By Kay Morgan
Some of the most consistently popular articles on this blog are the ones I’ve written for abuse or trauma survivors who are interested in martial arts training. Readers find them when they’re searching the Internet for healing ideas and advice; and sometimes get in touch to talk about their own situation and ask for support.
One woman Cherry (not her real name) came across them in her own quest for healing. She wrote:
Dear Kai, thank you for your site – it’s really great.
[…] I’ve been in trauma therapy for years and have recently increased the amount of body work I do in the form of yoga. It’s been brilliant. However I crave an outlet for some of the stronger energies that are coming out as I heal, including my slowly returning self-defence impulses.
I am looking around for martial arts teachers for one-to-one classes with someone who has experience or expertise in working with people with trauma. I read your articles and advice on this, but I am nervous (scared) about cold-calling/meeting coaches or going to trial classes as I am still susceptible to trusting the wrong people and triggered by violence/anger.
[…] I thought I could perhaps put a classified on a respectable martial arts website but it’s hard for me to judge if they are ok.
Reading Cherry’s naïve email felt really worrying. Identifying yourself as a survivor and putting out an advert for 1:1 martial arts tuition sounded extremely dangerous. We ended up exchanging emails and speaking by phone, and Cherry quickly realised the risks.
But what advice do you give to someone like Cherry, who wants so much to heal and grow through martial arts, but is so potentially vulnerable? I’ve thought very carefully about this, and here are some suggestions. If you’re in a similar position to Cherry, please take this advice as a best attempt to answer a very difficult question, and try to make your own mind up about what you most need.
In summary, firstly, I’m going to give Cherry six “red herrings”. These are points that some people often think are important for safety – but which in my belief don‘t actually mean too much either way.
Secondly, I’m going to give her a few practical points that may be more helpful to consider in her search . . .
Six “red herrings” – popular tips that won’t necessarily keep you safe
1. Cleanliness and state of repair of the dojo building
This is often mentioned as an indicator of a good dojo. Indeed, Cherry told me she’d driven past one club near her home to check it out, but instantly dismissed it as it looked so rough and shabby.
But it can be a fallacy. Very few dojos nowadays “own” their venue. More normally, they rent a space from a leisure centre, purpose-built martial arts centre, or other venue such as a scout hut; school or community hall and so on. The choice of building is often dictated by affordable rent, location and so on.
So at worst, yes, a shabby or dirty building could indicate that you’re in a sloppy group. But it could also indicate a school that has no other options, or which is more interested in the art itself, than in making money and/or glossy marketing.
Equally, a lovely clean and shiny training environment could be a sign of a highly efficient and caring teacher. But it could also simply be a sign that you’ve entered a low quality “McDojo”, which prioritises image and making money above all else.
2. The proportion of women in the class (for female students)
This is often trotted out as a key proxy for a good martial arts class. But it doesn’t really mean anything in itself. Yes, it may mean that you’ve found a perfect, inclusive dojo, where everyone is supported to reach their potential. Or it may mean you’ve found a very soft and martially ineffective art, which not many men are interested in learning. Or it may mean nothing at all – class demographics do shift over time.
You won’t be able to tell until you’ve seen what they do and how they train and interact.
In any case, you need to remember that women aren’t all automatically nicer and more supportive to other women by virtue of their gender, or somehow “safer” to train with than men. Sensei Ando puts it beautifully as always:
I also know the main reason women want to train with other women is a belief that women will be safer training partners. A belief that women will be more sensitive to their feelings. A belief that a sisterly bond will enhance their journey to empowerment.
Sad because many men are sensitive, too. Many men want to train with safe partners, too. Many men are willing to welcome women into a group much larger than a sisterhood… a fellowship of the good guys.
What’s more important is how women are treated (whether there are 1 or 100 of them on the mat). A subtle red flag you might want to look out for, is a dojo where the men and women train in two distinct groups, with the women being patronised and held to a much lower technical standard – but being unaware of it.
3. A Sensei with “experience” in training survivors
Some teachers will promote themselves as having special skills and/or life experience in this area. A best case scenario here could be a wonderful, sensitive teacher, who has perhaps been through some hard times themselves, and understands just what you need.
But worst case scenarios might include:
- A “nice” person who really wants to help others, but has no clue, and uses ineffective or even harmful teaching methods
- A dark and manipulative person who enjoys getting control over vulnerable people.
By the way: For those of you who’d like to develop your knowledge and skills in working with students with PTSD, and specifically veterans, this feels like a good opportunity to shout out about the amazing work of Matt Stait and John Smyth to create the new Team Fightback initiative, backed by the charity Minds At War.
The scheme offers structure, support, guidance and friendship for martial arts clubs willing to create positive mat space for veterans to train, learn and enjoy the real positive health benefits that come with regular martial arts training . . .
