Monday, February 24, 2020

How A Self-Defense Program Made Me A Better Therapist: Part 2: Using My Body

"Your power is in your lower body, use it!” yelled my instructor as a man laid on top of me holding my wrists at my sides. His body weight pushed me into the mat, and I could barely move. I took a breath, then flipped him onto his back and kicked him repeatedly in the head. Women were screaming and clapping as he put his hands on his head, a sign of defeat.

At 34 years old, I completed IMPACT’s Core Program, and it was the first time I was given “permission” to physically defend myself. I was saddened by the realization that I needed permission. Why would I need someone’s permission to keep myself safe? With some self-reflection and a good therapist, I made a discovery. My parents never defended themselves; they both froze whenever they were physically or emotionally threatened. Moreover, teachers, daycare providers, and community members taught me that girls should ignore those who physically assault them. I can still hear their lessons: “Just ignore them,” “You’ll just make it worse,” and “Don’t give them a reason to hurt you worse.” Sadly, statistics indicate that the opposite is true. People who seek to harm others target those who appear as if they won’t fight back. Simply put, if an assailant thinks you’ll fight back, they are more likely to leave you alone and look for another target. You’re just not worth the trouble. Have I been unknowingly sending signals that I’m an easy target? Yes, I had been.

I gradually learned to give myself permission to use my body to protect myself and I began to physically assert myself in my life. I perfected my walk - fast paced, shoulders back, and not hesitant to look you in the eye. My walk communicates that I intend to fight back if threatened. I began walking around those who walk at a slower pace, instead of meekly walking behind them. I started pushing my chest out while sitting and I noticed how empowering it felt to take up space. A year later I completed an advanced IMPACT program called Defense Against an Armed Rapist, as I realized that feeling comfortable using my body to defend myself is something that may never come automatically, but is something that I need to practice continually.  

My experiences helped me integrate somatic interventions into my work as a trauma therapist. Like me, my clients experience obstacles that make it difficult for them to use their bodies to protect themselves. Some clients believe that their bodies are unsafe, others were punished as children for protecting themselves, and some have biological trauma responses (Flight, Fight, Freeze, and Faun) that are stuck in their bodies. After IMPACT, I began focusing more on my clients’ physical reactions. I began encouraging clients to use their bodies in order to process trauma, physically comfort their inner child(ren), and learn to keep calm under stressful or threatening circumstances. I noticed that some clients started to make more progress as they integrated their bodies in treatment. 

In addition to trauma work, I applied somatic interventions to help clients improve their self-worth. One of my favorite interventions is to encourage clients to take actions in order to learn how to talk up space in the world. These actions can include taking the last open seat on a busy train, requiring a person to yield when walking directly toward them on a sidewalk, sitting in a confident posture, and taking up physical space in an enclosed setting such as a meeting or class (instead of trying to take up as little space as possible.) When we physically take up space in the world, we can change our brain chemistry and advance our own self-worth.  

The phrase “life changing” is admittedly cliche, yet there is no other way for me to describe my experience with IMPACT Chicago’s Self-Defense Programs. These programs taught me how to use my voice and body to carve out my rightful place in the world. And now, I pass this knowledge on to my clients.

This post was first published HERE. Reprinted with permission from Amanda Gregory.You can find Amanda Gregory's "How a Self-Defense Program Made Me a Better Trauma Therapist, Part 1: Finding My Voice" on the IMPACT Chicago blog HERE.

Amanda Ann Gregory is a psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She practices in Chicago and specializes in trauma, attachment, and anxiety treatment. She has written for Highlights Magazine, Addiction Professional, Adoption Today, Holistic Parenting, New Therapist, and Psychology Tomorrow.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Thank you to 2019 IMPACT Chicago Donors

Tuition and grants cover about 65% of the costs of the Core Program and IMPACT for Girls. Donations cover the rest. 

