It’s become a running joke that I flinch when a kick is thrown at my head during free sparring. In situations outside of a taekwondo school one might think that this is a perfectly normal reaction. Something startles us, we flinch. It’s human nature.
Flinching doesn’t help when a hard object is flying straight at your head. When I flinch I become completely ineffective: I squinch my eyes shut, hold my breath, and usually end up blocking with the wrong hand and get clipped anyway. I stop thinking clearly and instead panic even though by now I’ve come to expect head shots during sparring. I’m such a psycho about learning taekwondo that I cackle and goad my instructors into doing it again so I can break my bad habit.
I’ve always flinched, whether it was a reaction to the threat of physical harm or emotional harm. My first reaction has been fear. I was a doormat for most of my life and haven’t quite fully forgiven myself for being such an easy target for abuse and bullying from people very close to me to absolute strangers. I always kept my head down, smiled politely and silently through tight lips when someone was rude, and didn’t protest lest I “make waves.” In the case of some of my romantic relationships those metaphorical flinches drove me further into my shell and my insecurities. I didn’t want to be anything less than perfect and complacent out of fear that they would leave (which they all inevitably did anyway). My fear of being harmed (further fueled by the fear of being rejected) made me shut down completely or build up to an explosion.
But you know, getting kicked in the head isn’t so bad. I always wear protective headgear and a mouthpiece so the worst that can happen is that I’m knocked off balance for a second or two. Sparring class is a safe place to experiment with how we deal with danger. No one is out for blood, and we’re quick to back off when the pain is too real or the violence is too intense. It helps us learn to think quickly and clearly and be confident enough to use our blocks, kicks, and punches with force.
Having a mean roundhouse kick or a strong punch is a plus, but there’s something to be said for a strong defense. I can block fairly well, but if I’m doubled over with my eyes closed that’s not going to do me much good. I should look my opponent square in the eye and knock their foot or hand away from my face with as much force and confidence as they are using to hit me. If someone in our life is trying to harm us we should defend ourselves with confidence. It’s setting a boundary. It’s saying, “No, you cannot do that to me. That’s unacceptable. You are not allowed to hurt me anymore, and I’m not going to apologize for standing up to you.”
“Spear-hand thrust to the face. It’s a fake so you get them to flinch. It throws them off balance, and you get their arm to bend back,” I said quietly as I guided my teenage bo dan partner through hand-to-hand practice a few nights later. We were practicing self defense techniques that involved painful wrist and elbow locks. It requires the person being attacked to be quick and calculating and work through their fear of being attacked. It turns the tables on the attacker–we use their own force and their own weight against them. We make them flinch and wince and crumble in pain. We overpower their brute arrogance with our cool confidence.
If something (or someone) makes you flinch, pause, open your eyes, and ask yourself why you are afraid. What can you do to stand up to that source of pain and fear? What can you do to turn the tables on it, set a boundary, and say, “Nope! You’re not going to hurt me anymore”?