Caveat: If I sound like an experienced authority on self-defense, you should know I'm not. I've only been attacked once in my life and then managed to talk my way out of it. The other parts of my personal experience come from books, teachers and simulations. I actually consider it a blessing not to be an experienced authority on self-defense, as I like living a peaceful, happy life where people don't try to change my lifestyle for me without my permission. Where a lot of martial arts fail is in not addressing the mental and emotional aspects of self-defense before, during and after the fight. Nobody gets attacked in a vacuum, everybody gets attacked in a context. Nobody goes through a violent attack with the same mental and emotional response they go through a kata drill. And nobody goes from normal life, to violence, then back to normal life the same way again.
I trained for years without even once addressing the mental and emotional response to being attacked, then I donned a High Gear suit and had a partner go at me high speed, strength and intent and experienced the "oh fuck!" freeze for myself. It wasn't as pretty as the kung-fu movies. Even though they were real fake training simulations, I went through the whole gamut of surprise, shock, fear, lock-up, despair, anger, aggression, indignation, all the while trying to defend myself physically. Conclusion? It wasn't as easy as I thought it'd be.
Real-world physical violence will be rare for most of the people I know, including myself. Yet I suspect we experience real-world mental and emotional violence more frequently in our daily lives from toxic people and relationships, some more than others. But how? Why? And how do we defend ourselves?
Wolves choose their prey; they don't challenge the strongest in the herd, they go for the weakest. They're not looking for a fight, they just want food as quickly and as easily as they can get it. Predators choose their victims in the same way, they want to get what they want with as little injury to themselves as possible. And as ugly it is to say, and as hard to admit, I've seen that abusive relationships really are a two-way street. A toxic person looks for the type he knows will suffer his abuse, and the victim allows the toxic person space in their lives for the abuse to take place.
I know it's not as easy as that makes it sound. And it's not about placing blame. It's about personal responsibility – the personal ability to respond – while recognizing that the distribution of responsibility lies in shifting degrees. In a perfect world, the toxic abuser will exercise responsibility for his thoughts and actions, and act to create mutually beneficial relationships instead. In a perfect world, the victim will exercise responsibility for keeping herself safe from toxic people and act assertively. But it ain't a perfect world.
If you can teach someone to overcome mental and emotional barriers to keep themselves safe physically, can you teach someone to overcome mental and emotional barriers to keep themselves safe psychologically? How would you do it? Especially for people who have had a pattern of playing the victim role in an abusive relationship?