The Female Fighter and the Chain of Shame
This post might also be called: “Why Female Fighters are More Badass and Brave Than Male Fighters”…but it’s not. It’s not because even though it talks about the depth of the hurdles of ingrained shame and non-acceptance that women in the sport regularly and repeatedly overcome, it really is about a single molecule of that problem, a small modular piece out of which whole fights, and training scenarios are built. I’m talking about a kind of “brick” in the mortar of a fighter, of her style…and trying to examine how powerful changes (or limitations) are contained in this building block.
I wish I could find the quote. It was a beautiful and for me unexpected summation of what fighting was all about, stated in the context of the sudden revelation that once again Jon Jones had been caught taking another illegal performance enhancing substance. In sentiment it went something like this:
The real drama of a fight derives from the possibility of public humiliation, that at any given moment in a fight a fighter can be humiliated before 1,000s and even in some cases millions. And how each fighter deals with this possibility defines them and their performance.
I’m sure that I have taken a few liberties in my paraphrase, but that is the truth I took from what I read, and it really startled me. The shock was the fact that it seemed so true, but also because even though I’ve thought a lot about fighting – not being a fighter myself – it’s something that never really occurred to me. Could fighting really be ALL about this? What an interesting idea. What is interesting about it is this: If we define the ring as fundamentally the stage for public humiliation, what first and foremost we should be training is…humiliation. How do we avoid or counter it? And how do we exact it? All the beautiful techniques and tactics of fighting may very well be, at some core level, tactics and techniques of humiliation. They have to be understood and trained in that context, that possibility, if one is going to use them powerfully and effectively in the ring…itself the Stage of Humiliation.
Now, of course this feels like a huge overreach. Fighting is about a lot of things. But what if we experiment with the idea and use it to look down into the training of a fighter, of ourselves, and think about the various ways we are already training attitudes and aptitudes toward humiliation, in everyday regimes of work? What if this fundamental dimension of what fighting is, isn’t being paid attention to enough? What if we could focus on it? Strengthen ourselves towards it?
The Fear-Shame Molecule for Women
I’m going to take a turn from that overall thought because I really want to drill down into a very specific aspect of this perspective, something that really struck me this morning. I believe that this is a challenge that maybe all fighters face, regardless of gender, but that female fighters in the broad scope of things face far more regularly than males. And, part of the reason I’m writing about it here is that I have some hope that women reading this might be triggered by this possibility, might recognize its truth in their own circumstances, and be lead to their own, antonymous and creative attempts to train this molecule. It’s something I feel that has great possibilities as women explore their own liberty as fighters in the sport.
This may not make immediate sense, but bear with me because there is a lot of potential here. First I’ll just make some broad, generalizing statements about women in fighting sports. As a woman, you yourself might not experience these things, or may experience them but interpret them quite differently. And, as a man you might feel that these too describe the conditions men find themselves in, and women are not so special. And, these points may even be debatable on other levels, some might say that they are complete fabrications. But these are things I have come to assume from watching my wife in the sport, and following the lives of other women in the sport.
- Women are, in a cultural sense, fundamentally barred from qualifying as “fighters” insofar as fighting is defined as an essentially “male” activity.
- Many women work to overcome this fundamental disqualification by taking on characteristics that are often characterized as “male” (or masculine), but even when they do so they still face the possibility of #1. The first item operates as a vague and continuous threat, a looming negation of a fighter’s identity. If you want to see an acme example of this witness how Ronda Rousey went from serious discussion as to whether she could beat Mayweather to suddenly being exposed as someone who can’t fight at all (and all the permutations of that). Ronda the fraud. How did we not all realize how poor a fighter she was!??
- Men, by virtue of simply being in the category of “male” do not face this kind of complete foreclosure of their identity. They do face the humiliation of not proving themselves manly enough, being shown to be a coward, or to not possess the fighting skills that man should have (not to be underestimated, this can be very painful and arduous), but there is no categorical sword hanging above them, ready to cleave their identity in half…by virtue of their sex.
What this really sets up is, for many women, a fundamental condition of shame or humiliation that categorically presses down on them. Yes, some women may find themselves immune to it, or inoculated against it, or even have developed robust psychological countermeasures, but for many female fighters this exists as a core context in which they train and fight. They must prove themselves to be on the right side of the line, to be “a fighter”, at a basic level, over and over again, simply as to not experience nullification in a way that men just do not generally face. This potential for humiliating disqualification is what helps form the Shame-Fear molecule, I believe.
What is the Shame-Fear Molecule?
