on “stuff I never use”?

To date, I have explained myself using the fire extinguisher analogy. I spend money on fire extinguishers hoping that they will rust and have to be thrown out having never done anything but accumulate dust. I don’t want to have a house fire to “justify” my investment. I know full well that if I ever need them and I don’t have them, I shall be a very sorry rabbit indeed.

As explanations go, it works reasonably well. It gives people an answer they can relate to. It is only a very small part of the truth, though, and it really doesn’t do the field of self-defence any justice.

One of the things I’ve noticed about good self-defence is that it crosses over into most aspects of my life. For instance:

  • Good “situational awareness” is mindfulness, not paranoia. It’s paying attention and being in the moment. You notice potential dangers, but you also notice the staggering variety and beauty of your surrounding. Plus, you notice how utterly ludicrous people often are.
  • “Limbic system management” (aka managing monkey traps) can make human interactions infinitely less stressful. It can also remove most of the unnecessary drama from your life.
  • Realistic “risk assessments” and “emergency planning” not only help keep you safe, but they can reduce anxiety and increase your options.
  • An awareness of basic human psychology and warning signs can help avoid muggers and rapists, but also trouble partners, friends, employers/employees/customers, etc.
  • “Critical thinking”… hell, I think it’s tragic that it’s become A Thing, because it helps with everything. Making major life decisions. Voting. Buying cereals.
  • Learning to manage adrenaline dumps helps with everything that can cause one: job interviews, exams, interpersonal conflict, dating, etc.
  • Learning to act respectfully towards self and others is probably one of life’s major sources of health, wealth, and happiness.

..and that’s before we ever get to smacking people, which, aside from being fun if you’re that way inclined, also crosses over:

  • Good structure and power generation help with all manners of physical tasks. Not only they can make the work easier, but they can keep your body safe from injuries.
  • Break falls. ’nuff said.
  • Learning how to learn physical skills can be life-changing, particularly for those (like me) who absolutely have no aptitude for it so tended to avoid it growing up. Although it’s an uphill struggle, it transfers over to all kinds of physical endeavours.

And the list could go on indefinitely.

It seems sad to me that so many people don’t see any of this, but I guess it’s inevitable. There is a lot of poor self-defence around, which either does not cross over or, if it does, it can make your life worse. There is nothing useful about paranoia, hostility, or poor structure. Bad attitudes can cause you to get into bad situations, which can convince you of the validity of said attitudes, in a horrid self-reinforcing downward spiral. Injuries are not life-enhancing.

I wonder if that could be used as a measuring stick of good vs. bad self-defence: what is it doing to my life as a whole?



Say I’ve been mauled by a dog. In order to overcome my phobia of dogs, I need to learn to face them. So what you do is drop me in a pit with a rabid Rottweiler*, armed with a spoon, and then compliment yourself on how “realistic” and “empowering” your training is when I shit the bed.


Most people would not do anything like this. However, plenty of people do something very similar. There are some instructors in reality-based self-defence who believe that their system is clearly superior because of the number of students who are routinely “triggered” during training. They see this as an indication of how “realistic” the training is, and how “empowering” or “cathartic” or “transformational” or “insert-buzzword-here” their programme can be.

There is only one problem with this thought process: it’s complete bullshit. The problem – and yes, it IS a problem – is that they are doing things backwards, if they are doing them at all.

Rory Miller (as per usual) says it best:

“For deep self-defense training, there is a progression. First, you must make an emotionally safe place to practice physically dangerous things. And then you must make a physically safe place to do emotionally dangerous things.”

FIRST you give your students the skills to deal with their nightmares. THEN you help them face them. It’s not rocket science. Some triggering will happen regardless, because life is full of teeth and sharp corners. However, if you do it the other way round, all you are doing is messing with people’s heads.

The instructors I’m talking about don’t go through that progression. Instead, they put survivors in the position of re-living some aspect of an event that has traumatised them without having giving them the skills to deal with it any better than they originally did. Students are routinely triggered because, consciously or unconsciously, they know that if the event re-occurred right here and now they would be unlikely to manage it any better than they did the first time, because the tools they’ve been given are frankly shite; only this time they know going into it how much it’s going to hurt.

Then, instead of correctly identifying the resulting high frequency of flashbacks as a symptom of a failure in the system, the instructors use it as proof of the quality of training. They see it as proof that it is”realistic,” rather than “badly organised” or “plain useless.” It’s the equivalent of using the number of sprained ankles to measure the quality of running shoes.

