Tagged: conditioning

Emotional Stopping Power

There’s a lot of talk about “stopping power” in the world of defensive shooting. A “stop” is when you get someone to stop their attack, and there are two kinds: physiological and psychological. Physiological is when someone becomes physically incapacitated to the point where their body is, in that moment, no longer capable of causing you harm. Psychological is the same thing, but in the mind—you get someone to give up. It could be that things aren’t following the script they had planned. It could be that the amount of resistance they’re meeting, or the amount of pain or damage they’re taking, is more than they bargained for. It could be that they have ideas about what’s “supposed” happen when they take certain types of damage. Or it could be they they go to an emotional place where they simply will not act to protect themselves and are therefore utterly at the mercy (don’t count on it) and whim of their opponent. It seems that people’s minds often give up well before their bodies do.

This is hugely powerful. Getting someone to give up with less force than is required to physically remove their ability to hurt us is both efficient and a good risk management strategy. It can cut both ways. When used by an innocent defender, it prevents further violence, because an innocent defender’s goal is to get away unscathed. When used by an attacker, it can enable further violence, because the attacker has other goals, and they can do whatever they want to someone who won’t fight back. Given that things can go much better for us if this goes for us and much worse if it’s against us, it follows that learning to use it in our favor and to resist it coming from others is a good idea. It also follows that allowing or inducing an emotional stop in ourselves is a bad one.

My mother had a live-in boyfriend who was functionally my stepfather for 9 or 10 years. He was a drunk and an asshole who went out of his way to express his anger at me. A pattern quickly emerged when we all moved in together when I was about 6: he yelled, I cried and went away. Once I started crying, I’d shut down, and it was over… he’d won, I’d lost, and there was no point in going through the rest of the motions. Crying meant losing.

There’s a deadly idea in there that many of us pick up early. It’s replicated in lots of self defense training. We think that if someone gains a certain position (joint lock, choke hold), does a certain thing (lands a certain strike, shoots or cuts someone with a training weapon), or creates a certain reaction (momentary freeze or panic) in their opponent, that person has automatically won. We think when that happens, there’s simply nothing we can do except give up. This is wrong.

I worked hard on not crying, but it had become a conditioned response that I couldn’t see how to break. I could delay the tears, but stopping them altogether seemed almost impossible. As time went on, I didn’t cry about anything else, just when that one person would ride me in a certain way. He yelled, I cried; he won, I lost. Crying meant losing—game over—and I did it every time.

One night when I was probably 15, he attained that perfect drunken state of peak danger where he was loaded enough to be at maximum rage with minimum inhibition and self-restraint, but without having lost the physical coordination to destroy. He was angry, wanted to break something, and started riding me hard. He was going way further than he had before and was clearly working himself up to letting himself off the chain. In that moment I had no money and nowhere to go, so leaving wasn’t on the table. By this point in my life I’d skated by death a few times and had faced and escaped a lot worse than this guy, who hated my existence but had never actually laid a hand on me, so me crying made no real sense. Some conditioning runs deep. I held them back for a while, but eventually the tears started as he vented his rage into my face from a few inches away. Previous experience told me that I had just lost, but the stakes were higher as a hospital-at-least beating seemed imminent. Trying to walk away or hide would have probably just encouraged him to chase me, with bad results. Picking up something to use as a weapon would have escalated things to a very bad place very quickly. So I stood there. He coiled to swing and I told him, through the tears, that if he hit me, I’d hit him back. I meant it. His body language changed, he blustered for a few more seconds, and then disengaged. I walked away and we both literally lived to fight another day.

It could have gone very differently, but thankfully this ended as a pretty low-level event that wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It does illustrate something important, though: fear and our bodies’ natural reactions to stress aren’t necessarily the only internal things to deal with when we need to protect ourselves. Emotion and conditioning can be factors as well. If an emotional obstacle rears its head at say 2% of the spectrum of force that could be used against us, and we allow that to stop us and we shut down, we’re defeating ourselves by doing 98% of the attacker’s work against us for them. It may be through shakes, tears, or such a profound sense of wrongness about asserting anything in the physical world to protect yourself that you feel like you might hurl your guts out, but even if you’re experiencing emotion or are fighting through your conditioning, you can still actively participate in your own protection and survival.