It is easy — terribly easy —to shake a man’s faith in himself.
To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is the devil’s work.
–George Bernard Shaw
Train or talk about martial arts and self-defense long enough, and someone will invariably want to test you. It’s usually annoying or amusing to varying degrees, depending on the person’s attitude, but it can sometimes be frightening.
I’ll talk about that frightening aspect next month. This time, I want to talk about a specific sort of challenge most often laid down before the new student whose combination of budding knowledge and excited inexperience makes them vulnerable to emotional undermining.
It happens early on in training, usually in the first month or two. A student who has been doing well walks into class with a little less confidence. A little less enthusiasm. Why?
“Sensei, my boyfriend wanted to see me do that wrist escape we learned last week, and it didn’t work!”
This sensei hates when this happens. The disappointment and self-doubt in a student is painful to see, and even more painful for the student to feel. All the student’s excitement over learning something new—the poise of gained confidence in one’s ability—broken down in a few minutes by someone who professes to care.
I hate it. I hate with vim and passion.
It isn’t always a boyfriend. It might be a husband, father, mother, sibling, or school classmate. But no matter the role, the person sees themselves holding the same position: a superior whose station must be reinforced, and whose station is threatened by the student’s sense of consent-based self-determination.
Oh, sure, some of those folks will claim the most-est and best-est of intentions.
- “I don’t want you to have a false sense of security.”
- “You need to know you can’t always win.”
- “I just want to be realistic.”
And sometimes the comments are more direct and honest.
- “I told you that karate stuff wouldn’t work.”
- “Don’t start thinking you’re all that special.”
- “You’re pretty stupid, thinking you can beat me.”
But no matter the spoken reason, the underlying motivation is almost always the same:
- “To prove myself stronger and smarter, I must prove you are weak, incapable, and less worthy.”
Yes, I hate it.
Teaching self-defense as a years-long curriculum accessible to students of diverse ages and abilities requires deliberation and forethought on a different scale than a weekend empowerment workshop. (Not better or lesser, mind you. Just different.) So one of the first things I teach students under the “self-defense” topic is a collection of basic hold escapes—what to do if someone grabs your wrist, elbow, shoulder, or shirt front.
The simple techniques teach a skill, certainly, but also the rules and expectations of working with a partner. Students also learn the principles of leverage and torque, grounding and balance, general body awareness, and the connection between the decision to take action and the resulting consequences.
Hold escapes are a very big deal.
I and my more senior students are always the students’ first partners. Once the basic maneuvers of a escape are taught sans contact, we start grabbing students. We start off with the tight grip and quick release meant to build competence and confidence. The better the students’ technique, the more difficult we make it to escape, and we adjust it for each student. The goal is to encourage, and require, progressive improvement.
We set and enforce standards, and most importantly, tell students to not only respect their boundaries, but to enforce their boundaries with calm skill.
It’s called “teaching.”
Then comes the moment the student, excited and confident, goes home to a person who isn’t all that excited, let alone passing supportive of the student’s martial arts training. That person listens to the student talk about the cool wrist escape she learned just an hour or so ago. And that person sees the opportunity to prove their own superior strength.
So that person offers to be a “partner,” and grabs the student’s wrist with as much force as possible (and usually with a grip or angle the particular wrist escape isn’t designed to counter). The student struggles. The student, who has known the technique for all of a couple hours, and practiced the technique a couple dozen times at the most, fails to break the full-power, all-strength hold of their supposedly supportive partner.
That “partner” happily reinforces the student’s sense of failure and weakness.
The student feels like a failure.
The other person feels fantastic, having confirmed their superiority.
I. Hate. This.
Truly, the person who feels the need to subjugate a person they supposedly love and care for is, in my eyes, the weak and frightened one. It’s the person who’d mock a teenager for learning the difference between the gas and brake pedal before speeding onto an ice-covered highway. It’s the person who thinks it’s funny to drop someone into a warzone before they’ve learned how to load a rifle. It’s the jerk who believes proof of strength lies in how well they can beat up someone in handcuffs.
It’s punching down.
So… after a year or so of teaching, and seeing this drama play out over and over, I made a couple alterations to the lessons.
Yes, I still teach hold escapes. Yes, I teach them with the same limitations.
Then I tell the students the truth: “Someone is going to test you. Someone will want to see if you can really, truly, escape. And someone will want to prove you can’t do anything at all. If you try the hold escape, and it doesn’t work, it isn’t because you failed. It’s because the person holding you thinks they have to beat you. And that person thinks your fear of hurting them is greater than your fear of being hurt by them.”
Really, that’s the truth of it. I’ve seen it in the smirks and eyerolls these “supportive” partners give when the student explains to me the hold escape didn’t work.
