Fit4Defense is an interactive violence prevention and anti-bullying program that teaches assertiveness, self defense and fitness as a means to inspire confidence and awareness.

How are Self-Esteem and Self-Defense Connected?

by Kelly Batchilder,
Master Trainer, Fit4Defense

naitaka-guides-4Let’s start with a definition. Self-esteem is generally thought to be the value or regard one holds for oneself. This can be impacted by any number of external factors and consequently reinforced by internal processes. So while your sense of self will initially be derived from interaction with your environment, with repetition one begins to “own” the idea of whether they have worth or not based on the predominant experience. This self-concept then informs one’s willingness and level of engagement in all aspects of life.

With high self-regard we risk intimacy in our relationships by showing others who we are and by being honest about what we need. We generally expect others to honor that. That will have been our primary/predominant experience or that concept could not have been shaped. We will set physical and psychological boundaries. We will use our voices to speak our truths, our ears to listen to others and our hearts to accept our differences.

Our experiences and our ability to navigate them successfully even if they were challenging or painful create a belief pattern about our potential to overcome, to endure. In fact, these experiences create something far more complex. I will try to simplify though it’s anything but.

If we have had emotionally stable and attentive caregivers who’ve responded with some immediacy to our cries in infancy by feeding us, rocking us, changing us, we learn that our world is predictable which creates a sense of safety for us. This pattern of distress met by comfort and care is impacting not only our growing beliefs about how the world responds to us but it is creating a flood of chemicals and the resulting directives to the body. It’s creating a complex relationship between the experience, your body & your brain.

In distress our systems are flooded with stress hormones. Our heart rates and respiration increase, blood is shuttled away from our organs and out to our extremities to prepare us for fight or flight. Survival mechanisms. But we can do neither as infants. We can’t fight; we can’t flee. We are completely reliant.

When our needs are met on a consistent basis we don’t move as high on the distress scale, our systems experience less stress. Eventually we learn that Mom or Dad will come, they’ll make it better. We don’t get quite as upset and don’t stay in that state for as long.

This is also the case for emotional needs. As we grow and we hurt ourselves or we feel angry, afraid, or sad-these same stable, attentive parents will meet our emotions with calmness, recognition and reassurance. We are taught ways to deal with “big” feelings, we are allowed to feel but parameters are put on how we act out those feelings, perhaps we’re given language to name what’s happening. We begin to learn how to soothe ourselves based on the model of interaction we were given and our success with strategies. We start to believe in our own capacity to deal with things.

Barring tragedy or trauma, we have been given a strong foundation in which we experience and respond to the world around us. We will be less likely to engage in high risk activities as our safety and well being are important to us. We will have a greater capacity to problem solve, to think through what we need to do to stay safe and a greater belief in our capacity to do what’s necessary if we are truly in a threatening situation.

So what if this hasn’t been our experience in childhood? What if it started that way but our sense of safety was interrupted?

First I want to lay a clear disclaimer. It is impossible to discuss potential childhood experiences without directly or indirectly referring to caregivers. It is in no way my intention to judge or to lay blame on parents. This is not to deny my first reaction when I read about children enduring abuse or neglect perpetrated by the same. In fact in my early years of working with children & youth, I had a very different perspective-partially bred from my own personal experience as well as a lack of knowledge and a healthy dose of immaturity!

But it’s simply not effective in working with people as it’s an emotional reaction rather than a perspective that’s based in logic and understanding of how behaviours are shaped.

After 24 years of working intimately with people who have experienced and participated in all kinds of abuse I’ve learned a few things:

  1. People do the best they can with what they have and what they know at the time.
    This is not meant to minimize harmful behaviour but to highlight that behaviour is a result of many factors and also largely unconscious until it is made conscious.
  2. People want to do well- the inability to do so is at the crux of all shame and self-hatred.
    All behaviours are bred out of a need. Through repetition they create a complex weave of attendant emotional states, thought patterns, brain maps. All “dysfunctional” behaviours once served a function. They have become such ingrained responses from both our minds and our bodies that they are in essence “unconscious”.
  3. People are resilient-they are capable of overcoming great tragedy or completely overhauling their own patterns of behaviour.

What kind of situations can negatively impact self-esteem?

I’m sure you are ticking them off right now… being hit, screamed at, name called –anything physically or sexually abusive, witnessing domestic violence and many other situations. These are some of the BIG ones, the experiences that most people can agree will cause a fundamental sense of fear and a lack of safety.