Even worse, these instructors are so busy patting themselves on the back about how wonderful an experience they are providing that they are completely oblivious to what they are doing to students. Newsflash: having a flashback does not bring anyone closer to recovery. On its own, it doesn’t help a damn thing. In fact, it can re-traumatise students, or can give them a nervous breakdown on top of their existing problems. It doesn’t always, but it definitely can.

…but of course that’s the affected students’ responsibility. We warned them that the training was “realistic”!


*Note: I bloody love Rotties. They’re one of my favourite breeds. But I wouldn’t want to fight a rabid one with a spoon.

Stupid solution.

I know a lot of people who aren’t precisely broken, but they are definitely somewhat dented. A lot of them are dented and re-dented in the same places, for the simple reason that they keep re-playing the same movie. It’s not just the fact that they are not always able to dislodge long-term situations that plague them – which, whatever people who don’t know any better may pontificate, isn’t always easy. Their main concern is that, even in brand new settings, they seem to end up in the same old situations. They date the same problem guys, they fight the same nightmare co-workers, they get exploited by the same one-sided friendships, and so on.

Freud put it down to “repetition compulsion“: “a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again.”

Many self-defence experts put it down to “victim vibes”: people who look or act “weaker” – awkward, meek, excessively eager to please, etc. – are bound to attract the wrong attention.

These problem with these two stock solutions isn’t just that they’ve become dogma, liable to be crowbarred into every conceivable situation by people who may not even know enough to even have the right to venture an opinion. The problem is that they often leave the affected people with no visible way out.

If you’ve got a compulsion to re-create your abuse, what can you do? You’re pretty much left with sucking it up, avoiding certain types of situations altogether, or embarking in years of therapy until the mental bolus that forces you down the same tortuous paths is dislodged. In the meanwhile, you can sprinkle some more misery all over your life by blaming yourself for all your troubles.

If you’re emitting victim vibes, what can you do? Radically change your personality, your physique, or your behaviour? What if you can’t change some or even all of it, or if you can’t change it fast enough? There are things that, with the best will in the world, you can’t just magically alter. I’ll forever be under 5′ tall. Stephen Hawking will always be in a wheelchair. People with social anxiety can’t just shrug it off as if it was an old coat. Yet again, you’re left both stuck and blaming yourself.

Moreover, what if you don’t feel “wrong”, but “wronged”? What if you don’t want to be more muscular, more assertive, or more outgoing? What if you if you actually like yourself the way you are? Are your choices to effectively self-damage, or to be damaged by others?

It could be simply my preference for stupid solutions over complicated problems, but I wonder if we’re not overthinking all of this. I wonder if the problem isn’t our subconscious tripping us up, or a mysterious aura attracting evil people to us. I wonder if the problem is just that we keep making bad choices, and all we need to do is to cut that out.

For example, say the problem is that we repeatedly date narcissists. It could be that a subconscious compulsion make us seek out narcissists from the general community. It could be that we are sending out a vibe attracting narcissists to us. Or it could just be that, when faced with narcissistic behaviours, we don’t kick the bastards out of our lives when someone “normal” would. It could be that everyone on the planet meets precisely the same proportion of narcissists as we do, but they all slam doors in their narcissistic faces rather than put up with their nonsense. So instead of having a tortured long-term connection with the narcissist in question and scars to show for it, they just have an unpleasant half hour they can file under “meh.”

Let me give you an example. Say you go out on a date with a person, and their behaviour is less than appropriate; they turn up ludicrously and unjustifiably late, they ogle the waiting staff, they get plastered and start misbehaving, they stick you with the bill, they push for after-dinner erm erm entertainment, whatever. How about instead of wringing your hands about why you keep picking them, or why they keep picking you, you just don’t go on a second date? Yes, this may leave you temporarily dateless, but it will also leave you narcissistless. Problem solved.

Yes, this is bleeding obvious. But it works, and it works now. This approach gives me something concrete I can do, something that can improve my life right here and right now, and also something I can continuously work on until I’m happy with it, until it becomes instinctual. And you know what? I don’t care if I’m wrong or I’m right, and I don’t care if I’m right for the wrong reasons. I just care that this way works.

….And after I wrote that, someone sent me this. Really really REALLY worth a watch.


Victim Vibe

Yet again, not being lazy. Just in awe of better writing.

Please take the gender bias as it (hopefully) is: a woman talking about her experiences as a woman. Men are not immune to this kind of treatment, though as we don’t tend to hear about it you could end up believing they are.

