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What is Empowerment Self-Defense, and How Can it Help You Heal From Trauma?

Posted by Liz Tenuto on

Guest Blog By Iyémote, Tasha Ina Church ESDP, owner of ElleLiveAction

Aloha! If you’re reading this, my guess is that you’ve survived something that shook you, shattered a piece of your life, and possibly made you feel broken. I started searching for Empowerment and healing at 17 years old and have tried a multitude of ways to make that happen. It was exhausting, lonely, and exasperating. I wanted to give up a million times over and, sometimes, did, but I’d always make my way back to myself and my mission.

It’s hard being a survivor; it’s challenging living when it feels like a part of you died, but when you find tools that give you your power back, you find a resiliency you never knew was there. Empowerment Self-Defense is different from every kind of self-defense style you’ve ever seen before, and it can help you heal from trauma — making you feel more alive, powerful, and strong. If a light has died in your eyes, this can be a gateway to bring you back. Empowerment Self-Defense is a template that can be used for everyday women, regardless of their size or physical abilities.

Have you ever had a negative interaction with someone and spent the day dwelling on it or coming up with a million rebuttals?

I remember doing this all the time. In my 20s, I didn’t like conflict. I wanted to make people happy, but the reality was that making others happy by neglecting myself and my needs often made me feel hollow, angry, sad, and empty. It’s usually not the random stranger who brings up feelings of hurt. However, it can be. Often, it’s a spouse, friend, co-worker, colleague, boss, teacher, authority figure, or even family. 85-90% of people who attack you are those you know. I include emotional attacks in there as well. When these situations happen, you may be overly critical of yourself for handling the situation the way you had or for feeling angry. You may judge yourself and put yourself down for not vocalizing what you wanted to say when you wanted to. By not vocalizing, you can cause feelings of internal anger or rage. You may blame yourself or deal with others victim-blaming you. I can’t stress this enough: no one should be blamed for the actions of another, regardless of the circumstances.

Emotional and physical abuse can be what I call “The Silent Killer.” As a survivor, I have lived experience with bottling up my feelings and emotions and not wanting to share what had happened to me. It’s devastating when you live through something so tragic or horrifying that a bit of your heart breaks. You begin to believe that no matter who wants to help, it just feels like no one else can understand. If you don’t have an outlet for the anger or sadness that builds, it can lead to mental health issues (PTSD/CPTSD & other challenges), along with physical ailments. When talking to clients, I have a rule, “Don’t Should on Yourself.” The should’ve, could’ve, would’ves can keep you in an adrenalized state affecting your nervous system and vagus nerve. It can rob you of your joy in the present moment.

For many women, we are told that anger is not okay. This can leave you feeling powerless, hopeless, resentful, & yes, angry. Knowing how to channel your frustrations, analyze your feelings, and physically address your emotions, such as anger, rage, or sadness, is important. It is also vital to have the tools to know what to do should a similar situation occur in the future. When you have a plan, you are less likely to freeze and are more likely to take action. When you learn the tools to empower you, you feel alive, and in a way, it is a sense of taking your power back. You find your voice. It helps you take action and control over your life. This is where Empowerment Self-Defense comes into play.

Did you know there are over 220 different martial arts styles, and less than ten were designed by women? As a martial arts practitioner, I can vouch for how it builds confidence, a sense of self, and strength. I love it and studied several Japanese and Chinese martial arts styles, but the arts are different. Empowerment Self-Defense can be martial arts, but not all martial arts are self-defense. If you have taken a martial arts class, it can be empowering and give you physical skills. However, most martial arts styles were created by men for men to utilize in times of combat.

A little history — in the last century, martial arts has adapted, yet still, most styles are designed for men to utilize during a physical attack. Empowerment Self-Defense hits multiple areas outside of just the physical realm. Since the early 1900s, women have been seeking self-defense courses related to them. They joined martial arts classes, boxing, MMA, and several just didn’t find what they were looking for — a safe space to learn how to empower themselves free from victim blaming and sexual harassment. In the 1970’s, the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation wanted to design a style by women for women and other vulnerable communities. This style has evolved to encompass violence prevention strategies utilizing holistic tools and techniques. What instructors of this style have found over 45+ years of research and peer-reviewed evidence was that Empowerment Self-Defense training can lower the risk of sexual assault by up to 50-60%. 