What if one or both of your parents experienced issues with addictions or mental health issues that didn’t necessarily lead to any overt abuse but impaired their ability to respond to you in a consistent manner. Sometimes they were loving, connected, close-maybe there were schedules, rules etc. At other times and without seeming rhyme or reason they became distant, dismissive, permissive-maybe when you really needed them.

What if you lost someone close to you unexpectedly through death or divorce? What if you had an absent parent or were removed from your home to live with strangers?

Even under the best conditions children don’t typically live in isolation. They are exposed to others which mean they will endure negativity at times. Kids name call and ostracize, parents aren’t always perfect or available. Music, magazines, TV are all directed to marketing meaning they have to tell you aren’t good enough the way you are. Social media is rife with bullying.

Feeling worried, sad or scared and having no one acknowledge or help you to deal with those big feelings that take up so much space in your body. A common experience in my era was being told not to feel a certain way or warned with a stern look and harsh voice “I’ll give you something to cry about”. For boys it was often”Boys don’t cry” and “suck it up” often accompanied by a look of disgust or disappointment

What about poverty? This could mean not enough food so that your attention was always pulled to your hunger, which impacted your emotional state and there was no ability to focus on higher brain activity like focus, retention, organizational tasks. Multiple moves or potential homelessness can create many disruptions. Perhaps you were teased or bullied because your family couldn’t afford name brands. Maybe poverty created so much stress in your home that your parents fought leaving you feeling insecure about home life.

There are a multitude of situations that can impair a child’s sense of self, their sense of belonging & connection to the world and their inherent sense of safety. There are also many factors that will determine how deep and enduring an impact, including but not limited too; the severity of the situation, age & stage, who was involved, was it an isolated incident or repetitive in nature. Perhaps the most positive predictive factor would be the immediacy with which an adult stepped in, took control, acknowledged and soothed the child (regardless of age) and gave a clear message that what was done was not their fault, was wrong and would be dealt with.

If a child has no one to turn too in difficult times or the adults they turn too are non- responsive, the underlying message is that they are alone. As a child’s safety, value and needs are dependent on their connection to the adults in their life then it seems safe to assume that their natural reliance on said adults to help them manage the world will also be damaged leaving them feeling unequipped and powerless. When they are not protected by those adults whose role it is to do so whether parent, family member, teacher-their sense of worth will be impaired. How come no one will help me?

This building of a belief about the world and their relationship to it can impact every aspect of their life from how they view themselves to their perceptions of others’ intent. It will affect their belief in their abilities and impair their willingness to engage in anything they perceive as a potential for failure. They may unconsciously seek out situations and people that reinforce how they feel about themselves. They will likely have a lot of self-defeating internal chatter and external behaviours.

Remember my original assertion:

All behaviours are bred out of a need. Through repetition they create a complex weave of attendant emotional states, thought patterns, brain maps. All “dysfunctional” behaviours once served a function. They have become such ingrained responses from both our minds and our bodies that they are in essence “unconscious”.

If you have experienced any distress while reading this please don’t ignore it.

First breathe, a deep long breath way down into your belly…. pause and hold that breathe… exhale fully and forcefully. Take a couple more. Take a minute and tune into your feet, if they are not on the floor-please plant them there firmly. Notice the weight of your heels making contact. Feel the heaviness of your legs in your chair. Notice your back supported by whatever you are sitting in. Place your sight on something in the room and note as many details as possible. Close your eyes and see how many sounds you can count. When you are done breathe again. Call someone you trust, let them know where you are at.

If you are not able or uncomfortable with that please don’t hesitate to call one of the numbers below;

If you are in Canada:

Kids Help Phone – 1- 800- 668-6868
A confidential hotline for kids & youth aged 20 and under.
You can feel safe to speak with a counsellor about anything-you don’t have to give your name.
They are there to listen and support you.
If you are in emotional distress, self-harming, considering suicide or are concerned about someone who is.
Scroll halfway down the page and hit the button marked “find a crises center”.
It will take you to a list of areas so you can access someone in your community for support.

If you are in the USA:

Child Help National Child Abuse Hotline-1-800-422-4453
A confidential hotline for anyone, of any age that is currently experiencing abuse or who has in the past and is looking for a safe place to turn.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
A confidential hotline offering free, safe support to anyone experiencing emotional distress, thoughts of suicide or concerned about someone else

USA & Canada
Rape Crises Center hotline is toll free and serves both Canada & the USA @ 1-877-392-7583.
They are a confidential service offering information, support, counselling and referrals to people who have experienced sexual assault, violence and rape.

