Response Flexibility as Empowerment

When we were at the beginning of our development process, an acquaintance told us that she was particularly glad to hear that one of our goals was to develop a means of self-protection that included effective but non-violent defense options. She told a story about a friend of hers who arrived at college and took a standard self-defense course. She trained hard and internalized what she was taught. Her responses became reflexive. Some time later, a friend of hers attempted to assault her, and she responded as she had trained. She thwarted the attack as she had been taught to do, and seriously injured the aggressor. However, contrary to expectations, the defender felt far from empowered. Her very sense of identity—as a loving, nonviolent person who took care of others—was shattered. She fell into a depression and did not leave her room for weeks.

An ideal success should not cause more harm than good, even if the response is justifiable by some set of legal criteria or is satisfying to others who hear the story. Perhaps, had we been in her shoes, we would have damaged the aggressor as well, and perhaps we would have been elated with the result. But we are not her, and we were not there. That experience was hers. She owns it. It was still the aggressor’s fault, and most of us would say that he probably got what he deserved. However, she still paid a price for the manner in which the situation was resolved—a resolution that was imagined in someone else’s head and fit their ideas of what was appropriate and right, and was subsequently taught to her.

A student in one of our early seminars later found us at another event and took us aside afterward to get our opinion and reassurance. She had encountered a situation at a party where a young man had her pinned against the wall in a room that was so crowded that she was unable to move in any direction. He started tugging downward at the waistband of her pants. She asked him to stop several times, but he persisted. Nobody was intervening. She asked what we would have done. Mechanically, she had several options available to her; we all agreed that a knee shot to a sensitive area and some harsh words would probably have worked. Her response to these more violent options was thus:

“Yeah, I know, but I had class with him the next day and I did not want to hurt him.”

She did not want to escalate the situation and bring additional, unneeded complexity into her life. The best option for her, on that day, with that person, and in that situation, was to call out specifically to another person in the room and ask that individual to come over, i.e., to actively engage a bystander and bring them in. That is what she had done, and the problematic young man had disengaged. That was the success that she needed, and the verbal training in Elemental had helped her to develop the flexibility to use the resources in her environment and to solve the problem in a way that was consistent with her own goals.

We humbly suggest that success cannot be defined by others’ definitions of what it looks like, and that it would be irresponsible to mandate that the people we train in our programs always deploy Response B when confronted with Stimulus A. We should not make those decisions for them. Action and outcome should not be the pawn in another’s political game or limited by an instructor’s restricted imagination of a problem and a uniform resolution. It must be judged by the criteria for success that are set by the actors themselves. Every encounter is different. True empowerment provides a toolbox of choices and encourages people to make their own, sound decisions about what to use and when it is most appropriate to do so. Empowering programs and the instructors that teach them will be sensitive to these needs and stock the toolbox accordingly. In Elemental, we encourage students to select, polish, and use the responses that are right for them.

~The Directors


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