Sometimes, just having the knowledge can help. National Institute of Justice in the USA did studies on women who survived physical attacks and sexual assault. The study had some significant findings.

Did you know:

  • 81% of women who run away prevent sexual assault
  • 68% of women who use physical resistance prevented sexual assault 
  • 63% of women who yelled prevented sexual assault.

What do the stats tell you? That those who say don’t fight back, be quiet, do what they tell you to, don’t understand. When surviving my own attack, I realized I had to disrupt the person’s plan in order to live. An attacker has very linear thinking; I want to harm you, rob you, humiliate you, rape you, or kill you. Do the unexpected. Utilize some of these tools above.

My journey of learning this style has taught me that Empowerment goes beyond Physical Safety. It is understanding that YOU have a VOICE, and that voice has POWER — It’s about knowing that in any fight, physical, psychological, or emotional, YOU are Worth Fighting For!

When I was 15 years old, I met my first stalker (yes, my first of three). He was older and stalked me for up to two years before I knew what was happening. After confronting him, I wanted a safe space to learn how to defend myself. So, I joined a martial arts school. However, the school was predominantly men. When I was 21, I was out salsa dancing; I still trained in martial arts. I loved to dance and had no desire to date anyone in that community. After a year in that world, I knew all the professional salsa dancers. One night, one of them bought me a drink. I was roofied, taken from the ballroom, and had to fight for my life. I hit the guy with a pair of keys, fell down a flight of stairs, ran to my car, which he had taken, and drove myself home. As I drove, I had an epiphany.

You see, I didn’t want to call the cops. I called my best friend to share. Though she encouraged me, I just kept thinking, ‘I will be blamed for this. I’m wearing a tight dress, three-inch heels; I am going to be blamed.’ So, besides her, I told no one. Still, it did bring me to want to provide a safe and brave space for women and girls to learn holistic skills in Violence Prevention, how to navigate violence when it is happening, & heal from violence after the unspeakable occurs. So, I invited my self-defense partner to go through the moves we knew (over 800) to see what would work while wearing three-inch heels and a dress. That was the start of my own Empowerment Self-Defense curriculum. I wanted to help women and girls build self-esteem, body image and gain self-defense skills.

I want everyone to know how to harness their voice and that what they have to say matters. Being roofied was not my last attack, but I continually have built skills to support myself and my own healing journey. I’ve also been able to support my clients and relate to their stories. It’s been over 22 years teaching in this field, and the skills I gained, such as boundary setting, de-escalation, and understanding awarenesses (environments, social, personal), have been invaluable, aiding me in healing unresolved traumas from the past and navigating through traumas as they come.

I look at the healing process as a never-ending spectrum. You are constantly learning and continually growing. We all have continued lived experiences. I feel like Empowerment Self Defense has helped me think out of the box, do power differently, and focus on my strengths coming from a feminine standpoint. I don’t have to be hard or focus on my physical build to prevent adverse situations. 

Through all the experiences I’ve had, some key takeaways were:

  • Trust your intuition (It is not lying to you).
  • I deserve self-care, self-love, and self-empowerment; we all do.
  • To have more compassion for ourselves, and, in turn, this allows us to have more compassion for others.
  • To know that tapping into your rage is a tool to help you move through your emotions. It is not a detriment. It can be one of your greatest teachers. However, you just don’t want to live in that space forever.
  • Letting go of your anger, sadness, and grief is not giving up; it’s not forgetting what happened to you or who did something to you; it is not defeat; it is the gift you give yourself.
  • Your voice matters & it’s like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger that muscle becomes and the easier it is to flex it.
  • You don’t have to be big, strong, a bodybuilder, or a martial artist — you just have to have the desire to survive and the will to do what is needed at the time that you are being called to act.
  • Being FEARLess does not mean you no longer fear anything. Fear is a great teacher because it alerts your body that something is not okay. It is an opportunity to check in with yourself and ask, ‘What do I need right now in order to feel _____ (Safe, comforted, calm, at peace, confident, proud of me)?’

