Design Matters in Self-Defense Instruction Part 2 – Tammy Yard-McCracken

One quick way to frustrate a female student is to shut this down. In the beginning, telling her this discovery and curiosity is wrong, may work. It will work out of her respect for the instructor’s knowledge and skillset. It will work in strong ‘Sensei Cultures’ where no one questions the Sensei. It will work if she has intuited that to be accepted in a male-dominated class she needs to act like a guy – it will work because she is socially programmed to behave appropriately. Squashing her brain’s need and ability to run through all the train lines, into all the stops and tie together the similarities while filtering out the differences works because she is being outwardly compliant and wants the approval she will get by not being “the girl” in the class.

But give her time. As she gains confidence, skill and comfort in the male-dominated culture that interconnected superhighway in her brain is going to win out. And it should. This is one of her superpowers but if the instructor is not ready for it, he (or she – female instructors often take on the modeled male approach to teaching) will shut it down.

Here is an example. An instructor-level student is training with a cohort of instructors under a senior level guy. The skill being drilled and its related problem piqued her curiosity. She was having a hard time getting her body to do what the technique called for so she intentionally did a few repetitions incorrectly. Senior instructor walks by and asks her what she’s doing. Her answer was something like this:

“Trying to find out what happens if I don’t do this right – trying to figure out how to find the right motivation for my body to do the technique correctly…”

This did not go well. The senior guy snapped at her “just DO the technique!” – the verbal punishment was big enough everyone nearby stopped to see what the commotion was about and her training partner muttered…wow, you pissed him off!

Later, the instructor apologized.

This story is an example of what all that white matter is programmed to do. Her investigation of the training and the technique is anchored in the same neurological design that causes her to investigate those gloves, or ask a myriad of questions, or expect contingencies and exploration of options in a business meeting. This story is also an example of a tangle of social programs, expectations and failure points.

The senior instructor is frustrated by her because she is going off the reservation. She isn’t listening to him. She isn’t working the drill. He may even experience her actions as disrespectful. In traditional training cultures, her behavior is unacceptable. Note here, traditional does not apply solely to the context of ‘traditional martial arts’. Mixed Martial Arts and modern self-defense programs can fit in this box as well. The frustrated instructor may also be a woman. Just because her brain is also genetically programmed to run through the complex channels and plethora of possibilities, she has likely adjusted to the classic martial teaching paradigm and may interpret her student’s behavior through the same filters as her male colleagues.

To bring the wayward student back to task and back in line there will be corrective punishment. The punishment can be overt as in the story above, it can be subtle and back-channeled, it can be demonstrated in continued biting remarks, shaming, or open shunning. This leaves her with a choice. Handicap her strength to avoid punishment and remain connected to her training community, or leave. There is a third option, what about speaking to the instructor? This may work – if he is open to the conversation and if she has the science to back up why she wants to test these training approaches (she’ll need this to be able to articulate)– and the culture of the training program is focused on the successes of the students not the reputation of the instructors. That’s a significant number of caveats and significant socio-psychological inhibitors to a successful outcome.

There is a myriad of teaching methodologies to bring a student, any student studying any-thing, back to a specific task without punishing a student’s natural functional learning modalities. Male and female, how our brains are wired influences how we learn and how we train. In a particularly goal-oriented environment like the dojo, the superhighway of white matter connectivity in the female brain may present as an anathema. What’s really cool though, is this connectivity can be developed further and can be enhanced/increased in any brain1. The instructor who stays curious will default less frequently to classic obedient=good expectations. This instructor will create a permissive training culture and when she wants to find out what happens when she performs the technique incorrectly, he is going to be curious right along with her. It won’t be a threat to this instructor’s ego, authority or leadership. And out of this discovery training model, their partnership may uncover another possibility in response to the problem and more importantly, she learns an invaluable lesson: trust your instincts.

  1. Pick up Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code if you are intrigued.

Design Matters in Self-Defense Instruction Part 1 – Tammy Yard-McCracken

Every once in a while, a story hits the media about someone touting the differences between men and women as the source of abilities (or lack thereof) related to science, math or military service. Welcome to proof-texting, taking a quote or data point out of context adding validation to an otherwise erroneous argument. Proof-texting works for the women can’t do science type of arguments because there are subtle differences between male and female brains. Using these differences as arguments to bolster positions about intelligence or aptitude is categorically without merit. Understanding how the differences influence decision-making can go a long way to effectively manage communication at the broad stroke level. Conflict management and prevention, applications to negotiations, sales, and all forms of personal and commercial relationship can benefit.

Let’s look specifically at an area of communication and relationship with a dominantly male leadership community and a target demographic largely female. Self-defense.

If you want to frustrate a female student, assume she is wired just like a male student. There are a variety of ways we can investigate learning and processing differences among all our students – again – regardless of gender, for this conversation I want to look at where gender differences can matter.

Specifically, take into consideration two structural/design differences between the male and the female brain1:

  1. The male brain has about 6x more grey matter and the female brain has roughly 10x more white matter.
  2. The female brain’s corpus callossum (the cord connecting the two halves of your brain) is about 10% thicker on average.

White matter and the connectivity between the hemispheres are collectively responsible for the ability to make inferences, drive curiosity and discovery oriented decision-making, integrate large caches of information and remain open to changes in how one navigates problems and solutions. The reason for this is pretty simple. White matter is made up of myelinated axons. An axon’s job is to connect to other axons and collectively, they serve as the brain’s information highway connecting the points where data is stored (grey matter). With more white matter, a female brain has more myelinated axons v. the unmyelinated version of grey matter and as a result, more interconnectivity and interaction among the data storage centers2.

