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Magical Thinking and why it doesn't work | Self-reinforcing thinking | Taking internal bearings | The need for other points of view | Further Resources
Let us start out by saying: The martial arts, women's self-defense or reality based training won't "give" you anything. Nor will knowing them "make" you into something else -- no matter how deeply you throw yourself into them or an organization/lifestyle that claims to represent them.
What do we mean by this? Simple: Just because you know a martial art does not mean you are a fighter. Just because you have taken a women's self-defense course doesn't mean you are empowered. Just because you study under some self-defense "guru" doesn't mean you can survive in the streets. Just because you've studied a self-proclaimed reality based self-defense system doesn't mean you're some kind of bad-assed streetfighter. It doesn't matter what the advertisement, sales pitch, internet forum member or true believer tells you about the benefits of martial arts/self-defense/women's self-defense/reality based self-defense/defensive tactics (MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/DT). These traits are not bestowed upon you just because you undergo their training.
MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/DT training are tools to develop character traits and skills within yourself, they do not automatically instill them.
Can the martial arts be used for character development? Of course. The aspects of self-discipline, focus, perseverance, self-control and patience that you must develop to advance in the MA are integral components in personal development and success in life -- no matter what the endeavor. It should be noted that although the martial arts can help develop them, these life skills are not sole property of the MA. These traits have many different manifestations and applications outside the martial arts. Which is to say you can -- and will -- find them everywhere in life. The martial arts do not own them nor are the MA the only way to get them.
But even then, these traits are still only bricks that you can use for to build something, they are not the construction or the building. Having developed these traits for your martial arts does not mean that you are applying them unilaterally in your life. Someone can develop these aspects enough to achieve proficiency in the MA, but still not apply them to their own character development. Many people who are adept martial artists are complete failures in many other aspects of their lives.
In seeking to correct problems they see within themselves, people often expect the MA to solve these problems for them. This misconception is actively promoted by MA/SD/WSD/RBSD instructors and advertising. How often have you walked past a MA school where a painted window extols the countless benefits that can be gained from studying the martial arts? Who needs expensive psychotherapy when you can develop all those wonderful life skills right there in a stripmall dojo? All that and learn how to fight too?
In fact, many people use MA/SD/WSD/RBSD training to avoid addressing the actual problem. For example, if someone thinks he/she is a coward, instead of addressing self-esteem issues, behavioral standards and learning boundary setting they turn to "self-defense" training. Often the more aggressive, arrogant and obnoxious the better. The appeal of learning this is that they think bravery will be instilled without engaging in the dangerous business of psycho-analysis.
Instead of seeking qualified counsel -- who would explore the whole issue from a larger, more balanced perspective -- these people choose a path that reinforces their preconceived notions. Namely that what it takes to not be a coward is fighting. Aggressiveness is mistaken for bravery. Constantly talking about fighting is deemed the same as doing it. Realistically, there are countless, legitimate reasons not to fight. But to a person obsessed with the idea of their own cowardice, spending years and thousands of dollars training and preparing to fight seems like a logical idea.
What that person doesn't understand is that rather than fixing the problem, training in this manner is only escalating the obsession. That hole within themselves is not fixed, it is just built around. If not made worse.
Magical Thinking and why it
Learning MA/SD/WSD/RBSD to solve your life's problems is an example of Magical Thinking.
This term denotes a flawed form of logic. While based on "If I do this, then that will happen" thinking (a train of thought that can have substantial results if based in actuality), Magical Thinking is both overly simplistic and unrealistic. Magical thinking not only fails to take into consideration countless other factors, but it commonly fixates on only one aspect -- to the willful exclusion of other factors. While it looks logical and realistic to the person doing it, it is neither.
That's because it goes from A to Z in one gigantic step, by-passing all those critical steps in the middle.
The person engaging in Magical Thinking deeply believes, if they do one thing really, really, really hard, the desired results will magically appear. Often this misconception extends to controlling another person's behavior (but not always) which is where the magic comes in. Somehow what they do will determine another person's choices and behaviors to give the original person what they want.
An example of this kind of thinking is someone who tells themselves "If I lose weight, so-and-so will love me." Love, attraction and dating (much less long-term relationships) are far more complex and involved than just dieting. The person engaging in magical thinking however, refuses to see that; he/she instead fixates on a single aspect and blows its significance out of proportion. In their minds it is only about them doing one thing to achieve spectacular results.