There are two layers to the molecule. You can maybe think of them as two sides of a coin, or two laminates that are stuck together. What happens with some, or perhaps many female fighters – even very good, experienced fighters – is that the chain of thoughts that produce the experience or foreboding of Shame (a complex, socially derived concept of the self) becomes linked to, really fused to a much more basic affect. That of fear. The fear I am talking about is the very animal, and therefore quite natural stimulation of the amygdala, the autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems when attacked. Because fighting is an art performed in the arena of attack these core fear responses (ultimately fight, flight or freeze) are the very stuff the art or condition the art is made of. Fighting is much less about not having fear, than it is about the techniques and performances that are possible on the constant edge of fear. It is about feeling fear, and responding in a new, conditioned and powerful way. The problem for many female fighters, I suspect, is that fear responses become intimately associated with shame or humiliation responses, so that they become to some degree indistinguishable. And because they become blurred they are much harder to work on. Let me break this down into a very specific case: that of being hit.
This is a very basic chain. You are hit (by your coach, a sparring partner, an opponent) and the natural response is Fear. It might be mild, it might be severe, but the body is readied to go into…or goes into a Fear state. A lot of this is unconscious. This is a purely instinctive chain reaction. What I believe happens for many women is an additional thought chain, above this: Shame. When an aspiring female fighter is hit there are, in a very broad sense the conditions for Shame. The shame of not qualifying as a fighter. We are speaking of the very specific issue of being a fighter, as a recognized identity. We can bring to this a host of other quite strong cultural aspects of female shame, as a consequence of being hit: the shame of domestic abuse, and of sexual violence are powerful dimensions of humiliation which may very well amplify this larger tendency toward being nullified as a person as a consequence of violent attack. But just on a basic level when a female aspirant is hit, and each and every time she is hit, she faces the potential of social disqualification. Now, this doesn’t mean that women will quit in the face of this experience. Not at all. Many women have learned to live, and even thrive in the face of systematic potential disqualification. They can and will persevere in spite of it. But…and this is very important, this does not mean that they are not regularly experiencing shades of the affects of shame and humiliation, each and every time they are being hit. This can be largely unconscious. What happens I believe, is that the chain of thoughts that lead to and support the experience of (potential) humiliation become laminated to the powerful affects of Fear response itself. They come to mutually support each other, and for all intents and purposes be the same thing. In trying to become a fighter, which involves overcoming and really re-conditioning responses to the Fear Response, artfully, the female fighter can have a steeper hill to climb because that fear response can become woven to social nullification (those affects). When examining one’s own experiences of shame, in fighting contexts, you may find that they have become rooted in some of the most basic drives of the human body: Fight or Flight. And, when trying to recondition your Fear responses, you may find that the possibility of shame or humiliation continues to impose itself upon this work.
Now, I really should return to the thought that men also face this very same dynamic. They too may have fused experiences of shame to autonomic fear responses, and have gotten themselves in a very similar quagmire, through the process of getting hit. It is only that female aspirants face an additional cultural foreclosure on what they are doing that can make it more acute.
Breaking the Chain: Dignity and Shame
One of the surest pathways to radical change can be pattern recognition, and taking pained steps to break patterns by conditioning new responses to regular stimuli. Because being hit, or more frequently threatened to be hit, is a pervasive stimulus, conditioning habitual responses to this can be some of the most important ground work a fighter can do. Men, I propose, in response to being hit have an affect path that is much more readily available to them than for women. Men, in so far as they adapt masculine characteristics, can have their dignity increased upon being hit. This is a huge switch in the railroad tracks. Generalizing again, when being hit men can more readily have the sudden opportunity to display their manliness, their toughness. They can take the hit. And, they can hit back. The contact becomes the condition for signaling their masculinity. In fact, wanting to be hit (or threatened) can be a much looked for event in the ring world. It triggers dignity (in the shape of masculinity). I’m speaking just on the level of chained reactions, conditioned responses that occur over and over again. If being hit triggers dignity responses, the choice between fight and flight is much more likely to become fight. On the other hand. If being hit triggers the associations of shame, humiliation or non-acceptance, flight or freezing is much more likely to happen. Key here is taking hold of the essential chain. Hitting (or threats of hitting) >>> Dignity/Shame.
As said, a female fighter (or a male fighter for that matter) may very well condition themselves to overcome repeated occasions of potential shame (Jens Pulver comes to mind, who battled through the sadness of his father’s abuse, harnessing his own anger and his own reserves of dignity), but if these molecules of shame and fear repeat themselves continuously throughout training, pervading every exchange, this is swimming against a very hard current. It might make you an incredibly tough fighter who perseveres under all adversity and self-doubt, but it will not give you the liberty to freely express yourself, or, even to really enjoy the fighter that you are. The real drilled down work of a fighter can involve looking at, and re-conditioning those basic building blocks, the molecules of what your practice is made. And this means looking very closely at a reality that is well beneath technique.
Let’s go back to our original thesis, that fighting is done on a stage of humiliation. If this is so one really owes it to oneself to examine all the ways that you are already training humiliation in your training. If you are aiming to display dignity in the ring, at the risk of shame, then how are you training dignity in every single thing that you do in the gym (and at home). And, following the example laid out here, what are the building blocks of what you are made of, as a fighter, composed of? Should you attend to the very basic chain of how you habitually response to occasions of fear. Does hitting (or its threat) produce dignity?