Oh, it’s easy enough to blame victims, to count back the steps to any sexual disaster a woman has survived and hold her nose to the various mistakes she made that led her to doom. If a harassed or raped woman isn’t “slut-shameable” during the given grievance, then the next logical step is to bring her fragility on trial. Everyone looks at her and asks if she was indeed inviting that dreaded “wrong attention”.


Last year I attended Rory Miller instructors’ course (which was brilliant, and not just for instructors, as proven by the fact that I managed to weasel my way into it). For our homework, we were asked to work out the principles of our self-defence system. At the time, I thought I didn’t have a self-defence system (I was totally wrong, but that’s another story). I thereby went off on a tangent and wrote down the principles of the only thing I could think of I’m marginally better at than most of the people I know. The result is The Toolkit. ’tis a sobering reflection upon my life that this far I’ve managed to learn more about getting up when I’ve been knocked down than about avoiding getting knocked down… but there you go.

The original question remains valid, though. What are the principles of my self-defence system? Every time I try to answer the question, I keep coming up with the same two:

  1. What I do should hurt the baddie more than it hurts me.
  2. What I do should decrease my risk of incurring damage compared to not doing it, or doing something else entirely.

I know that it sounds stupid. I know that it makes people laugh. However, the people who laugh the hardest seem to be those who train the most and do the least; those for whom self-defence is a hobby or a self-chosen identity, rather than an applied skill or a job.

Of course a move should hurt the baddie more than me! That’s obvious! But then why is it that so many systems are based on techniques that are statistically proven not to meet this criteria? Of course a tactic should only be chosen when it improves our chances of a safe resolution! What kind of cretin am I? But then why is it that so many people are teaching gun and knife disarms, and nobody’s teaching the “put your bag on the ground, step back, and keep your gob shut” approach? Why is that people are forever giving people advice on legal equalisers, and nobody ever seems to ask about the feasibility of taking a cab instead of walking?

Yes, there are much better principles out there. I could wax lyrical about “power generation” and “biomechanics” and “adaptability” and “performance under stress” and so on. That’s the cool stuff, the stuff people drool over, and also the stuff you can sell. It is good stuff, too: for instance, without good power generation someone my size has no chance against the average person.

Those are good principles, and I’m not knocking them. However, I can’t help thinking that anyone who doesn’t apply these two fundamentals, whether articulated this way or not, is not doing self-defence. If whatever we’re doing isn’t designed for our safety, it may be really groovy, it may look good, and it may make us feel good, but the self-defence label doesn’t fit it too well.

The Eviscetron 2000

My house is an armoury.  I am constantly surrounded by implements of destruction both blunt and sharp. From where I’m sitting, I can see a selection of items with which I can easily bludgeon, stab, cut, mutilate, disembowel, and otherwise dispatch any inconvenient human. And that’s without going into the garage, where the good toys are. In fact, the hardest thing would be deciding which item to go for. The only limiting factor would be the blood splatter on the carpets.

I’m not a psychopath. I’m a homeowner, DIYer, gardener and cook. I own a legal array of tools so I can carry out a variety of constructive and destructive activities – hammers, axes, picks, knives, rotary and reciprocating saws, and so on.  All these items can be lethal. Hell, if everything else fails, I crochet, and having a crochet hook stuck in your eyeball would seriously ruin your plans for the day. All and still, the only thing I own that routinely freaks people out, that makes parents shout “DON’T TOUCH!” at their kids, is my re-enactment sword.

The sword is actually a blunt. It’s infinitely less dangerous than the axe sitting right near it. But the sword is a WEAPON – it is designed to hurt people. The sword is bad and scary. The axe is just a tool.

Most normal people see huge moral differences between objects depending on their primary purpose. It doesn’t matter that you can easily stab someone to death with a pair of hairdressing scissors; a dagger is still infinitely scarier, because it is designed to kill. This doesn’t make a great deal of sense and drives many a self-defence expert to distraction, but this is how the average person thinks.  And it doesn’t matter if they are “right” or “wrong”: how the average person thinks can change your life, because it’s them you’re most likely to face in a jury if you ever find yourself taken to court following a self-defence incident.

Say someone attacks you, you find yourself physical overwhelmed and use an implement to fight them back.  You may believe you’re in the right and may think you have won the fight, but your problems have just started.  You’ve got another fight coming – in court.  Marc MacYoung explains self-defence claims in “In The Name of Self Defence”, which is simply a must-read for anyone who has any level of interest or involvement in the subject.  I can’t begin to touch the surface of the issue here.  It is a complex legal situation that flies against most people’s intuitive beliefs about justice.  The very bottom line, though, is that if you have injured or killed another human being, you will be called upon to explain your actions.  And if you can’t, the rest of your life will suffer.