Fears, fixations, obsessions and self-esteem issues come from our our psychology. They come from thought patterns, behaviors, habits and assumptions that we live our lives by. Quite often we cling ferociously to these core beliefs despite direct and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. While many people spend a great deal of time actively seeking data to support their core beliefs to contradict evidence the world is providing, Magical Thinking is another way to protect these core beliefs. By fixating on one aspect, we convince ourselves that we are actively working on a problem. This diverts our attention away from addressing the real issues that are creating the problem.
Going back the idea of using MA/SD/WSD/RBSD as a way to get what you want we can see countless manifestations of Magical Thinking. Let's start with the concept of "empowerment." What does that term even mean? Really, how do you qualify it or actually measure it? It's a warm fuzzy term, but lacks a substantive example can you give that everyone agrees on? And how do you get it by kicking the shit out of someone in the controlled and safe conditions of a seminar or school?
Does that really teach you how to get along with people better?
Whatever definition the instructor might think empowerment denotes, it is often warped to mean "Because I think I can fight, I don't have to modify my unacceptable behavior, work on my people skills or change my lifestyle." That's what arises from empowering dysfunctional behavior. Instead of getting rid of ineffective, flawed behaviors, you've just convinced the person that they have what it takes to make it work. Now you have bad behavior on steroids because the person thinks that they can "defend" him/herself. Unfortunately, a lot of the conflicts that arise stem directly from the student's failure to understand boundaries. Someone who was incapable of enforcing their own boundaries, seldom understands or respects the boundaries of others when they think they are empowered by knowing how to fight.
While a person can use new found self-confidence to make major and positive changes in their life, where the rubber hits the road is in the question: How many of them do?
This in comparison to how many are content because their comfort zone has been reinforced? Why change big issues when you are -- for the moment -- empowered and can win the game? That is until reality begins to intrude again.
This is what we mean when we say that the martial arts don't give you anything. You have to take the tools you learn from this training and consciously apply them to other aspects of life. And in doing so, blend them with the unique requirements of those other aspects. If martial arts helps develop self-confidence, then it is that self-confidence that will allow you to go out and learn a skill (like people skills) or do the work to develop positive character traits (like learning how to control your anger) .
This is not Magical Thinking, it is acquiring important components for the task of developing skills and character traits. But without you doing the work to develop these life skills, everything you learn in the MA is just a pile of bricks.
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A very wise person once said that life is 10% what has happened to us and 90% the value we assign to it.
Unfortunately, if that 90% doesn't have a positive value assigned to it, dealing with the negative emotions, thought patterns and self-esteem issues that arise is a major challenge. Realistically, what we mean when we say this, isn't that the issue is impossible to get over per se, but that the assumptions, defense mechanisms and behaviors we come up with to cope with that issue tend to keep us trapped in a cycle of dysfunction. Most of the time, it's not the incident that is the problem, it's how we try to cope with it.
In fact, a large part of that 90% can be some very bizarre mental gymnastics and behaviors that, while we think we are addressing the 10%, we are only reinforcing the 90%. While that might not sound like much of a problem, it can become a major self-deluding trap. Blaming the 10%, people do not realize that it is the 90% that keeps them trapped. Sometimes just an ongoing cycle of trauma drama, failure and disappointments, sometimes an escalating spiral of alcoholism, drug addiction, violence or bizarre, dysfunctional behavior. Often, over time the collective arising from the 90% become more problematic than the original issue.
Putting it simply, we must be careful that the things we do in hopes of fixing a problem, neither exacerbate the original or themselves become a larger one.
Unfortunately, many people, who decide for themselves what is necessary for them to crawl out of the hole of their 90% take the approach "We have to get out of this hole boys! Dig faster!"
That is because often the solutions that we come up with are based -- not in what it would take to grow beyond our limitations -- but what that 90% tells us. Therefore our so-called "solutions" often reinforce our beliefs instead of helping us overcoming them.
People who believe that MA/SD/WSD/RBSD training give them what they need to overcome personal issues are deeply trapped in this kind of 90% thinking, because they are not seeking different perspectives or objectivity. What they are getting is information that reinforces that 90%.
And you can't think outside of a box if you don't realize you are in one.
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Taking internal bearings
One of our favorite Albert Einstein quotes is: The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
One of the more common missteps people who are trying to solve problems make is that -- functionally -- they don't step outside the 90%.