The “Faces” of Self-Esteem

There are multiple factors that affect a child’s resiliency which makes it impossible to predict exactly how they will respond or the future effects of specific incidents. I have placed an emphasis on situations experienced during childhood because of the potential for long term impairment of functioning due to dependency needs and growing brain structures.

We experience physiological and psychological stress when the demands of the situation are greater than our resources to deal with that situation. Just as the situations run a broad spectrum so too do the behaviours we may observe. Children may lack the language and insight to effectively communicate what they are experiencing. They do not have the skills to “manage” the big emotions that can come with feeling unsafe or uncared for, but they will always “show” you in some way.

Younger children may become aggressive or tantrum or they may run away and hide. They may cry or they may try being cute to get a response. Often they’ll try to cling physically to get eye contact, soothing.

Once school starts their systems may be so overtaxed that they don’t have the available resources for focussing, retention. They may fidget, Have difficulty staying on task or sitting still, distracted by what others is doing behind or around them, act impulsively-sounds just like ADHD?
They may start falling behind and experience shame around feeling stupid, not good enough. This can create masking behaviours like becoming the class clown, aggression or avoidance perhaps through frequent absences or illness.

Maybe they are the child that is always on the fringes. The one that hangs out by themselves at recess or finds ways to stay in. The last to be picked on teams.

Perhaps you’ve known a child that smiles and cooperates. They seem on board, telling you what you want to hear but something just feels wrong. You get a sense that they’re being “sneaky”. They may take things from others-repeatedly and will not own up to it even in the face of proof. They lie seemingly without reason. They may be caught hurting others, animals or destroying something. Or the children who seem to not know where they are in relation to space, they bump into things a lot or always seem to be in others personal space without being invited. They have difficulty reading non-verbal’s and so struggle to respond appropriately boundaries. When they are clearly or firmly directed they might become oppositional. They blame others for their behaviours.

In some cases kids may be overachievers-striving constantly to get high marks or excelling on sports teams. They’ve found a way to experience success and positive feedback from others however they’re structures are built on shaky foundations and they will present as highly intolerant of failure. Driving themselves, berating themselves if not “perfect”.

For the kids that turn inwards you will have to look much harder, pay more attention. If you are dealing with a child or many children who externalize, you may find yourself appreciating or losing sight of the child who is quiet. This is a cue to tune in especially if you know there is a history.

They will be the ones to withdraw, to “go away” too silently and passively refuse to talk, literally closing in on themselves. They may have “injuries” that seem to always prevent them from showing up or participating. While these may be real at times, illness can be a ticket out of uncomfortable situations, a way to maintain a distance and/or avoid potential failure. They may say “I’m fine” or “I’m good” each time you do check in cause they don’t believe anyone really cares how they are anyway. They open and connect very slowly and are always on watch for a breach in that connection. They won’t tell you, they won’t get close or pull on you to draw your attention away from something or someone they will just quietly retreat or disappear. These can be the kids in school who spend a lot of time in the bathroom.

They are good at hiding their experience and often good at covering for whoever harmed them if it’s someone close. They are the keepers of secrets. They can be distinctly uncomfortable expressing or being in the company of anyone who expresses emotion and will often physically demonstrate that discomfort by trying to get away in some capacity even if it’s breaking eye contact or turning their body away. Body issues can be so anxiety producing that you may see constant issues with being ready for gym class, notes to sit out etc.

Many kids will either be very affectionate and at times indiscriminately or appear very uncomfortable with touch-perhaps stiffening upon contact. Psychological and perhaps boundaries have been crossed. All of these children to some degree will be at risk of engaging in some or multiple forms of self-destructive and self-defeating behaviours long into the future to avoid or to manage their internal experience in the best way they can. However, all human beings have the potential to heal and move forward as well and do not have to be bound by their past.

When looking at behaviour and how to help someone grow “adaptive” or perhaps a better term would be “socially acceptable” skill sets, it’s imperative to understand that their “maladaptive” behaviours served a very important function for them and was the way they “learned” how to respond to a situation that overwhelmed them. It may have worked in the past but perhaps is now what’s hurting them in their relationships, education or vocation, their overall functioning could be impacted by a stress response that has become ingrained through need and repetition.

In Part 4 I will provide an overview of how I use Fit4Defense to empower participants to; gain awareness, recognise and respond to triggers, learn how to set boundaries and increase their resiliency.

Fit4Defense is an interactive interactive violence prevention and anti-bullying program that teaches assertiveness, self defense and fitness a means to inspire confidence and awareness.