How easily can you explain yourself?  “Your honour, I was knitting on the bus when he came at me, and in the ensuing scuffle I stuck him.”  “I was in my kitchen making breakfast when he jumped me, hence the bread knife in his chest.”  This sort of explanation may be nowhere near enough to see you home and dry, but at least it makes some level of sense to the average person.  “He walked into my kitchen so I cut him up with the chainsaw”…  not so much.

If you really, really want to jeopardise your situation, though, if you want to antagonise the average juror and end up immediately classed as a bad person, all you’ve got to do is go tactical.

Tactical blades are one of my bugbears. I could rant about them forever.  Even the ones who are well-designed suffer from indelicate marketing and obnoxious names.  If you think this is a non-issue, think again.  Anyone can find out about them on the Internet.  If you could find an advertised fighting knife order to buy it, so can your prosecutor’s minions.  A tactical blade is not seen as a tool; it’s a weapon, designed and marketed specifically for the purpose of hurting other people.  It doesn’t matter that you could have caused just as much injury at a fraction of the price with a screwdriver: their primary advertised purpose is entirely different.

The sad thing about most of the tactikool blades is that they are not designed to be good at killing people, like daggers.  The majority of them are nothing but bog-standard knives that have been painted and tweaked to look oh soooo dangerous and menacing.  The cool, black swept-back lines of the Eviscetron 2000™ do not make it any more useful as a weapon, and neither does its inflated price tag.

However, the Eviscetron isn’t just you average knife.  Stab someone with it and, as if by magic, you’re not just your average citizen defending themselves with the nearest tool; you’re someone who planned to be fighting, hurting or killing.  Why else would you even own, let alone carry, a horrible thing like that?  If you have also engaged in highly questionable behaviour such as having a martial art as a hobby, you’re frankly making it too easy for your prosecutor.  You’re not an innocent victim: you’re a wannabe warrior, a troublemaker, someone for whom this incident is the culmination of an aspiration rather than a tragic and sordid yet unavoidable event.

Whoever calls these things “tactical” is in terrible need of a dictionary.  If you Google “tactic”, the second definition is “the art of disposing armed forces in order of battle and of organizing operations, especially during contact with an enemy.”  That’s all well and good, and it fits the marketing of the tactikool stuff perfectly.  The FIRST definition, however, is “an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.”  And unless your chosen specific end is to spend several years eating prison food, tactical blades just aren’t the right tool for your job.

Missing bits. 3.

The flipside of the past two blogs is that sometimes it really pays to surround yourself with people who know and understand your struggles. It isn’t just the fact that they are easier to talk to or can commiserate adequately; there can be very practical advantages.

Some people might have started where you started, and be ahead of you in some ways. You might have both started at A, and now you’re at B and they’re at C. That means not only that they can model for you more functional ways of dealing with issues, but that they actually know the shortest way to get from B to C. They might know the potential pitfalls and some handy shortcuts. They may also be able to present information in a way you can readily process, because of your shared background. Particularly if you’re still working out the extent of the issues you need to work at, talking to someone who’s walked that path ahead of you can be incredibly helpful.

Sometimes having to consciously pick up new programming to solve recurring issues can make us better at running it than those people who just picked it up by osmosis growing up. Although it can feel a bit clonky or artificial at the start, and although we may never feel wholly comfortable with it, we may actually understand it better. We are like non-native speakers who consciously know and use the rules of grammar, whereas native speakers, although more fluent, may just subconsciously repeat what they have learnt in the past. So if you need to ask about the specific ‘rules’ of how something works, you might get a better answer from someone who has also had to consciously learn it.

None of this will do you any good if you’re not prepared to admit that other people may be better equipped for a functional, healthy life than you currently are. If you’re insisting on protecting yourself against any admission of your fallibility, that is likely to consume most of your energy and prevent you making any progress. How can you progress if you’re already as perfect as you could possibly be?

This will also not help if you are in any way jealous or resentful of those who are ‘ahead’ of you. If you see people’s superior achievements or skills as some kind of personal affront, not only you won’t be able to learn from them very effectively, but you’re also likely to be a total chore to be around. Sorry.

Overall, I think what me and my people are doing is miximising the good side of this situation – or at least I hope that’s what we’re doing. I am happy to rely upon the fact that all of us are incredibly invested in getting better, doing better, making things better for all those around us.

