On Her Own

Self-defense: What is the goal?

In my morning BJJ class this week, my instructor made a comment about judging progress by seeing how well students are able to escape from under someone else’s control or threat of submission. It struck me as especially significant because it gets at the heart of what your goals need to be when you train to defend yourself. We learn to fight not to hurt bad guys or punish them, no matter how tempting that is and no matter how much we might want immediate justice for the wrongs they do against us. If they are injured or die as a result of our defense, it’s a result of what it took to get away from them or to stop them from harming us or other innocent people. It can be a fine distinction but it remains an important one for focusing our limited learning resources and, not for nothing, for legally justifying our actions.

While winning a fight for your life with solid punctuation can be satisfying, the key is survival. Certainly, you will want to survive with as little damage to you as possible. That’s why we work so hard on avoiding or dissuading the attack in the first place, or in stopping the assault quickly and definitively, before the attacker has a chance to hurt us badly. When we can’t, then it’s about getting the fight over as efficiently as we can. Here’s the thing though: even if we can’t make the bad guy stop, we can still win by frustrating their attempts to injure us for as long as we can, and by surviving through the entire incident. Coming out the other side is an important victory, regardless of what the other guy looks like at the end. Training to a high level of skill might make it more likely that you do, with fewer physical injuries, but you don’t need to be a champion fighter to make survival possible.

Putting more time into learning defensive skills can increase your chances of success, and your confidence that you can handle an attacker. Those are certainly advantages and can be worthwhile to pursue, but like I’ve been talking about all week: some level of ability is better than no level of ability. No matter how much faith you have in your determination to not lose, you need to be able to back up that attitude with effective skills, and they don’t take a lot to acquire. It’s true that the arts of jiu-jitsu and wrestling are full of creative ways to do that from increasingly complex tangles and turn the tables on your opponent. You can spend a lifetime figuring out all of the possible puzzles that can be created by one human body trying to control another human body. The problem is a lot more simple when the other person isn’t a grappler, though. Someone with a few months of training, perhaps akin to taking a weekly class for a single semester, can succeed against many people using brute force and what they’ve learned by watching mixed martial arts or in schoolyard fights. Someone with a solid weekend, such as with Immediate Action Combatives, has enough to protect themselves and get away. You don’t need to devote your life to training when you realize that your goal is escape and survival.

Remaining focused on those goals will help keep you out of legal trouble, too. When you claim self-defense, you are admitting to hurting or perhaps killing another human being. You’re just saying that you had no other choice if you wanted to live. It is, as they call it, an affirmative defense, an argument that your harm to another was justified under the circumstances. One of the elements that will help your case is showing that you have met the force threatened against you with only the force necessary to neutralize the danger. The details are more complicated, of course, but it’s helpful to use surviving or stopping the bad guy as a rule of thumb rather than attaching yourself to the idea that you need to trounce them. It’s tempting to want revenge against someone who dares attack you and you might want to be so certain that they will stop that you will do anything to make it so. That thought process can lead you into trouble, such as when you press the fight against someone who has already given up or kill someone who wasn’t a lethal threat to you. Making that judgment call in the moment of what you should do to protect yourself can be difficult and that’s where having a general mindset of escape or survive can be helpful.

As you become more skilled, and gain more experience in using those skills under stress, you will be able to make more nuanced decisions about how you respond to an attack. You’ll have multiple strategies to choose between, but ultimately, the goal will remain the same: find a way to get away from danger. Your counterattacks may become more injurious, even more deadly, but that’s a result of efficiency and effectiveness more so than changing core objectives. You aren’t obligated to ensure your attacker’s health so much as to be attentive to how to preserve your own as well as possible, both during the attacking and after. The end you seek is still the same: surviving the attack by effectively stopping it as early as you can, whether by escaping or by forcing your attacker to give up. By restraining yourself to looking for that outcome, you will also survive the next challenge that can occur, which is ensuring that you remain free to live your life after the cops show up. If all were fair, good would always triumph over evil, and be celebrated for that victory, but sometimes you have to do a little work on the back end to make sure that it’s clear to the world which side you are on.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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