Think of white matter as the train lines in a subway or commuter rail and the grey matter as the individual stations. The more stations that are interconnected, the more there will be travel between all the points, the more often the travel will occur and the more station hopping there may be on a single trip. It’s one of the reasons women can have a multi-dimensional conversation without losing track of all the different topics being discussed simultaneously.

What this means in teaching women in a mission-oriented paradigm like self-defense? The subtle increase in gray matter causes men to be slightly more inclined to approach a task through a mission directed mindset. Get it done. “I need new boxing gloves” – goes to vendor or store, finds boxing gloves of correct weight –buys gloves. Done.

Women are more likely to consider how long the previous gloves lasted her and how they were used during that time frame. She may measure out the weight of the gloves against her training goals and her upper body strength along with the color and design as they influence how she feels about the gloves. She will investigate the vendor as well as the product and do more comparison shopping. If this is the first pair of gloves, the guy is going to ask the instructor: what should I buy? Tell him 18 oz gloves in X price range and he’s good to go. She is going to want to know more information, or may go out to buy them and come back with a fistful of questions instead of a pair of gloves.

On the mat, tell him he needs to move offline at a 45-degree angle and he has a mission to accomplish. Done. Tell this to her and out of respect and the power differential, she may jump in with the same mission-oriented approach. For a while. Eventually, she is going to wonder about why the 45 degrees is the preferred angle for this skill. She is going to think about other situations and circumstances and where the failure point is.

She may even play around with the failure point. Like she investigated the purchase of her gloves, she is going to investigate the technique. If no one else is doing this in class, she may wait until she’s off by herself, away from the critical eye of her fellow students and instructors. She may play with it in her thoughts and visualize it instead of a physical test of the thing, but she is going to play with it.

What No One Wants To Talk About – Tammy Yard-McCracken

Read Part 1

Part 2

There are at least four specific reasons this happens and the same four reasons are why no one should be surprised.

Reason One: Training touches emotional, monkey brain places that are rarely activated inside the context of close, deeply physical personal contact. In our current society, the only other socially acceptable activity for this is on the dance floor at the nightclub…which also frequently ends up in sexual activity because biologically, it’s supposed to. There’s a reason the majority of people who take to the dance floor are young and/or single – it’s the human form of the animal kingdom’s mating dance. The level of personal contact and give-take behavior in martial/combat arts training carries a strong parallel to the dance floor. It feels like, to the social-monkey brain as a mating ritual.

Reason Two: Training can tap at the windows of the primal survival stress response (SSR). What we often reference as the Lizard brain can lift an eyelid in subtle activation. Not enough activation for the person to become distinctly aware of the experience though, which means s/he is unlikely to notice. If the student does feel the tremors of adrenalization, it is equally unlikely s/he will understand the experience for what it is (as most people have not had a personal experience of having their SSR fully engaged).

Why is this a contributing factor to a potential sexually charged interaction? Remember F/F/F stands for flight, fight or freeze. There’s actually a fourth F: flight, fight, freeze or fuck. The drive to get laid is high on the radar when adrenalized, once the Threat has passed anyway.

Back to the dojo with this explanation. We have lots of little, minor adrenalization episodes occurring in the context of Reason One and the potential for a strong drive to procreate gets reinforced by the SSR.

Reason Three: Attention. How many adults get a weekly experience of someone who pays close personal attention to a developing skill set? Close enough to offer subtle corrections and positive reinforcement? How many people in your life are standing on your personal sidelines cheering your small accomplishments? I’m not talking about the overt signatures of a rank testing.

These are the momentary successes during class. A punch improves, the footwork smooths out, a difficult technique finally clicks and the instructor smiles and nods. Maybe, there’s even verbal recognition and a reinforcing touch on the shoulder. A hungry place inside human desire for recognition/support gets fed by a “badass” authority figure. The instructor gets a perk out of this interaction as well. The student beams back, clearly happy to have earned an accolade and the instructor’s own status is reinforced.

This is a great recipe for presumed closeness or positive escalation in the relationship. It isn’t as if the student runs home gushing about how the instructor is madly in love with him, or her. It is a gradual and semi-conscious increase in expectation between one or both parties in the dance.

Reason Four: This is my last one for the article. It is by no means the last one worth discussing. Being an instructor in martial arts is the one profession in which you can guarantee others will bow to you. There are overt and subconscious expressions of power, strength and authority in this role. Power that can be easily abused and power that can be easily attached to in a parasitic sort of way by the student who doesn’t want to discover power; opting instead for just borrowing the instructor’s by association.

These four reasons can be in play without conscious awareness on either the student or the instructor’s behalf. Whether conscious or not, the dynamic will play out until light dawns on the unraveling integrity of all parties involved and the ripples reach out through the student body and the community.

There is an apparent deleterious impact on the business potential of the training center if the ripples reach broadly enough. Students leave, new students shy away and if there isn’t a sharp correction, the trajectory reads like a crystal ball predicting the dojo’s doors getting locked up due to lack of payment on the lease. No one wants to face the repercussions of a failed business, no matter how valuable the life lessons from the experience may be.

And as true as that is, perhaps the more critical failing is in the meta message: in this place where you are invited to learn strength and power, strength and power will be misused.