4. A “non-violent” ethos / teaching method
A best case scenario could be that your instructor has truly understood violence in many forms, mastered their art(s) and emerged as a compassionate, gentle human being who teaches real self defence with a highly ethical mindset.
Or: you could be in a school where there’s no intention whatsoever to teach a “martial” art, and everyone’s cool with that. My good friend Quentin Cooke teaches in this way, and his students get tons of benefits from it. This kind of environment could actually be very healing for someone in Cherry’s situation, as long as expectations are clear.
Or: someone could have cut and pasted text about non-violence from a book or other website onto this club’s site, without really thinking about what it might mean.
A worst-case scenario could be the creepy nightmare I described here: Why a Nice Guy Broke My Finger. A less extreme negative scenario might be a school where they genuinely think that their “non-violent” approach is super-effective against real life violence, which can lead to dangerous and irresponsible teaching.
5. A female instructor (for a student scared of men)
There’s sometimes a good case for engaging a teacher / therapist / support worker and so on of a specific gender. And if you’re so scared of men you can’t even stomach the thought of a male teacher, then it’s your right to choose; and it’s not my place to tell you you’re wrong. But just bear in mind that, as Michael Blumenfield writes on the subject of psychotherapy:
If it were true that in order to receive effective psychotherapy, the patient and the therapist must be of the same gender, it would follow that that they should be in the same age group, socioeconomic group, religion, race, occupation type, work ethic, sibling configuration, health status, life expectancy, marital status and political party and have the same experience with drugs and alcohol, military service, parenting, etc.
This is an impossible task, and there is no established validity to the assumption that there must be some type of mirror image between the patient and the therapist. […] It is important that the potential patient understand that a well-trained, qualified, empathic therapist does not have to be like them but only has to care about them.
It may therefore be more important to go with your intuition or “gut feel” when choosing an instructor (see below). Among other reasons, there aren’t so many female instructors out there, so you could severely limit your options if this was a non-negotiable factor in your choice.
6. A club with a professional, friendly, reassuring website and good safeguarding policies / equality, diversity and inclusion statement / and so on
The school may also have an impressive statement summarising its underlying principles and/or philosophy. Again this could mean various things, but you can’t know which one up front . . .
- Maybe this club cares deeply about being safe, inclusive and welcoming, and works hard to build a good culture and supporting processes?
- Maybe the club happens to have a schoolteacher or local government officer among its students who has kindly produced these nice policies as a favour, but no one has actually read them?
- Maybe the club is keen to market itself well and knows that these things look good to prospective students, but doesn’t really live out the values it advertises?
- Maybe the club is chasing grants or other funding opportunities, and needs its website to comply with certain standards to be eligible?
- Maybe the owner / instructor is completely fake and cynical, and deliberately presenting a deceptive front to the world?
So it’s really best not to take club websites at face value. Anyone can write blurb about how kind / caring / inclusive / female-friendly (etc) they are. Equally, a fantastic school may have a poor, minimal and/or very out-of-date web presence.
So these were six popular bits of advice for survivors wanting to try martial arts, which may not necessarily be true or helpful. Now let’s look at some other ideas which hopefully have some more consistent applicability . . .
PART TWO: Five tips which may help you to keep yourself safe
Nothing is risk free, and no advice can guarantee keeping you safe. But here are a few ideas that might help to make Cherry’s venture into martial arts training that bit safer.
Firstly though, we should note the bitter debate about whether it’s ok to talk about victims and survivors having agency and even responsibility to keep themselves safe or not, especially when it comes to domestic abuse and/or rape.
At one extreme, some people are passionate about the importance of teaching martial arts / self defence to survivors or other vulnerable groups.
At the other end of the scale, others argue that it’s completely wrong to ask women (or men) to take on any responsibility for preventing attacks, for example by learning self-defence, avoiding risky behaviour and so on. The argument is: the potential victims aren’t doing anything wrong; why should they have to change their actions? For example: Women Don’t Need Self-Defense: Men Need to Stop Assaulting Women
Indeed, when Lindsey Kushner QC warned that some women’s “disinhibited behaviour” put them in danger of being raped by men who “gravitate” towards drunken females in 2017, she was subject to a vicious backlash and accused of victim blaming.
I don’t think either position is helpful in its extreme version. Like most things, the situation is often ambiguous and complex. Some things are within our control and some aren’t. However, if you’re a serious student of the martial arts you have to believe (or acquire a belief) that you have some agency to protect yourself; and that you want to maximise this agency. Otherwise the whole thing falls apart.
The following advice is therefore offered on the basis that no victim of abuse or assault is ever to blame for that experience. However, there may be some ways in which we may be able to keep ourselves safer – in this case when looking for a dojo to train at.