Thank you to all those who supported the IMPACT Chicago 2019 Fund Drive! Your generosity enables us to bring IMPACT self-defense training to more women and girls.
David & Janet Altman   
Lisa Amoroso & Phil Tracy          
Ellyn Bank         
Susan Blessing  
Bruce Brio
Sheila & Steve Carson   
Nancy Cohen    
Christina Collins
Dianne Costanzo    
Cyd Curtis Bates    Constanzo Fund
Judith Feilen-Kocsis       
Eileen Gelblat
Robyn Gray       
David Hart         
Margit & John Henderson          
Loretta Jackson
Valerie Jenkins 
Carol Jennings  
Pamela Jurkowski
John Kitley
Kasey Klipsch    
Ruth Lipschutz  
Jeff Lisse
Carmen Maso   
Margaret McGrath        
Deb Mier & Sheila Hickey
Shiyu & Anthony Nitsos
Clara Orban
Lauren Perez   
Liz Pfau  
Rachel Pildis      
Lisa Pines
Don & Judy Rosedale    In honor of Katie Skibbe
Roger Safian     
Tania Schusler  
Janette Scott     
Katie Skibbe      
Carole & Richard Spreitzer         
Martha Thompson      In honor of IMPACT Chicago Admin Team, Board, & Instructors   
Margaret Tomasik         
Caroline Villa    
Iris Waichler Costanzo Fund
Amelia Zimet    

Please let us know if we have made any errors. Thank you!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Rape, Recovery, Resilience

I was violently sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend of mine my freshman year of college. We had been best friends for three years before we dated, and after we broke up, we had pledged to go back to being close friends. When I decided to visit a group of high school friends on spring break, and he happened to be there, this boy who I thought I could trust went on to strangle and force me to perform sexual acts on him. Something in me shattered that night, and from that point on I was ruled by fear. 

It took me months to share what had happened to me with my family, and even with their love and support I could no longer conjure any self-love. I left college and returned home to face the trauma I had incurred. I lived with my grandma and spent my time cooking, reading, and swimming with her, as well as introspecting into my turbulent headspace. With intense, consistent effort, I was able to let go of the anger and hurt I felt because of my ex-boyfriend, and forgive him for what he did to me. (I want to emphasize here that it was essential for me to be as magnanimous as I could!) My forgiveness allowed me to shed my aggressive and hateful emotions, and construct in its vestiges a burgeoning personal security and love. 

Even though I began building up a strong self-confidence, I was still scared of men. A conversation with my dad where I disclosed that I was considering buying a knife and pepper spray led to a discussion at dinner that inspired my step-mom, Meg (I call Meggie), to research the offerings for a women’s self defense course in the Chicago area. The next time I saw her, she told me about the IMPACT Core Program, a three day women’s self defense intensive. She said that she was brought to tears when she watched videos of the Program, and wondered if I wanted to take it with her. I replied an enthusiastic “yes!” without hesitation.

On Friday, April 11th, me and Meggie parked our blue Volvo station wagon on the west side of Ebeneazer Lutheran Church. It took us a couple tries to find the right entrance, but we eventually hit the black button next to a heavy, wooden door and were buzzed inside. Through another wooden door and up a wooden staircase we went, and we found ourselves welcomed by smiling women instructing us to check in and make a name tag. The room we were situated in was a long rectangular space, with a painting of Jesus on one end of the wall. 

Now I am not one to feel awkward, however in this moment I started to feel nervous, awkward, and uncomfortable.Would I be ostracized for being raped? Was it too soon to take a course like this, after my experience?Am I capable of defending myself?As the door buzzed and as fourteen other female faces, old and young, filled the room, my anticipation grew. Then the lead teacher beckoned us all over to the side of the room with Jesus, where the floor was covered in blue gymnastics mats. We sat in a circle, and within the next twenty minutes my awkward feeling completely disappeared. Right off of the bat, Margaret and the other teachers fostered a safe, inclusive environment where all of us were able to freely share our thoughts and emotions. 

And so I began to learn something I had not been taught before. I learned that the strength of a woman’s body lies in her hips, and I practiced playing to these strengths to protect myself from an assailant. I learned how to operate under adrenaline, and fight for my life. And this is where my emotional transformation occurred: by learning how to fight for my life, and then by fighting using my full force, I had to decide that my life was worth fighting for. When I looked my assailant in the face, called him by my ex-boyfriend’s name, and delivered kick after unforgiving kick, I overcame my fear. Not only did my physical self defense skills evolve, so did my verbal boundary setting skills. As my kicks got stronger, my voice got louder. Now when I tell someone not to touch me, there is power behind my words. One of the most empowering aspects of this program was my peers. During each of my fights, I could hear them cheering me on, encouraging me to be brave. No matter our body type, ethnicity, or age, we all wholeheartedly supported one another. After each fight, we sat in a circle to debrief and express our reactions. In these circles I felt listened to, understood, and like I was not alone in my experience. 