There is enough of that across our cultures and post-modern societies. Most people who become professional instructors do not enter the profession to abuse their authority or seduce their students, but it happens. The results can create trips to the therapist’s office when the mat might otherwise have been therapy enough.

Talking about this reality in our profession is one of the necessary steps to changing it. So…there you have it. It’s out here, in print, out in the open. Do with it what you will.

What No One Wants To Talk About – Tammy Yard-McCracken

Part 1

In the martial & combat arts industry there is a dark corner in the back of a closet full of skeletons that many of us know about but don’t want to acknowledge. If the topic comes up, it’s in a small group, away from the students of the gym/dojo and in horrified, hushed tones.

Yes, I am being dramatic. On purpose. Because it’s important and we should be talking about “It” – and often.

IT is the rather robust occurrence of Instructors and students falling into the sweaty arms of romance and sex. I know of two relationships in which an instructor dated a student and the experience ended with a lot of happy people, marriage (or committed relationship) and happy little babies. I know of significantly more than two instructor/student affairs ending badly.

Very badly.

As an instructor and school owner, I have a simple rule for my coaches and instructors: the students are not your dating pool. Because I know of these two relationships that ended happily, I know it’s possible. My rule comes with a caveat to the instructors…if you think there’s something brewing between yourself and a student, come talk to me first. I am not interested in being anyone’s dating police. I am interested in protecting the physical and emotional integrity of the training center, because these things happen:

Example 1 –  Student flirts with instructor – instructor flirts back (for sport, naturally). Student schedules private lessons. Lots of grappling happens. Sweaty grappling turns into sexually charged wrestling and then a kiss and then more. Backstory? The instructor is married. The student gets pregnant. Rumors fly through the student body and the culture of the school takes a big, unpleasant shift.

Example 2 – Student working hard for the next rank test schedules privates with all the instructors. One male instructor (female student) crushes on her. Schedules more privates and starts training as a student in any class she attends in which he isn’t also teaching. Students start to complain that when he teaches, he only helps her – only offers her correction – ignores the rest of the class.  She’s married, he’s getting a divorce. Other students are super surprised to meet her husband at an event because they all think she’s dating the instructor. And then they actually are (seeing one another) and the husband finds out and there are ripple effects through the gym. She stops training and the school loses a solid instructor because the head of school sent him packing.

Example 3 – Student flirts with instructor, instructor flirts back. Instructor wants to do this “right”. They have coffee, during the day – no formal dates, no touching, etc. Just getting to know each other. Both are single and the instructor thinks the relationship may have potential and wants to keep doing it with integrity. He keeps the rate of motion slow and gradual. The student gets pissed by the slow rate of motion – wants the status of roping an instructor, and accuses the instructor of sexual harassment…to everyone at the gym, loudly. The instructor never quite recovers his reputation and the student continues to train in his classes and openly defies him, ignores instruction and makes comments to training partners that “he’s an idiot, he doesn’t know what he’s doing”. The head of school hides in his office.

Three examples of so many stories I have heard that I have, frankly, lost count. Almost everyone I meet who has trained for any length of time, has a story of someone they know (or their own story) that has had their training interrupted or terminated because of a distorted emotional and physical relationship in the student-instructor paradigm.

Let’s clean out the closet and talk about it. There are at least four specific reasons this happens and the same four reasons are why no one should be surprised.

Part 2 will be in the March issue of Conflict Manager.

Teaching Self-Defense in the Face of Domestic Violence Part II – Tammy Yard McCracken

In the first article we hit a brief overview of why the cycle of domestic violence is self-perpetuating and stubborn. The cycle demands repetition and assuages a deep anxiety triggered by potential tribal instability.

If you are in the self-defense industry this is going to become a factor in your reality. You will have students who are actively in a domestic violence relationship. Teach long enough, you will have a student who is in a DV situation and who decides you are integris enough to entrust you with this information.

Think about why you teach. Take a minute and list out the deep, personal reasons why you choose to invest all the time, money, injuries, cost against family etc. to do this work. At some level, a good instructor knows s/he teaches because they want good people to be stronger people. Oversimplifying it, you want good people to have the power to choose their responses to bad situations.

If you have a student in a DV situation who shares this information with you, it may come to light after she has violated a series of tribal taboos – meaning, after she has left the relationship. This is the easy one. There may still be threats to her safety impacting her choice to train, but she is off the script. The student who is training with you and continues going home to the abuse is the tough one. She is going to trigger all sorts of frustrations for a self-defense instructor. Her subconscious allegiance to the script is going to highlight your glitches.

Note: Glitches are the emotional trigger points that interfere with our capacity to consider a situation, belief, interaction, etc. through a purely logical observation

What is your gut response? Are you angry with her for staying in the pattern? Do you feel helpless? Are you tempted to dismiss her? Do you want to track down the violent partner and meet out justice?

Do you want to save her?

And what exactly is your role? What is your duty to her? What is overstepping? When, in your righteousness, will you accidentally do the same thing her violent partner is already doing – treat her as damaged and less than?

For now, I am forgoing any dialogue about Duty To Warn obligations as it relates to professions who may have reporting obligations. The number of self-defense instructors who also carry these may be more the minority and warrants a separate conversation. What follows are a handful of basic guidelines for a complex dynamic. This is not exhaustive and the guidelines may, in fact, be wrong depending on the specific situation.

