Expanding and Refining the Notion of Self-defense by Stanley Pranin

“Martial artists discover that their discipline and effort has paid off handsomely and, in the bargain, provided benefits which spill over into other areas of their lives.”

stanley-pranin-encyAikido Journal #103 (1995)

Self-defense can be defined as the protection of one’s life and/or property against an attack. In cases where people take active steps to safeguard themselves and their possessions, fear is often the strongest motivating factor. Take the example of a young man who decides to join a martial arts school or self-defense course. Most likely he is driven by apprehension due to some perceived vulnerability such as small physical size or weakness. Perhaps he has recently been the victim of an attack at the hands of a bully that has left him injured and humiliated in the eyes of his friends. As a teenager, I personally witnessed one such violent incident. Even though I was not the victim, the fear I felt at seeing the perpetration of violence at close hand proved to be the deciding factor in getting me to join an aikido dojo.

Or consider the distraught young woman who has been the victim of physical abuse at the hands of a male, who sets out to learn self-defense in an attempt to eliminate the fear of a possible future act of aggression. In such instances as these, the victims are galvanized into action by deep-seated feelings of fear. Their responses are motivated by an instinct for self-preservation perhaps tinged with a desire for revenge and their victimizers are villainized as enemies. It is a familiar psychological model involving the duality of victim and aggressor.

Over the long run, however, training in these martial disciplines can produce several unanticipated results. In addition to acquiring self-defense skills, practitioners improve their physical conditioning and mental alertness. Their newly-acquired abilities go hand in hand with a psychological change that transforms their initial motivations into something other than fear or a desire for revenge. They may take the first steps in assuming full responsibility for their lives by realizing that they have the power to prevent such situations from recurring. They discover that their discipline and effort has paid off handsomely and, in the bargain, provided benefits which spill over into other areas of their lives.

Although the notion of self-defense first brings to mind the protection of life and property, it is sometimes used metaphorically to describe courses of action against “victimization” in other areas of one’s life. Fear born out of physical threat has psychological parallels in numerous areas where we feel our security is threatened.

financial-self-defenseTake “financial” self-defense, for example. There is even a best-selling book bearing this title. Virtually everyone at some time or other find themselves in a financial pinch. I can remember the days when I was trying to operate a dojo as a business in a small town. It was a draining effort month after month to attempt to make ends meet. The psychological pressure that financial insecurity generates can have a devastating effect in all areas of one’s life. People who find themselves in financial straits may seek a way out of their dilemmas by practicing monetary discipline. They learn to analyze how they spend their income in minute detail, where they can reduce expenditures, and how to save and invest successfully. As they begin to realize their financial goals one by one, their fear of poverty or insolvency recedes and is replaced by increasing degrees of self-confidence. Their freedom from anxiety opens the door to greater happiness and the resultant psychological “leeway” may even lead them to engage in charitable activities. People who through persistence and willpower achieve financial security and consequently have little fear of “financial” attacks are the psychological equivalents of black belts in martial arts who feel confident of their ability to defend themselves against a physical attack.

verbal-self-defenseThis expanded concept of self-defense is obviously applicable to the area of “verbal” self-defense as well. Everyone has at some time been victimized by an aggressive interlocutor in a social context. It might be a parent, teacher, friend, or anyone who fires these “word” salvos. Whether intentionally or not, these perpetrators of verbal attacks inflict psychological wounds that cause suffering every bit as real as a physical wound. Victims who accumulate psychological damage from this kind of interpersonal abuse have various options as well. They can, for example, begin work with a skilled therapist and find out why they are vulnerable to such verbal attacks and how to cope with them in the future. Besides coming to appreciate their own worth and strengths—which is necessary to promote confidence in a social context—an understanding of semantics and verbal presuppositions can lead to the development of techniques useful for dealing with speech attacks.


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