Instead of seeking an external, unrelated and more functional perspective, they often latch onto something that is familiar. In doing so they seek to extend their 90% in that direction. This isn't solving the problem, this is just heaping other issues on top of it. For example, someone has been bullied and feels inadequate. These feelings of inadequacy often fly in the face of reality. What they fixate on and base their feelings on is the fact that they did not suddenly rise up and become an uber-warrior to defeat his/her tormenters.
To begin with that is pride talking. Unless they were physically assaulted there is no concrete damage. The emotional damage, while real, is entirely subjective. What's more it is entirely based on personal interpretation. That is to say the value the person assigns to it. This is far more a slippery slope than you might at first think. One person may shrug off an incident and keep going. While another will fixate on it and ascribe it overwhelming value and significance. This is why subjective emotional damage is such complex issue. An event that would emotionally destroy one person will have very little effect on another, whereas another person would be infuriated. And yet we are talking about the same event. These people are largely reacting to their 90% assumptions, thought patterns and world views. By this we mean several things.
First, their emotions -- the manifestations of which are largely a result of how the 90% is structured -- are one form of reaction to the event. That last statement can most easily be explained using the analogy, "Water is shaped by circumstances. A river, a lake, a glass or a water pipe, all hold water, but it is the container that determine what shape the water takes." Like water, emotions are channeled, suppressed and manifested by how your 90% is structured. How well or how poorly structured that 90% is will have significant effect on your emotions. The more extreme reactions will be engaging in what Daniel Goleman refers to as an "emotional hijacking"(1).
In our defensive tactics training we have a saying "Pain and emotions are motivational messages. When we feel them we feel that we have to act." However, emotions are not the unstoppable juggernauts that many people believe them to be. While there are many people who claim "I can't help how I feel" this is not true. Our feelings are significantly controlled and influenced by what we think. Our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, habits and neurological pathways form the container of the water of our emotions. There is a substantive argument to be made that much of our emotional states and behaviors boil down to "habit." And habits are learned, carefully nurtured and continually reinforced.
Furthermore, just because emotions are motivation messages doesn't mean we have to act. Just because you feel an emotion doesn't mean you have to do what it tells you. Unfortunately, many people learn coping strategies in life based on letting their emotions run rampant. To them, their emotions are the most powerful force in their lives and they mistakenly believe that by letting their emotions run they, by extension, this gives them a degree of power.
What these kinds of people fail to realize is as strong as their feelings are, the structures that they are channeled through are, in fact, stronger. We're not talking about the dam bursting when pressure gets too great. In fact, comparatively speaking seldom does the damn actually burst. People don't climb clock towers with sniper rifles all that often. Usually spillways and floodgates are opened, sending water down well-established and carefully structured pathways. What seems like a new crisis is often just another incident in a long established pattern of behavior. One that will leave the dam intact and able to allow pressure to build up until the next time.
Long term behavioral patterns of trauma dramas, failed relationships, constant conflict, job hopping, failure to get promoted, chronic low self-esteem, anger and drug/alcohol use takes on entirely different perspective when viewed this way.
There is no way to effectively express to the average person how ferociously humans cling to our internal structures. We view the world through our 90%. Putting that in practical terms our 90% determines our version of reality.
Now that begs a really big question: Is what we are emotionally reacting to what is really happening or something in our 90%?
This is a mind boggling question. Because our emotions can make it seem as real as being burned alive from the inside. Emotions can hit us like internal tidal waves. Forces that seem to engulf our entire beings. And by extension all of reality. You can be so focused on something that it is temporarily the sum of reality. To you, nothing else exists.
But does the world really go away? Does reality suddenly shift you into another dimension? Let's use the idea of an orgasm as an example. While you are experiencing an intense one you can be oblivious to the world. But do you come to in a different place? Are you somehow transported to another location? Or do you find yourself in the same location after the orgasm? While this may seem like a silly example, often an emotional hijacking is very much like an orgasm in that it temporarily blinds us to external circumstances, but those circumstances do not suddenly cease to exist because we are otherwise focused.
But just because we are otherwise focused does NOT mean that we are incapable of action. Which is why it is critical to a) recognize your own emotional state, b) know that your 90% may or may not be accurately reflecting what is going on and c) that is going to effect your emotions and by extension, your actions.
Second, how do you cope? Are you actually doing something to fix the problem or just giving into your feelings?
Displacement or redirected behavior is a well known psychological phenomenon. Whether it is "kicking the cat" or getting drunk after getting yelled at by the boss, people often find ways to cope with their emotions that are not particularly beneficial. While many coping strategies are beneficial (such as physical exercise) one must always remember that the means we deploy to handle excessive emotions are not solving the primary problem.
