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.


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