Guideline #1: Honor her trust. You may be the only person in her life right now who can demonstrate what respect looks like. The respect that communicates she is, in fact, capable of making her own choices about her own circumstances. Respect that honors her right to make those choices. Now that she has disclosed her situation to you, do not assume you know how she wants you to support her. Instead, ask. What kind of support do you want from me? Another variation of this is what does support [from me] look like to you? Do your damnedest to honor her response. If she tells you she doesn’t know, try not to dictate it to her, she already has plenty of that happening. One request she may make could be particularly difficult for you. She may ask for your silence. If she doesn’t want you telling anyone, don’t tell anyone.*

Guideline #2: You are not a social worker or a psychotherapist. Even if you are credentialed for these professions as her self-defense instructor, this is not your role. Don’t pick up the mantel for it. If you are untrained in this role you have a better than average chance of making the situation worse for your student. You will almost always make your life more difficult as well.

If you take up this role will you be prepared for phone calls at 2 am? For long conversations after class? Are you up for holding in confidence detailed information about one of the darker aspects of human behavior? Are you personally equipped for processing this violence? You can’t unknow this stuff. There is such a thing as secondary post-traumatic stress. What if she calls you to help her move out? Where will you set your boundaries with her? This gets slippery fast so don’t step onto the slope. Licensed therapists have rules and training for how to manage personal boundary-setting with clients. It is unlikely you have this training if you are not licensed. You could end up in the deep end of the pool with no understanding about how to swim through the water.

Guideline #3: You don’t get to save her. It is not your job. I don’t care what argument you want to throw back at this. It just isn’t your job.

It is her job. We know when DV victims are rescued they typically return. When they make the decision personally, when they have reached their own clarity – it sticks.

I have a decent amount of experience working with DV victims and survivors. I am about to offer a series of suggestions and encourage you to take them as a first step, not as the final word. There are people who have a significant degree more experience than I have and there is an extensive body of research available if you are interested.

  1. About Guideline #1. Silence. This comes at a cost. If you are asked to keep her story in confidence, how will you process the impact it has on you? If she tells you and doesn’t want you to do anything, watching her continue in the script can take you to places of frustration and anger that may be new for you. You are her instructor and you get to set your own boundaries about what’s necessary for you to successfully work with her (including not losing your mind over this). Options include telling her you need counsel on how to best support her, get her permission and then get counsel. If she refuses, talk it out with her. If she still refuses get counsel but leave every single piece of personally identifying information from the story and reach out to someone that does not know your tribe. This is risky. She may experience it as a violation of her trust. You may have to decide between the two.
  2. Be Prepared. With the statistics being what they are, assume you are going to have domestic violence victims in your class. Know what the resources are in your community. Have them at quick access and be able to hand this information to a student. This will help avoid a sense of powerlessness and can help assuage your inner hero’s desire to save her. No, it isn’t going to automatically fix everything. That’s not going to happen no matter what you do.
  3. If you feel compelled to get involved, understand this. Law enforcement officers are taught that a DV call is particularly volatile and dangerous…for the officer. The violence can turn on the neutral party. You could end up as a target for the violent partner. You could experience your student turning on you as well. In class, at your dojo this may not be physical but, it doesn’t have to be for her to wreak havoc. Hold to a Do No Harm rule. Ask yourself if your involvement will make things better and how it might make things worse.
  4. This is not your fight. It is her fight. And sometimes people die. She can do all the “right” things and not survive.

If she dies, or is seriously injured in a violent encounter you are going to take impact. The voices in your head will be noisy. They will want you to feel blame and fault. These voices are going to sound off in other situations as well. It’s part of the territory for the emotional make-up of a lot of people who go into the self-defense instructor profession. Get to know your glitches and blind spots. Cultivate a relationship with a violence industry colleague to whom you can extend a deep level of trust. This needs to be someone you can talk to openly and without filters. Let this relationship be strong enough to function as a crucible for conversations about your glitches and possible blind spots. Cultivating this relationship should live in your thinking as a Hard Rule. The crucible relationship will be a critical component for hanging on to your sanity in an industry which daily addresses the elements of humanity most people avoid.

*Trust and Confidentiality. This is one of the murkier issues. If you tell someone, will it help? If you violate her trust will it be for a better outcome overall?


Teaching Self-Defense in the Face of Domestic Violence Part I – Tammy Yard McCracken

As a topic, Domestic Violence is complex. There is a multitude of research on the causes, the correlations and intervention strategies aimed at reducing the incidence of domestic violence. In the United States, for example, statisticians generally settle on 1 in 3 women will experience some sort of domestic violence in their lifetime. This is an unsettling statistic and has driven funding and research for decades. Add to this, 1 in 10 female homicide victims are murdered by someone known the them, frequently by a former or current domestic partner.  These stats are generated by a variety of sources and the numbers do vary. Do not take them as solid numbers but rather as a context for the prevalence of the dynamic.

It is also important to shift the numbers out of a statistical context and into the reality of people. The next time you are out in public, look for three women. By the numbers, one of these three is in a domestically violent relationship. If there are six women in the group, two of them are being abused by their partners, etc. Put real people to the numbers and the gravitas shifts.

This will be a two-part article series and is the product of conversations I have had with self-defense instructors from different parts of the globe over the past few years. The question comes up: how do I handle a student in a domestic violence situation?

I am glad the question is being asked because what lives under the question in many of the instructors I have talked with is an instinct that the instructor should be doing something to help her.