1. Listen to your intuition
In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker explains that in modern society, we’ve learned to suppress our intuition in potentially threatening situations. He gives the example of a woman waiting for an elevator and feeling unusually scared of the man inside – but not wanting to be rude or “silly”, she gets into the elevator anyway.
Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of?
Martial arts training can put us back in touch with this lost instinct, as well as our aggression and ability to fight when needed. If your intuition feels dead or inaccessible at this moment in time, you may find some of these articles helpful:
- 18 Ways To Strengthen Your Intuition
- 7 Tips to Strengthen Your Intuition and Take Soul-Inspired Action
- Awaken Your Intuition: 6 Powerful Strategies To Strengthen Your Inner Voice
2. Pay attention to red flags
I’ve listed some red flags of abusive dojos previously. Recognising red flags is one thing, but some people will then ignore them and carry on training regardless. Why is this?
There could be several reasons:
- We have high hopes of our school / instructor, and hope that the problem will just disappear
- We believe that martial arts require hard work and discipline, and are not sure of the boundary between healthy discipline and abuse.
- We’re scared of being seen as rude or difficult
- If you’ve been subject to domestic abuse or other prolonged abuse, your ability to recognise and/or walk away from red flags may be impaired. Sandra Z. Brown explains that the symptoms of PTSD relating to ‘numbing’ may increase what you can tolerate.
But until you start changing the actions you take in response to red flags, you’re always going to get the same results. As Susan Biali Haas explains, The red flags are not the problem. It’s what you DO with that information – which is usually nothing – that gets you into trouble.
So please respect your own assessment of the situation, and honour your right to personal safety.
3. Be aware of traits that could make you vulnerable (i)
There doesn’t seem to be much written about how to keep yourself safe from manipulative martial arts instructors / clubs. But that’s ok, because there’s a TON of information out there about how to avoid dating psychopaths, which we can take relevant bits from.
Sandra L Brown explains that there are a few general traits in detail that can make women vulnerable to relationships with dangerous men. These include: anxiety / depression, boredom and loneliness
She also describes a set of “super-traits” which some women have. Ironically, these traits can make women very desirable and competent – but they’re also a magnet for psychopaths, as the woman has the traits and skills to function in chaos and abuse, fill in the gaps, and smooth out the general dysfunctionality, making the destructive relationship appear to “work”.
The super-traits include:
- Excitement-seeking and extraverted
- Free-spirited and able to “go with the flow”
- Strongly invested in important relationships, with the ability to attach deeply
- Affectionate, sentimental and prone to focus on the positive and block out the negative
- Socially sensitive, caring and focused on the needs of others
- Able to tolerate pain (emotional, physical, spiritual)
- Cooperative, empathic, tolerant and compassionate (Very high cooperativeness is the highest risk factor of all, it’s often associated with people who grew up in abusive households, as a survival skill they developed to avoid harm).
These traits can be truly beautiful in people; but if you have them, and it’s made you vulnerable in the past, please be aware of the potential risks.
4. Be aware of traits that could make you vulnerable (ii)
Another good writer on this topic is Teagin Maddox. She argues that there are seven traits that can create vulnerability to abuse. These include:
- Telling too much too soon
If you’re too friendly and trusting, and share too much, a destructive person can use the information you give them to mirror you and fake a connection. In other words, they can pretend to share your values or interests, and make you feel like you share a strong connection.
Teagin’s advice is for dating men, but it’s just as applicable to finding your male or female teacher:
Build slowly. Trust later. Reveal less upfront until you know more about him – ask him questions, be a little surface at first, you can reveal more later. Learn more about him in the beginning, than he learns about you.
- Giving the benefit of the doubt repeatedly.
Teagin advises that destructive people will push and test your boundaries in the early days, to see how much they can get away with. If you’re very tolerant and understanding, it makes you stand out as an attractive target.
Therefore, she advises you to be alert to signs of disrespect, and draw a clear line if it happens. Teagin advises that if you maintain your boundaries and make it clear you won’t accept bad behaviour, a destructive person will be put off and move on.
- Falling for “gaslighting”
Gaslighting is when someone convinces you that you’re mistaken about small things, often in a “supportive” way. Over time, this can lead you to lose your confidence and become dependent on that person.
In a martial arts context, this could be a teacher who acts kind and encouraging, but subtly and continually rubbishes all your prior learning and/or current ability.
You can find out more about the seven “trait traps” at: http://www.teaginmaddox.com
5. Learn from experience
This poem by Portia Nelson says it all:
There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost …. I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
Cherry, there will be risk at stake in your venture, but also the possiblility of rich rewards, in terms of your confidence, happiness and personal power. Hope these thoughts are helpful, and wish you all the very best, along with anyone else on a comparable journey to you . . .