Failure To Fight: It’s Not The Physiology it’s the Interpretation

I had won 10 street fights in a row, yet once again when faced with another opponent, I felt the surge of fear pulsate through my body — but I fought anyway. I had sparred this same guy a dozen times and won, but once again the fear engulfed me — but I sparred anyway and knocked him out.

You see, I think this whole notion of fearlessness reported by martial art experts, and or people who say you can kill fear are lying to you. You don’t ever escape fear. Fear is there to prime you for what your body considers a threat. It’s natural, organic, and takes place with or without your consent. Anyone who says they don’t fear interpersonal violence of any kind, even the kind that is consented too, is either talking crap or they are a psychopath (in fact a study has shown that Psychopaths feel fear but do not recognise danger).

There’s something interesting about this finding though. Even though I have felt what most would define as intense fear in interpersonal violent encounters I still did what was needed. In other words, I got in there and fought. Unlike a psychopath, I recognised that there was danger, but I put those thoughts aside and stepped up anyway.

And that’s the clue!

It isn’t that the physiological changes that occur when presented with danger are the problem, but rather how those physiological changes are interpreted in the mind. An emotion arises only when one categorises it as such based on one’s sensations and feelings. Emotions differ from feelings or sensations because they involve a cognitive factor of interpretation. First we feel an embodied sensation, then we interpret it (for example, adding some judgment about the feeling). This judgement isn’t always loud and in your minds eye, sometimes it’s subtle, almost unconscious. Yet, regardless of the tone, it is that inner voice that will decide if you step up, or run away.


An Example From Life

Let me give you an example from life to illustrate this point. Two people may be asked to address a group of people at work. No one typically likes giving a speech right. Both may feel the sensation of butterflies in their stomach, clammy hands, and dry mouth prior to the event. All of these physiological changes are associated with higher levels of stress. In this sense, each of these people experience the same sensations.

However, one speaker might interpret the feeling in the stomach as a sign that he is afraid, while the other speaker might interpret the feeling of aroused energy in the stomach as an indication that she is excited to be speaking to this group (resulting in excitement). Sensations then are the language of the body that reveal the flow of energy through it.

As just noted, one person may interpret these feelings and sensations as excitement (thus, labelling those sensations and feelings in positive affective terms), while the other person labels those exact same sensations and feelings as fear. The sensations and feelings remain the same for both, but how they interpret them differs.


What Does This Mean Pre-Fight?

From a martial deployment perspective then, the objective would be to teach a person how to cognitively reframe feelings and sensations that they may normally label as fear — in more productive-enhancing terms (such as a necessary primer to engage in a fight)—which would likely be more conducive to expressing a more effective fight performance.

In my experience this can be achieved through somatic specific training where a person faced with a fearful experience, is firstly allowed to acknowledge the physiological changes that are present, but then is taught how to relate to those feelings and sensations differently by a simple internal act of interpretative reframing. In this case, the somatic perspective to learning to manage fear, endeavours to change the meaning that emerges in that person’s sensory-motor experience when faced with what he or she would normally consider a fearful event.

When you no longer interpret physiological changes that previously you always classified as fear — but now rather as a primer for action, a necessary change required in the embodied system to engage in a fight — you no longer view those changes as negative. I know it sounds overly simplistic, but in the end, your physiology will change when faced with what it perceives as danger. There’s nothing you can consciously do to change that, except how you decide to interpret those physiological changes.

All emotions are helpful, and are there for a reason. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an unhelpful or negative emotion. That’s the kind of bullshit that has been sold to us by modern society. In other words, when it comes to winning a fight, what you tell yourself about how you are feeling before the first punch is thrown matters. In the end, it’s not the physiology that’s the problem, but rather what you tell yourself about the meaning of that physiology that can cause the problems.


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