-Note: I am using the feminine pronoun for ease of writing. This does not negate that there are men in domestic violence situations but instead reflects the provenance in women is significantly higher based on what is reported.

To get started, we need to look at why domestic violence is the cycle that it is. The abuser lashes out, she gets hit/beaten, etc. In the aftermath the abuser expresses remorse – which does not always mean accepting responsibility – the couple puts the violence behind them and then the gradual tension begins again until there is another physical outburst. Even if she leaves, she typically comes home in the remorse stage.

Our discussion of why this happens is going to be a short and, as a result, an incomplete review. There are entire books written on just this piece of the topic. Here we go:

As humans, we are deeply social creatures. It is part of our survival blueprint. In hostile territory a single human’s survival chances are questionable. With a tribe, survival chances increase. For the individual to survive, the tribe must survive. The family unit is interpreted by primitive brain function as our current concept of tribe. Add to this, the social and cultural ideas of family structure, which are equally powerful and programmed into our thinking from birth. This is the concept of the Monkey Brain.

Instability in our tribe is interpreted as a threat. Remember, if the tribe doesn’t survive – you die. If the tribe is unstable or at risk of falling apart, then your survival is threatened. These perceptions are deeply unconscious and primitive. Logic based conversation will rarely be enough to overpower these instincts.

All of this adds up to two things.

  1. The pattern of domestic violence becomes one of the defining scripts of the relationship. As the cycle continues, the Monkey Brain see this as stability. “My tribe is stable; therefore, it will survive. Tribe survives, I survive.”
    2. Leaving means the tribe is no longer stable. The family disintegrates = the tribe disintegrates and this feels like a powerful threat to personal survival.

Logically, we all know this doesn’t make sense. Domestic violence can be fatal. It is clear the abuse is a direct threat to the physical well-being of the victim.

BUT…and this is a very powerful and important “but”… the Monkey Brain and the more primitive survival mechanisms see the pattern rather than the physical violence. The pattern indicates that whatever the victim of domestic violence is doing, it is working exceedingly well.

How? Simple. Each time there is a physical altercation, a slap, a beating, the primitive survival mechanism in her brain notices something very important “I am still alive. Whatever I did during this violence, it kept me alive.”

Being alive is more important than being injured. If the decision she is making gets her hurt but doesn’t kill her, the unconscious primitive mind will see this as a good decision and will work to have her repeat this choice in similar future events.

The pattern of domestic violence becomes a script defining stability and survival. Leaving and stopping the pattern is experienced as a powerful threat to survival.

So the pattern continues and for self-defense instructors, this pattern can be deeply frustrating. If you teach, you likely teach because you want to help people lead stronger, happier, healthier lives. You want people to find strength and the internal fortitude for liberty v. oppression. Knowing one of your students leaves class only to return home to a situation of violence and presumed oppression is vexing enough to keep you up at night.

Managing that is for article number two.


Stalking Part II: Getting Past the Obvious – Tammy Yard McCracken

“I stalked you on the internet…”

“I’ve been lurking around his Facebook page”

“I totally follow every social media site for ________”

Sounds creepy. Only it isn’t in our world of social media. Constant internet access has created a culturally acceptable context under the nomenclature of stalking. We follow each other around on Facebook, Instagram, webpages, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. and joke about stalking people online. We joke about it because it is acceptable behavior. Sometimes we tell on ourselves, sometimes we don’t. If someone tells you they stalked your Facebook page, it is because they are perfectly comfortable with their actions and expect you will be too. It’s what we do because we can – information at our fingertips and all that. This is not an overt indicator of future violence. Nor is it an indicator –in and of itself – of twisted social scripts, and if they never tell you…you will be completely unaffected. Calling this new form of voyeuristic research stalking is an unfortunate, albeit loosely accurate application of the language; but it is not an expression of violence or risk.

What puts stalking on the spectrum of violent behavior is when it involves evident assumptions of license against the autonomy of another human being. While it’s true that not all stalking includes physical violence causing pain, injury, damage, or imprisonment; it is nonetheless well inside the parameters of violence dynamics. It assumes license against autonomy because, at a point, the hunter has made unilateral decisions about the target’s future. Before taking this deeper, two quick reminders from the first article:

  • all stalking, socially sanctioned or not, is hunting
  • there is a point along the trajectory of the hunt at which the stalking becomes evident to the intended target

On the first point: predators stalk their prey. Humans are predators. Therefore, if you are stalking someone’s Facebook page, you are hunting. Maybe you are just curious about what an old friend from high school is up to, but it is still hunting.

On the second point: the hunter must reveal itself to complete the hunt. This reveal may be overt, like an ambush; or it may be a gradual build from secretive to evident behaviors demonstrating a toxic spin of standard social scripts. In either category there is a point along the continuum in which the target becomes conscious of the hunter.

When the awareness hits, our understanding of what it means to be prey kicks in. Our lizard brain opens both eyes and knocks on the back door of our monkey and human brains. Senses heighten and a variety of physical warning signals begin to flash in the target’s body. Reports of feeling the presence of the predator long before there is visual contact are not paranoia. This is our instinct-driven ability to identify subtle changes in the environment necessary for survival when we lived on the savannah following herds.

In our current reality, most people have never met their Lizard brain. This is not a bad thing. It is good to experience safety and security. Because most people have not met their primitive Lizard brain, most people in domesticated societies do not know what it feels like when the Lizard brain begins to stir. The consequence is dismissal. If the Lizard brain begins to shake off its hibernation and you have no context for it, your monkey brain will resist it.