The Snarky Partner depends on your passivity. She wants you to hesitate. He wants you to be afraid of trying. She wants you to let a loud-mouthed person prove his superiority. He wants to demonstrate his strength is really oh-wow cool. She wants to make certain you doubt your strength and courage. He wants to demonstrate how unworthy and incapable you are of determining consent. The Snarky Partner wants, above all else, to undermine a person’s confidence in self-direction, self-defense, self-determination.
And it doesn’t matter if the Snarky Partner doesn’t actually, deep-down wish you harm. Because all those things the Snarky Partner wants to prove are the same the attacker wants you to believe: you’re weak, you’re unsure, you’re not worth your own fight.
It isn’t unusual for the Snarky Partner to be the one who accompanies the student to the dojo. In my experience, the Snarky Partner sometimes goes to great lengths to ensure they’re in attendance because they want to watch the class—to see what the students are taught, how the students are taught, and to find out “tricks” that can be used to encourage a student’s failure.
Whenever possible, I hold my Snarky Partner speech right in front of the watching family and friends. (Once, I even took the empty center seat in the front row of the observation area because one parent had, week after week, demonstrated his inability to understand by yanking his small son around and laughing at him.) I’ll talk specifically and thoroughly about the Snarky Partner, how to counter that person, and—most importantly—how to either dismiss them as irrelevant or use them as a self-teaching opportunity.
That’s usually enough to end the home-based Snarkers.
But out in real life, where it’s possible you’ll encounter a person who needs to bolster their own ego at another’s expense, chit-chats from Sensei don’t much work.
If my students are children, I must tread a bit carefully for numerous reasons. They might have abusive parents I haven’t yet sussed out (and I’ve sussed out more than a handful, my darlings), so I must keep in mind the consequences a child might face if they resist a parent. They might face a challenge at school, where defending one’s self against physical attacks is considered horrifyingly dangerous and grounds for suspension or expulsion. They might lack the support of a backbone-empowered adult (like the father who let his son be beaten up, day after day and year after year, because he was afraid they’d be sued if his son fought back).
So I tell them this: “Karate is something to be proud of, but not something to brag about. If you tell people you know karate, some bad person will try to prove you don’t. It’s better if you keep your knowledge here, at the dojo, and don’t try to show off to others. But if you are ever afraid, and if you ever have questions, you come talk to me, and I promise to keep what you tell me safe. And if you have to use your karate to really, truly defend yourself, I will back you up. Just remember that the longer you’re here, the more you’ll learn, and every person who is a sensei wants to help you because we were all white belts, too.”
If my students are all adults, I tell them something with a bit more… oomph.
I tell them about Snarky Partners and their usual motives. As you might guess, I almost always have at least one adult student who’d like to explain why a Snarky Partner doesn’t really mean to be snarky.
“Could they see you were upset?” I ask.
“Well, yes. But it was just a joke!”
“Were you laughing?”
“Then smack ’em upside the head to make them stop!”
There is often some awkward laughter at this point—mostly over the idea of inflicting a small amount of physical discomfort on someone.
So I add this: “The Snarky Partner is hurting you and shaming you. There is nothing morally wrong with making them stop. And if that person thinks it’s all right when they hurt you, and not all right when you stop them, you need to think about what that means to you and your children.”
Yes, I do indeed say that—flat out, without mumble-speak censoring.
Because it is true. Because I hate seeing folks who ought to be supported and encouraged have to instead explain away the overbearing snickering of someone who is being mean.
Some Snarky Partners really don’t understand what they’re doing to their partner/child/spouse. They do indeed think dragging a weaker person around is just plain funny. And a subset of these folks take well to being told and will change their behavior. I’ve even had a boyfriend approach me to ask the best way to help!
Those are the easy ones. The tough cases require a bit more of a direct approach. So I go on to explain one of the foundational concepts of successful self-defense: you don’t have to make an attacker let go. You can instead motivate them to let go.
Ram the heel of your hand—the hand they’re not holding—right between their eyebrows or under their chin. Or grind your knuckles into the back of the hand holding you. Or set your foot on the side of their knee and say you’ll kick if they don’t let go. Or just give them an open hand slap across the mouth. Yank on an ear. Poke them in the armpit. Spit.
No, the Snarky Partner will not be expecting any of those things.
They might try to tell you that as a way of excusing the fact they let go, to make you feel bad for making them stop their bad behavior. They might even fall back on, “That’s not fair!”
Which… Oh, ye gads.
Really, my darlings, I cannot even force myself to write about that piece of ridiculousness.
Y’see, self-defense isn’t about being stronger and tougher than an attacker, or even working some clever technique against an attacker. It’s about doing what the attacker doesn’t expect and gaining the few precious seconds you need to escape. But most importantly, it’s knowing—deep down and without a doubt—that you are worth defending. That you’re worth your own defending, and you don’t need someone else to defend you in order to understand your own value.
The Snarky Partner doesn’t like that much.
They can go on not liking it for as long as they wish.
You don’t have to go on with them.
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