    As a survivor, I know what happens with second-guessing. We begin to question ourselves or our sanity. Empowerment Self-Defense teaches you that your intuition is your collective memory from birth until now, telling you to be aware that something is off. If you are always on high alert, that can be challenging (side note: this is why somatic exercise is so great!). You can tap into that intuition more thoroughly when you learn tools to help yourself fully feel your emotions and actively support your healing process from trauma. Empowerment Self-Defense practitioners believe that self-care and self-healing are components of learning to protect yourself and take care of you. Think of it: when you have had enough nourishment and self-care, feel loved, and have given yourself some much-needed R&R, you are more present, more aware of your surroundings, and are in a place to support yourself further and stick up for yourself when you need to. It builds confidence and self-esteem, which can make a huge difference when dealing with a conflict. When you take care of yourself, there is a deeper understanding and knowing that you are worthy of self-love and body autonomy. This also adds to the Empowerment Self-Defense model.

    There are several styles of Empowerment Self-Defense taught globally, and many people add their specialties to their practice, such as:

    • Clinical psychology
    • Psychological first aid
    • Social work
    • Martial arts
    • Non-violent communication
    • Workplace safety
    • Active shooter preparedness
    • Women’s Empowerment
    • Public speaking
    • Somatic movements
    • Yoga
    • Meditation
    • Teaching
    • And so much more

      As shared above, think of it like a template that continually evolves. Some critical components of Empowerment Self-Defense are trauma-informed techniques, practical self-defense moves, utilizing your voice, understanding your power and how to evaluate (Your environment, others, and yourself), how to catch red flags and assess if you are in a position to engage or leave, bystander intervention, and so much more!

      One of the styles I have learned of Empowerment Self-Defense by the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation and ESD Global teaches the 5- Principles of Self-Defense: Think, Yell, Run, Fight, & Tell. 

      Think = Assess your environment (exits, allies, tools for preventing an attack, or tools to defend yourself), the situation, what you see and hear, and how you are feeling in the moment, along with what you notice about the person or people in question.

      Yell = Setting a boundary; say what you want to say when you feel called to say it

      Run = Run or walk away, or if someone is in your space state, you want them to leave.

      Fight = Last resort, and the person will not back down; utilize the skills you need to get to a safe place, be that physical or vocal skills.

      Tell = Getting support after the fact. Could be a friend, family member, mentor, teacher, or someone else you trust. You may feel like you can’t trust anyone. Journal, trust yourself, and vent. Get what you need to say out of your body and onto paper.

      I love these guiding principles, and they have helped me prevent violent acts, navigate violent behavior (be it physical, psychological, or emotional), and heal from violence, getting the support I deserve. You don’t have to be physically assaulted to get help when dealing with an adverse situation. It can be any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable. I like thinking of the need for self-defense in broader terms. If someone is making you feel less than, unsafe, or mistreated, you need self-defense skills.

      Did you know 75% of all physical confrontations could have been avoided through verbal communication in the “Feel Out” stage? That could be someone putting their hand on the small of your back, hugging you a little too long, kissing you without permission, pressuring you, or other things. A partner could do something you don’t like or something that you feel crosses the line. So many clients tell me, ‘I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or hurt their feelings. So, I don’t say anything.’ Let’s reframe this: are they making you feel uncomfortable with their actions, gestures, or behavior? There is already one person uncomfortable in the room, and if that other person does care about you and feels your energy, there may be two uncomfortable people. You give yourself a gift when you tell someone what you need, how you feel, and what you want. You Teach Others How To Treat You!

      To everyone out there who is learning to speak up, learning self-healing, self-care, and self-empowerment, keep learning. It is amazing what happens when you do! These tips, tools, strategies, and choices have helped me heal from trauma in a way I had never experienced before. I know it has drastically changed the lives of my clients, and Empowerment Self-Defense can help you if you seek different ways to empower yourself and heal from trauma. You deserve to live a life of passion, filled with hope and dreams. You deserve to feel safe in the skin you are in. Remember that.

      Mahalo for reading!