This is critical. Even in the mid stages of a stalking timeline when the Threat’s actions are becoming more obvious, targets will create justifications for their primal alarm system and work to dismiss/justify the Threat’s behavior.

I have the odd distinction of being hunted by two distinct types of stalkers[1]. Drawing from these experiences, I can look back at the timelines and see any number of red flags that were present early on in the hunt. I did not identify them consciously because they didn’t match any of my mental blue prints. My Lizard brain stirred and I ignored it. Too primitive. Too visceral. Too antithetical to my social scripts and schemas.

This is what makes conscious boundary setting a complex and uncertain process when we try to apply boundary setting to stalking dynamics.

Dismissing the early indicators guarantees the hunt will progress and the hunter will grow more confident. Early awareness is no magic wand. Awareness is insufficient without action and early action may or may not shut the stalking behaviors down. Early detection does give the intended target a greater number of options. Uninterrupted, the stalking timeline escalates. Always. As the timeline escalates, options for the target shrink and standard boundary setting becomes increasingly ineffective and has been known to periodically escalate the stalker’s aggression.

What are the early indicators? In reviewing the common published bullet points, the material generally addresses behavioral indicators of the stalker, which means the hunt has progressed fairly deep into the timeline. If the behavior is observable by the target or a third party, the hunter is getting more confident and doesn’t mind being seen. Again, once the hunting behavior is openly observable, the timeline is deep.

I want to press back even farther. Instead of trying to find ways to see a hunter in stealth mode, let’s go to something potentially more reliable at an earlier point on the timeline. The movement of your Lizard Brain.

The subtle internal markers of your Lizard Brain coming awake can show up before observable behavioral flags in the Threat. If the hair stands up on the back of your neck or you feel like you need to shake off an interaction – literally – this is the Lizard brain stirring inside its hibernation. There are other indicators of your lizard brain waking up; the instinct to stop and look around for no apparent reason, a gut check that you’re being watched, eyes narrowing (yours) in response to an interaction with someone who bugs you, the little voice in the back of your head that was weird, again as it relates to bumping into the person hunting you.

One of the responsibilities of your primal survival programming is to make you invisible to the Threat. Eyes (and the brains processing the visual information), like things that move. Predator’s eyes are designed to really like things that move. Moving shadows under the cabinets mean potential meals for house cats. It’s why cats like to play with pieces of string pulled across the floor. It is also why mice freeze when Fluffy makes the scene. So do we. Another indicator your Lizard brain is being summoned is when you feel the need to just go still. You are more noticeable when you move, easier to see, easier to assess, easier to track. When you are still, you are less attractive. It is why playing possum works for the possums. No, it’s not quite that simple but the Lizard brain is working off some pretty primal cues.

These are a few examples of what it can look/feel like when your primal survival instincts are beginning to influence your perception. There are more and some will be unique to you and your circumstances. Our lizard brains have not gone extinct for a reason. When yours wants to come out of hibernation, make note. The earliest of warning signs won’t stand up in isolation but if you keep track of little Lizard Brain Alerts, you gain an advantage in the timeline.

Note: I would be remiss to ignore the obvious. Lizard Brain Alerts do not automatically mean you are being stalked, it is a correlation of sorts. Our eyes narrow when we experience something distasteful, that could be any number of things. Right now, this is all theory and throwing darts to see what might be useful, or not.

[1] There are several taxonomies for categories of stalking patterns depending on the research and researcher. No one taxonomy is universally accepted as best I can ascertain.


Stalking: Getting the Conversation Started – Tammy Yard McCracken

This is going to be a series. Digging into stalking is paradoxical. It is both straightforward hunting, and complexly twisted socially driven asocial behavior. It’s going to take more than one article.

Starting with the straightforward. Stalking is a robust behavioral expression of humans as apex level predators. A four-legged predator stalks the herd while determining where and when it will act on the targeted prey. If you watch a domesticated house cat stalking a bird, mouse, or bug; the body posture, pattern of movement, eye gaze are all billboard level telegraphs that scream I Am Hunting.

A stalking cat’s behavior is subtle to its prey, that’s why it works and has evolved as an innate skill set. Observing from outside of the species, the behaviors are obvious and leave no doubt about the feline’s intentions. Just as cats can stalk subtlety enough to go largely undetected by their Target, so can humans.

Humans in stalking mode don’t generally panther-crawl their way down the street behind the Target. Like cats, humans develop stalking skills adapted to their specific prey. Panther crawling through the grass would be comically obvious….the subject was apprehended while belly crawling up the walk behind the intended target, no one was more surprised than Mr. Jones in discovering he was being hunted. Onlookers were equally stunned. “We just didn’t see him coming…” Not how it would go down.

People hunt like people, not like cats. Wait. That’s not entirely true. Like cats, people stalking other people will invest significant energy to ensure they don’t get caught in the hunt. They don’t want to scare the prey before it’s time to pounce. Once pouncing commences, hunting in stealth mode no longer matters.

In human terms, this means people who stalk will blend into the environment. They will work through the social patterns and to a degree, the mores of the group. And like the mouse or bird who skitters in surprise when the cat materializes out of nowhere, so too do humans startle when they realize they have been in the cross hairs. By the time an Intended discovers s/he has been the focus of stalking, the game is deep in play. More on that in the next article.

