empowerment self-defense, toby israel, envision festival, costa rica
Empowerment Self-Defense workshop at Envision Festival in Costa Rica, 2023.

Understanding the traffic light approach to evaluating risk — & safety.

What does self-defense mean to you? Is it just about martial arts strikes and yelling at an attacker? Or is it also about expressing firm boundaries, communicating a “No” without excuses or apologies, and interrupting uncomfortable situations before they become dangerous.

Or, is it about improving our relationships, relaxing into deeper connection and pleasure, knowing that the tools for self-defense are within reach, just in case.

For me, the answer is D, all of the above.

As an empowerment self-defense instructor, I define both violence and self-defense along a broad spectrum. An attack by a stranger in the street or on the beach is violence. Emotional abuse is violence. Street harassment is violence.

As a general rule, we humans don’t learn basic skills for defending ourselves anywhere along this spectrum. Empowerment self-defense provides choices and practical strategies — both verbal and physical — for dealing with risk, danger, or simple discomfort in ways that support safety and agency.

At its best, I think it can also improve our day-to-day interactions with family, friends, and partners by helping us dial into our needs, desires and boundaries, hone our intuition, and speak from it with confidence and power.

The Interview: Leaning Back from Danger (Red)

Perhaps the first step to building healthy relationships is learning to listen to the voice of intuition and hit the brakes at the red flags.

News stories and popular culture give the impression that gender-based violence always appears out of nowhere. You’re walking down the street and someone attacks you. You’re alone at the beach and someone attacks you. You’re in your house and someone attacks you…

While these situations are real, they don’t represent the majority of cases of violence.

It is a well-documented fact that gender-based violence (whether initiated by someone known or unknown) normally begins with an “interview.” In an interview, the potential agressor tests your boundaries, little by little, to see how you will respond. In a public space, the interview might start with a simple, “Hey, how’s it going?” and then escalate to more intimate questions or a breach of your personal space. With someone known, the interview could begin with “innocent” but undesired touch, and then proceed to cross more serious boundaries.

The interview (along with domestic violence) makes it especially difficult to practice self-defense, for two reasons. First, the social contract demands that we respond politely (or politely ignore) these first, “harmless” steps of the interview process, even if we feel uncomfortable. Second, agressors aptly erode a person’s boundaries and trust in their own intuition.

The question is: When will you pay attention to your intuition and put a stop to the behavior that is making you uncomfortable? This is exactly what a potential aggressor is waiting to see.

We can interrupt the interview with the assertive and direct communication of a boundary: “I don’t want to talk.” “Don’t touch me.” “You’re making me uncomfortable. Stop.” If successful, we won’t have to use any other self-defense techniques.

That’s why I don’t like to draw a distinction between physical and verbal self-defense. All the techniques have the same objective: to protect your safety.

The Traffic Light: Leaning into Safety (Green)

In empowerment self-defense, we like to use the metaphor of a traffic light to understand boundaries and risk.

When we are in green, everything is okay, normal, calm. The body should be relaxed, without too much tension, the breath even, and the heartrate at a natural resting rhythm.

An intimate relationship, friendship, or work environment should feel green most of the time, for most of us. This is a healthy place for our nervous systems, a place where healing and learning can occur, because the heart and mind are open to receive and connect.

When we are in yellow, we are on higher alert. We notice that something isn’t right, we feel uncomfortable, or someone is crossing a personal boundary. The body may become more tense, the heartrate or breath might accelerate, and our posture and body language display more awareness.

And finally, when we are in red, we are already in danger, and we need to apply self-defense principles (Think, Yell, Run, Fight, or Tell/Seek Support) in order to stay safe. Unfortunately, these situations often occur with someone we know, but we have the power to interrupt them.

It is critical to understand that self-defense does not begin when we are in red. Self-defense begins when we are in green, with a continual process of self-discovery and exploration. It starts with knowing our boundaries, understanding what we like and want, and getting clear about which behaviors we will not allow.

This clarity can improve all of our relationships — especially with the people we really want to have close to us.

Then, empowerment self-defense continues in yellow, when we express our boundaries and put a stop to potentially risky situations before we get to red.

Staying Curious about Our Needs & Boundaries (Yellow)

Boundary work is complex and constantly changing. Keep in mind that your red and green zones may look different than your best friend’s, your partner’s, or your family’s. Rembember that no one else gets to tell you where your boundaries are, or if the lines you draw are “reasonable” or “valid.”

We can stay curious about our yellow zone, especially, asking ourselves when discomfort is an invitation to question our biases or explore the possibility for healing, and when it is a simple warning cry to step away from danger and into safety. We can embrace the discomfort of genuine growth, while also protecting our hearts, minds, and bodies against violence.

Remember, too, that we are in a process of constant evolution, and that we may have different boundaries today than we did yesterday, and that tomorrow will surely bring another shift. Accepting and honoring this process of change and growth — in ourselves and in our loved ones — is a perpetual challenge. But, I think the rewards are worth it.

A Short Exercise in Defining Boundaries

Where are your boundaries today? Make a list of ten “green” situations, ten “yellow” situations, and ten “red” situations. Don’t forget that boundaries are personal! The important thing is how each situation feels for you.

Originally published on Medium.

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