If after a bad day at work, you step onto the mat and proceed to do power kata for two hours, you WILL feel a lot better. But the source of the problem at work still remains. Hopefully though you now will be calm enough to rationally and reasonably think about ways to resolve the problem. That's a positive manifestation of a coping strategy, but the same thing applies to going out and getting drunk. Now the problem is still there the next morning, you don't have a plan AND you're hung over.
In many ways we can look at the Magical Thinking people engage in about MA/SD/WSD/RBSD in the same way. It is an ineffective coping strategy that while it makes them feel good at the moment, doesn't give them an effective means of fixing the core problem. Instead of calming them down so they can rationally address the problem that is creating the stress, it's like going on a drunk. They step into the dojo/ school/ academy/ seminar and all of sudden they become a deadly, killer kung fu commando. A secret and lethal master of an art that gives them power of life and death over mere mortals.
Like someone who goes on a drunk, this rush of power and imagined control doesn't calm the person down so he/she can research and develop a means of solving the problem. Often, and unfortunately, the MA/ SD /WSD/ RBSD organizations and forums become an escape. A place where the person doesn't have to engage in critical thinking, self-analysis or confront personal issues. Why should they? In that "world" they are powerful, in control beings.
At least they think so.
For a time they can lock the "real world" out and feel a rush of power. A rush that elevates them, but doesn't fix the core problem.If this is beginning to sound like addictive behavior, you're starting to understand how deep this problem can go.
But here is another less than sterling aspect to this picture. Let's run with the analogy of an alcoholic. But instead of someone using booze as a way to get a short term "shot of power" we're talking about someone who uses MA/SD/WSD/RBSD for that rush. Like alcohol the rush is only short term. It will soon ebb. So the person must return to the bottle when it wears off or when the stress gets to be too much again.
So who's selling him the booze?
This is why we liken some MA/SD/WSD/RBSD organizations to a bar full of alcoholics. If you want to see a group of self-reinforcing behaviors watch alkies encourage each other to drink. And the heads of these organizations are the bartenders, who knowing that his customers are chronic drunks, keeps on selling them their addiction. "Sure pal, knowing this deadly fighting system will solve all your fears, doubts and self-esteem issues...have another drink"
In the same way that you don't solve your life's problems by getting drunk, you don't solve your life's problems by being a deadly kung fu killer commando. Life is a little more complicated than that and it requires a wider set of skills.
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The need for other points of view
What we have been saying here isn't that the study of the martial arts is worthless. Far from it.
What we have been saying is: If you want to learn the martial arts, go to a martial arts instructor. If you want psychotherapy, go to a psychiatrist. If you want spiritual advice go to a priest, rabbi, iman, shaman or monk. If you need medical help, go to a doctor. If you want legal advice, go to a lawyer.
In short, if you need something, go to someone who is qualified to provide that service. There's a reason such people are professionals. And being a professional means a whole lot more than just being paid to do something. It includes knowing a whole lot more about a particular subject than you do and having a set of behavioral and professional standards and behaviors. Do abuses still happen? Of course they do. We live in an imperfect world. But you stand a far better chance of getting quality advice and service from someone whose profession is a particular subject than what you'll get from your martial arts or self-defense instructor.
If you have issues you need to work out, don't try to fix them using solutions you think are best. Remember, it's the 90% that isn't working in the first place. That's the same part telling you what a great idea that solution is. How reliable is a solution it comes up with going to be? Or is it more likely going to send you off on an expensive path that keeps it's cherished assumptions and core beliefs intact?
In addition, asking advice from someone who makes his living by teaching people how to fight using his ultimate combat system...what do you think he is going to tell you that you need? By definition, salesmen are good at convincing you that you need to buy their product. If you've already half-convinced yourself that the answer to your problems is learning how to fight, then you are going to be an easy sale. Remember the bartender who makes his living selling to alcoholics.
While it is tempting to seek advice from like-minded people (your friends for example) there is a problem with that too. Like minded people tend to give self-reinforcing advice. Your friends are your friends for the very reason that you think alike in many regards. What you need is outside perspectives from people who are perhaps older and who don't have these kinds of problems. Think about that last statement for a second, if advice from people who have the same problem is so good, then why do they have the same problem? Perspectives from people who are not caught in the same loop can be very useful, because if they don't have that kind of problem (or had it once but found a successful strategy) they're doing something right. Those of the kind of people you want to listen to.
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