In my experience, it isn’t just the Intended who gets startlingly disconcerted when the stalking comes to light. People listening to details of stalking situations tend to have a significant reaction as well[1]. Perhaps there is something uniquely creepy about discovering we stalk one another with the same proficiency as our four-legged friends. Maybe because stalking is such an invisible threat, the nature of it is disconcerting. Maybe, stalking is a little too theoretical because we only hear about it happening with the famous and noteworthy figures of our culture.

It’s not as uncommon as this assumption indicates if we look at statistics from the Bureau of Justice.  The BoJ stats show across any given 12-month span, 14 in every 1000 people 18 and older are the intended targets of stalking. The numbers are based on reported stalking, which means there’s a good chance the numbers are higher. Add to this, the first stalking laws didn’t go live until 1990.

The numbers aren’t accurate but they provide a soft baseline. Emphasis on soft. Part of the problem in working with Stalking from a prevention/defense perspective is how deftly stalking grows out of standard socially scripted (i.e. accepted) behaviors. This is evidenced in the substantial variation state to state regarding what is prosecutable behavior under stalking codes.

The Bureau of Justice Summary as an example:

  • State laws vary regarding the element of victim fear and emotional distress, as well as the requisite intent of the stalker.
  • Some state laws specify that the victim must have been frightened by the stalking, while others require only that the stalking behavior would have caused a reasonable person to experience fear.
  • States vary regarding what level of fear is required.
  • Some state laws require prosecutors to establish fear of death or serious bodily harm, while others require only that prosecutors establish that the victim suffered emotional distress.

You can fact check the stats here:

This is a damned wide variable. How do you determine the difference between a hard crush, a determined suitor, and criminal stalking?  How scared are you? And what if you are terrified but the fear is based on paranoid projections and delusions? How will we know? Not everyone with clinically paranoid ideations wears a tinfoil hat.

What is the plumb line for answering the question is this stalking? Am I an Intended Target?

 In here somewhere we stumble into the conversation about boundary setting and how that interplays with the advanced stage of the behavior because remember, most Intendeds (intended targets) do not know they are being stalked until the Threat has been manipulating the hunt for quite some time. Weeks, months, years.

Research into the accepted practice on advise-giving for people who believe they are being stalked follows a fairly standard set of behavioral directives when compared across a broad span of resources. What is also standard or common to these suggestions is they are advising the Intended Target once there are open indicators of the stalking dynamic. Useful information applied to a point in the timeline well past the early stages where prevention is an option.

Once you have the obvious evidence, prevention is moot. You can work to prevent deeper escalation but the time for authentic prevention and early de-escalation with effective boundary setting is past. Add into this, regardless of the point of awareness and intervention, boundaries are established in network of accepted social patterns. This raises the question: how can boundary setting be effective when the Threat’s perception of boundaries is toxically skewed, or nonexistent?

No solid answers, a few thoughts and ideas though. That’s what this, and the next two articles in this series are digging around in.

[1] These startled reactions include people experienced with violent encounters. This seems noteworthy.


Necessary Evils – Tammy Yard McCracken

I grew up around the phrase “necessary evil”. It was used to indicate a task or action necessary, but unfortunate. Something that, if it could be avoided, would be avoided.

The colloquialism has a lot of play when it comes to creating an open culture for women on the mat. Necessary fits because intentional conscious effort is necessary to turn good intentions into tangible impact.

A necessary evil because making this conscious effort isn’t without backlash and because in a perfect world, there would be no need for the effort. In a perfect world, conversations about how to get more women a) through the door and b) how to get them to stay, would be moot.

In this perfect world women grow up training at the same rate and percentage as men. They grow up with effective socialization for boundary setting and with a more comfortable (normalized?) context of violence.

As of now, this is not the norm.

The number of untrained women is substantially greater than the numbers of untrained men and the statistics of violence against women remains markedly high (also in comparison). I am hesitant to lean too heavily on published stats for our conversation because those are generally inaccurate. If you train, have ever trained, your experience may be enough to validate these assertions. Training centers with greater than 20% women are rare. That number comes from one of the organizations I am affiliated with, and I don’t know if there are any broad scope numbers we can generalize so I am working with what I have.  The numbers are gleaned from experience, and a small sampling statistical sampling. Bear that in mind.

The end result? It’s not a perfect world so the questions get recycled. How do we get women in to train? How do we keep them once they come in for a trial? There is no single, effective answer. Each style of training, each individual dojo or location has its own flavor and culture. Whatever the culture or training approach, I can safely make one generalization. Low numbers of women are reflected in the attitude expressed toward women on the mat.

You can gain insight to what the attitude may be by looking at the following:

Are there a few token females or are women expected to be there?

When the men show up to train, are they surprised when a new female student is on the mat? Is she treated like a snowflake?

Shunned as too weak to be a good training partner?

Is she respected as formidable (or with the potential to become formidable)?

Are the male students dropping trou in public spaces or do they step into a bathroom to change?

If it’s cool for men to discreetly publically remove groin protection after training, is it cool for the women to do the same, or do the women get grief for it?

The culture of the mat space determines the protocols and like water, the attitude runs downhill. The instructors set the tone and the students will – mostly – follow suit. No big surprise on this one, right?

What has piqued my curiosity is the backlash lurking about the edges. As training programs make efforts to create environments in which women are as comfortable hitting/rolling/grappling as men, there are a few men who are kicking up a little dust. What about the men? Why aren’t the women being asked to make the men more comfortable? Why shouldn’t the girls be asked to put the toilet seat up?