Because of IMPACT I no longer let fear control me, and this has changed my life. I feel more free and empowered by my identity as an independent woman. I do not feel held back by my past, and instead I am a strong advocate for women’s rights and equality in my everyday life. Nine months later, I am successfully setting and enforcing boundaries with men. When I am walking alone in unfamiliar places, I replay my learned self-defense techniques, just in case. Most importantly, I live each day as Emilia, unapologetically.
Emilia Donenberg Smith
IMPACT Chicago graduate

Monday, February 3, 2020

How a Self-Defense Program Made Me a Better Trauma Therapist, Part 1: Finding My Voice

I spoke to my “attempted rapist” after I’d landed multiple kicks to his face and groin. I confessed to him—an instructor acting as an assailant— that I fear raising my voice in public because I’m afraid to appear rude, dramatic, or “crazy.” I had the heartbreaking realization that I’d rather risk being harmed than offend someone.

Two years ago, I completed IMPACT Chicago’s Core Program, where “participants learn and practice a range of tools and strategies to increase their choices when faced with uncomfortable, intrusive, or dangerous situations.” I’d recently moved to Chicago from a small town in Missouri, so I planned to take a simple self-defense class in order to feel more confident walking alone at night. Instead of a simple class, I found myself in the midst of a life changing experience. 

As a trauma therapist, my voice is a valuable tool. I use my voice to foster safety, connection, acceptance, and growth. I’ve spent years teaching my clients how to create and communicate healthy boundaries designed to keep them safe. Yet, I focused too much on words - which is only one part of using one’s voice. IMPACT taught me the importance of expressing intent by focusing on the volume and tone of one’s voice. I learned that I can use the perfect words, but if my expression doesn’t match my intent, my message will not be effectively conveyed. There is a noticeable difference between the phrases: “Stand back” and “STAND BACK!” Same words, different meaning. To feel comfortable using my voice in order to promote my safety, I needed to address the obstacles that had been in my way. 

There are many reasons why people are hesitant to use a heightened volume and tone of voice in public to promote their safety. The most common obstacles that I’ve seen from my clients are trauma, anxiety, sexism, racism, a lack of trust in the legal system/law enforcement, and low self-worth. I discovered that my own obstacles were sexism and trauma. Society taught me that a woman who yells, regardless of the reason, is unstable. So, having internalized societal expectations, I almost never raised my voice. In addition, my parents taught me that yelling and/or a firm tone of voice is a warning from someone who is planning to harm you. Thus, my trauma response is to not yell or sound firm so that I don’t harm anyone or give them the impression that I will. IMPACT taught me how to yell and be firm by having me repeatedly practice yelling boundary-setting phrases with my peers. It was extremely uncomfortable, and at times I froze up and couldn’t speak. But, the more I yelled, the more comfortable I felt using my voice. 

After IMPACT, I began to place less focus on my client's words and greater emphasis on their vocal expressions. I started encouraging my clients to practice using their voices during their therapy sessions. These interventions consisted of role playing, desensitization behavioral exercises, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and somatic experiencing. One of my favorite exercises is having clients scream a neutral word in session, then in public. They chose a word that’s not threatening, offensive, or one that could be perceived as indicating an emergency. Words such as, “SWEATERS!,” “TACOS!,” or (because my practice is based in Chicago) “COLD!” This exercise has helped my clients not only to practice using a loud voice and firm tone in public, but it desensitizes them to any anticipated negative consequences associated with using their voice. Yes, people may judge them or stare at them. But, there usually aren’t any significant consequences and this intervention can help clients become more adept at using their voices to protect themselves.

I learned that the more that I’m able to use my voice, the more my clients feel safe to use theirs. 

This post was first published HERE. Reprinted with permission from Amanda Gregory.

Amanda Ann Gregory is a psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She practices in Chicago and specializes in trauma, attachment, and anxiety treatment. She has written for Highlights Magazine, Addiction Professional, Adoption Today, Holistic Parenting, New Therapist, and Psychology Tomorrow.