I remember talking to Ray Velez, who specialized in training female boxers; I think he was a coach of the USA National team at one point. He said there is nothing like female fighters in the gym. They out-perform the guys in how much they commit, and how willing they are to being coached. But put them between the ropes and something happens. The guys out-perform their own training. Women often fall short of what they do in the gym. I think what this is about is this Shame-Fear molecule. The stuff out of which a female fighter is built can contain a lot of these blocks. Small kernels of shame-fear. I do think there are lots of ways over and through this when this is the case. A primary one is combination fighting. A female fighter can be given one basic combination and really condition herself to trust it. Just throw it over and over again. It can become a kind of shell or vehicle for a fighter, the commitment to the combination inoculating her against shame/fear. You literally just punch and kick through it. So many times, at least to me, you seem to get female fighters a little bit like video game characters, each using their very trusted combinations over and over against each others. This isn’t really fighting in the artful sense – choosing and feeling yourself through obstacles – but it can be very effective, especially when facing lessor skilled opponents. Combination commitment fighting can cut through the relatively inexperienced. Another path to overcoming a fundamentally pessimistic affective weave of stimulus responses is to just power through, to fight with incredible resilience and resolve, no matter how negative you might feel, no matter the self-doubt, the shadow of your own nullification ever-present, you press on. In truth, fighters are made up of both of these basic ways to overcome the molecule of Shame and Fear, strategies of basic technique vehicles that can bridge difficult moments of doubt, and resources of resolve that best one’s inner demons. But this is really about trying to find something beyond simply the conditions for winning against a finite pool of opponents. This is about discovering the very roots of Shame and Dignity, as it becomes contested in the sanctity of the ring. Ultimately, this is about wresting with the possibility of humiliation, in training, by drawing on the deepest resources for your dignity, and weaving it into who you are. This is why I believe many women fight. It’s not about the belts you strap on at the end of a career.
Rebuilding a New Habit Chain
The above is from a graphic that I made and Sylvie put up on her new Mental Training Facebook Page. You can read all about the graphic and its principles here. It provides specific techniques for breaking conditioned chains. This is based on how mental coach Niyi Sobo describes the structure of a habit. Habits have three parts. The trigger stimulates an action, which produces a reward. To break the habit you have to recognize the trigger, summon a new Feeling (and Belief) that then will follow from this same trigger, which in turn will produce new reward. The imposition and conditioning of this new feeling in the chain is outlined in the linked graphic. This can be a painstaking process, but because you are working on the very molecular level, the building blocks out of which everything else is made, the kinds of changes you can make at this drill down can be profound. In fighting, or really training to fight, if you attend to the occasions you are training your dignity as a fundamental affective response, you are, in a sense, changing the theme music that is being played over your movie. The affective states you are passing through as events unfold, your particular body’s chemistry of feelings, can be changed. And if changed, the opportunities for your own liberty of expression also can be changed. Your technique library (things you have trained to do) opens up to you. What really grounds this approach to thinking about Dignity and training is the acceptance that a lot of what happens in fights just is automatic. We feel that the fighter is choosing to do this, or choosing to do that, but this is largely oversold. Fighters are at most feeling their way forward, and as stresses really rise, as humiliation becomes a more and more real possibility, our most deeply trained ingrained states and responses come out. The menu of responses becomes smaller and smaller. When push really comes to shove you can see the things that the fighter has really trained the most, with the most intensity and regularity, and the affects that are the most assured for him/her. Getting down into the weave of what we are made of, and re-conditioning, re-training basic responses to fear stimulus and exhaustion, in the light of dignity is the very stuff of fighting. It’s what makes us believe that when Jack Johnson or Muhammad Ali got into the ring something more was at stake than: Who is the better fighter? What these were were events of dignity.
Sylvie’s addendum, or non-conclusion: this is a concept Kevin became aware of very recently. Just after my last fight (which was last night), really. I’ve noted many times, as a female fighter, that male fighters have this kind of freedom that they are more or less born to; like a birthright of being a man. Women can aspire to such freedom, but it’s not given to us and it’s so hard earned that I can’t name a single female fighter who has achieved it. This is an expression of Kevin’s Shame-Fear Molecule. Every time we as fighters step into the ring, we are risking humiliation via defeat, injury, being outclassed or simply out-performed. But women have an extra risk in that we are at risk of being exposed. As not-fighters; as inferior to the standard of the identity of a fighter. To have this great risk means that the Shame-Fear Molecule is always quivering, agitated. To step into the ring in spite of this great risk is what Kevin is reaching to when saying that women are more courageous, more brave, because the danger of humiliation is so present. The antidote, he argues, is dignity. To perform every task in the ring, every move, the very expressions of your body with dignity is what makes these legendary fighters. The photo above is of Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the world in a time of intense and open racism that put the risk of humiliation at a level I can’t even truly imagine. What he accomplished, however, was nothing short of a feat of dignity. This is something I believe women can reach for, in our own ascension into the world stages of fighting. What Kevin has revealed to me in our conversation today and in this article here is a key to that kingdom.