If training programs and dojos had risen up out of Amazon Princess Warrior cultures and men were only recently being encouraged and accepted, this would be a valid question. That isn’t the history.

Whether it’s through humor, protocols, expectations, or ritual there are effective ways to bring more women to the mat. If the men get resistant to the efforts creating an invitational environment to both men and women; here is a question.

What are you afraid of?

And the guys are not the only ones who resist efforts to create an effective training environment for women, there are women who fight it as well. The women who are accustomed to being the token female in a male environment can fight to maintain their position. They can resist sharing the status they have earned by toughing it out in the “boy’s locker room”.  This is a different problem. The question about fear remains.


Blame, Responsibility and Agency- Tammy Yard-McCracken, Psy.D and Rory Miller

Vctim blaming. Taking responsibility. In assault, especially sexual assault, these are buzzwords that get people to quickly silo into prescribed emotional positions. We rarely find that useful.

In this article we will explore one tool for managing the aftermath of being a victim of violent crime. Our intent is not to present an emotional or political “truth”. This is about taking a situation that many people want to define by a set meaning and adapting it for the benefit of the survivor.

There are some truths we have to explore first:

1) All violent crimes happen within an interaction between the perpetrator(s) and the intended victim(s). Stranger assaults in remote places are relatively rare. Most people are victimized by people they know. There is a relationship. There is communication. The central crime is not the only piece of the interaction and the person cast in the victim role has a degree of control over the antecedents of the crime.

2) Events become violent crimes because of the intent of the bad guy. Looking at point 1— all interactions between any two or more people are interactions. Your morning talk over coffee. The stranger who struck up a conversation on the train. Your waiter taking your order. Any of those events that didn’t become violent stayed peaceful because someone lacked the intent. Bad events are bad events because bad people had bad intent.

3) The agency to affect the world exists. It is inherent in all humans. The perpetrator wants someone to play the victim role. Sometimes the disparity of power is so great that there is no way to evade the victim role. But one can choose the type of victim to be. Sometimes there is no good choice, but there is always choice.

4) Just as violent events have antecedents, they have aftermath. How the aftermath is managed has profound effects on the future of the individuals involved.

5) Mentally, humans are almost infinitely plastic. They have the power to change their views of the world and in doing so, actually change the world in which they live.

Blame, responsibility and agency.

“The person cast in the victim role has a degree of control over the antecedents of the crime.” One emotional response to this idea is that it is victim blaming. If the victim had control, he or she could have prevented it. Having failed to prevent it, the victim caused the crime. The cause of the crime is to blame. The victim is blamed. QED.

We used “QED” (quod erat demonstrandum) so the stance must be at least valid. Truth is another matter.

Our concern is not whether this statement is true or false. Our concern is that the statement is not useful, and this is key. When pointing out a person’s inherent power and agency becomes described as victim blaming, the net effect on any potential victim who listen is a decrease in agency. A decrease in personal power.

And an increase in the likelihood of future victimization

When the impact of violent crime is fundamentally a blow to the Target’s experience of control, decreasing this individual’s experience of agency and power by way of blame serves no one. Except future perpetrators preying on primed Targets.

In the aftermath of a violent encounter, you will play it over and over again in your head. You will wonder if you could have done anything different, if you could have changed the outcome. Here is the tool:

The more responsibility you take, the more agency you will have in the future.

People who have a violent emotional reaction to anything with even the whiff of victim blaming tend to have a strong reaction to this. But think it through. If someone says, “There was nothing you could have done,” this person is telling you, “There is nothing you can do in the future. If you are faced with the same circumstances again, the outcome will be the same. You might as well curl up and give up.” The message runs deep. If there is nothing you could have done, then there is nothing you could ever do. Nothing you can learn, no skill, no training, no wisdom will help you. The power belongs to the bad guys. Now and always. The statement profoundly destroys any chance at future agency, if it is internalized.

Aftermath or not, anywhere in your life, beware of anyone who discourages you from learning, growing, or training. The purpose of training is to become smarter, more aware, stronger, more powerful. If someone discourages that, they have a reason for wanting you ignorant and dull, weak and powerless. Why would anyone want you weak if they cared about you?

The opposite extreme: “It’s all my fault!” can be equally paralyzing. Fault becomes blame and blame becomes punishment. Self-flagellation is not a good place to grow from.

Mentally, humans are almost infinitely plastic. The words people use change how they perceive their choices and from the choices, possible actions. “My fault” breeds blame and self-punishment. “My responsibility” becomes an incentive to understand the variables in the precedents and increase the skills to deal with those variables. It increases agency and personal power. Pause. Breathe. “Responsibility” does not mean fault, does not mean for example, that the target of a rape wanted it, asked for it, or any other reflexive comment you might equate.

Look at the word. Responsibility. At its Latin root, it means to respond. It is on us to choose our response. In this choice there is strength.

We can state categorically that the greater the responsibility one takes in the aftermath of a violet encounter, the greater the possibility of strength. The greater the likelihood that one experiences Post Traumatic Growth instead of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But —

To push any agenda, to tell any survivor what he or she is supposed to do or supposed to feel or supposed to experience is to once again deny them agency. It is a second layer of victimization. Seeing the possibility of reframing blame to responsibility to agency is a tool, not a weapon. Something that a person can choose to use. But it must be a choice.