Most of all, I know that none of us is invested in “marinating in resolvable dysfunction” (stolen from Mary Kogut, with many thanks). And that’s probably the crucial element.

Missing bits. 2.

Marc MacYoung points out that when you get yourself out of whatever bad situation you were in, you might find that your problems have only started. You may be missing out whatever skills other people were picking up while you were busy trying to cope with your problems. Those skills may be essential to functional living outside of said bad situation, or to prevent you falling right back into it.

Alas, it’s hard to know what you don’t know, particularly if nobody around you knows it either. If you surround yourself with people who share your background and/or your issues, you can end up looking as if you’re members of the local Synchronised Walking-Into-Walls team, constantly banging your heads against the same issues.

It’s also hard to work out what you need to learn when the people around you don’t want you to learn it… but that’s mostly an issue for those stuck in a crab-bucket of some sort, and that’s another story. This is purely about those of us who’ve managed to extricate ourselves from certain situations, but found ourselves with faulty programming for managing daily, normal life.

One major issue shared by ‘my people’ seems to be around boundary setting – not so much HOW to do it, but the fact that we can or in fact should do it. Many of us were brought up to essentially eat shit from our families and say “thank you” afterwards. We were taught that we did not have the right to request to be treated decently; in fact, we were taught that the mere fact that we wished for a change made us bad people.

Furthermore, we tend to expect that internal conflict in a group will inevitably result in some kind of disaster. The possibility of having a calm and respectful negotiation between equals doesn’t tend to occur to us, because we were not brought up in an environment where that was on the menu. Everything was begging or fighting, and even when you won, the costs tended to outweigh the victory.

When we’re faced with having to handle people close to us, we have a tendency to let small stuff slide because we don’t feel we have the right or the ability to try and modify people’s behaviour. We don’t address small issues trying to come up with mutually agreeable solutions. We also don’t use small issues as tests of how bigger issues may be handled, in order to evaluate the feasibility of a relationship. We just put up with them, until they build up into something too serious to ignore. Alas, by that point the people around us have probably come to the conclusion that we’re super-easy-going, have no standards, or are complete mats; just because we don’t test others, it doesn’t mean they’re not testing us… So when we suddenly show the other side of us, the cornered rat side of us, they can be a bit taken aback.

You might find this shocking, but this isn’t precisely a recipe for how to have smooth interpersonal relationships.


Missing bits. 1.

A few months back, I found myself waxing lyrical about people who are broken my way. Lately I’ve noticed how very specific my ‘requirements’ can be. Although I can hang out with pretty much anyone without noticeable adverse effects, the people I get on with most easily share one or more of the following:

  • They have narcissistic or otherwise inadequate parents;
  • They have gone through periods of poverty;
  • They have done physical or physically quantifiable labour;
  • They have at some point been solely responsible for their own welfare and safety.

In many cases they have also had experience of dangerous/violent situations, but that seems to be the result of the previous four points rather than a factor in its own right.

One of the reason I am comfortable hanging out with them is that I don’t have to constantly explain the reasoning behind my points of view. We share a bunch of core elements, including how we go about decision making, risk taking, and goal measurement. That makes our interactions infinitely less laborious than they can otherwise be. It is incredibly draining to have to constantly try to explain yourself to people who may or may not be able to understand where you’re coming from. For instance, talking about poverty or shitty parenting with someone who has never experienced them can be a bit like dancing about architecture; it’s a lot of effort and often nothing much gets through.

Hanging out with people with a similar background can feel very supportive. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t support each other at all, for the simple reason that our common backgrounds also give us common blind spots. In particular, we can have warped views of:

  • Ourselves;
  • What our expectations can reasonably be;
  • The likely results of successes and failures (often both tragic);
  • The likely results of conflicts;
  • Our rights and roles within relationships, in particular close relationships.

What it all boils down to is that if you look at us individually, it’s as if we’ve got a mysterious propensity to randomly walk into walls. We’re relatively intelligent people who repeatedly make the most enormous blunders for no apparent reason. When you look at us as a community, you start to see definite patterns. We collectively tend to mess up in a fairly consistent manner, and often around the same issues.

That’s the problem: my very favourite people, the people I’m most comfortable going to with my problems, may not be able to help me with them for the simple reason that they share them. They might understand them perfectly, they may be able to commiserate with me, and they might make me feel better about having problems in the first place. However, that doesn’t mean that they can help me come up with solutions; if they had the solution, they wouldn’t share the problem… They’d have solved it and moved on.