All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be afraid of such a tumble.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
The first time I got punched in the face, I was shocked. But not as shocked as the guy who did it. We were in a beginner boxing class, and practicing throwing shots and defending. Since there weren’t very many women, and our instructor took pleasure in deliberately mismatching opponents, I got paired up with a sweet-faced young guy who looked as if he’d taken up boxing to avoid getting bullied on the playground. We stopped and sort of looked at each other. My cheek was simultaneously numb and warm. He looked horrified. He began to apologize profusely. After all, he’d just hit a girl (right in the kisser, no less), and among most men who aren’t complete assholes, “Don’t hit girls” is a cardinal rule.
But I’d deserved it. After all, I’d dropped my hands and given him an opening. A good opponent nails you in the face if you are dumb enough to let them. One of the fastest ways to learn not to drop your hands is to get a little surprise smooch from some padded leather. So I shrugged, and said not to worry, I had earned that shot in the face by not defending properly. He kept apologizing. Later on I got him nicely in the ribs. Hoohah!
I think the guy is probably still traumatized from that incident. But I found it a valuable experience. Every time I got hit after that it became easier and less scary. I used to be afraid of getting in close to my opponent for fear of getting hurt. It’s natural and normal to avoid conflict and pain. Much of the time, it’s an excellent and desirable survival mechanism.
My instructor kept pushing me to get in close to him and just hit him, dammit. He was a former Golden Gloves champ who’d doubtless taken shots in the head from people far larger and meaner than me, a small beginner woman who was still learning how to coordinate right and left hand along with moving legs around. I was afraid of doing this at first even though he promised he would not hit back. I had to learn to get aggressive and define my space, to use my jab to get his attention and my right hand to finish the job. I had to think carefully and look for openings. I had to put aside my fear of hurting another person.
When I was a kid I let another group of kids beat me up. They weren’t any bigger nor tougher. I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t want to hurt them. So I let them hit me and harass me. I’ve thought about that incident as an adult. As women, we tend to avoid asserting ourselves for fear of hurting others and being hurt ourselves. We worry about self esteem, ours and others. We don’t want to make a fuss. Some of us do get hit, for real, and not in a context of honest sporting competition (and I’m definitely not suggesting that we seek out that kind of abuse).
But both dishing it out and taking it is an excellent education. One emerges stronger, not weaker, from difficult life experiences. Some years ago I had a very hostile job interview. I walked into a shitstorm at an academic department and wound up becoming the punching bag for everything that a bunch of clenched-sphincter academics hated about feminism and the perceived decline of academic standards. I walked out of there thinking that even if they offered me the job right then, I would tell them all to jam it up their dusty old-boy asses. Negative as that experience was, I emerged from it stronger. I’m not afraid of future situations like that, because I’ve taken some of the worst that can be given out, and I survived.
My failures and fuckups have been learning experiences (and believe me, based on the number of these, I should have a second PhD in dumbassedness). I’ve learned to keep my cool under an onslaught of pressure and barrage of negativity. And I’ve learned to give it right back, to size up my opponent and strategize. I’ve learned that getting hit, at least in certain situations, can hurt but it’s not going to kill me. Taking the risk of getting hit means that I can more effectively assert my own position, instead of constantly scuttling backwards into the corner.
I got my first bloody nose the other day. It wasn’t much, just a few snuffly drops. But I was elated. One more hurdle! One more thing that didn’t kill me! Take that, childhood socialization! Take that, fear of failure! Take my right hook to your gut, Miz Opponent who thinks she is so big! Wheeee!