Reader question – Should I tell my sensei about my traumatic past?

posted in: Emotions, Survivors, Violence | 7
woman and teacher
Martial Women and Girls ACT January 2013 event by Jo Allebon. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Emma (a Karate beginner) has written in response to the article: Ten ways martial arts training can help survivors of abuse:

I found this a very insightful article which reflects my own experience – thank you for writing it. I wanted to ask you what you think the benefits of sharing a personal history with my sensei might be. I don’t want to burden them with unnecessary information, and am also quite private, but if there is anything that might be of use, I might want to tell them.

This article is therefore dedicated to Emma – and anyone else grappling with the same question.

It’s risky. If your sensei is the right person, then telling them and seeking their help might be a great decision. 

But if they are not the right person to confide in, then telling them could be a mistake. In the worst case, your disclosure could help them to get inside your head and manipulate you – and even hurt you further.

Obviously it’s not appropriate to weigh up these risks and benefits on Emma’s behalf, and try to tell her what to do (ie. whether she should disclose to her instructor or not). But here are ten points she might want to reflect on before making her decision . . .



1. You may be able benefit from your sensei’s support without ever disclosing anything to them

A good instructor supports and develops all students according to their individual needs. And they may be able to help you a lot, even if you never tell them what you’ve been through.

In any case, a sensitive and perceptive instructor may well have already picked up something of your pain or trauma, even if you’ve never said anything. They might have seen you recoil from something, or become overly-emotional – or something else.

Telling your story to trusted people can be a wonderful road to healing. But you need to choose those people carefully, and choose how much you want to share. If you want to reveal a little bit without giving away the details, it’s ok to just say: that scares me, or I don’t feel comfortable doing that, or something like that. Or you can go further, and let them know that something in class triggers traumatic memories. But you don’t have to say what those memories actually are.

All being well, they will understand if you’re not ready for that aspect of training; and support you to feel safe, and take appropriate risks in your own time.

By the way, if anyone ever puts pressure on you to talk about your experiences, that’s probably not a good sign, and you don’t have to give into it. What you conceal or reveal – and at what pace – is your own prerogative and choice


2. Your ability to assess trustworthiness might have been compromised by your experiences

trust and fearIf you’ve been abused by people close to you, you may have difficulties in accurately judging other people’s trustworthiness or motivations. This is not your “fault”; it’s a natural human response. But it’s something to be aware of.

So it’s possible that you might mistrust someone who is actually trustworthy. And at the same time, you might feel more comfortable and trusting of a “bad”, manipulative person, because that’s more familiar to you.

Some of the points below will give you advice on how to approach the tricky question of who to trust, when you’re not quite sure what trust is.


3. You need to really understand your motives in disclosing this information

The #MENTOO website advises:

What responses and outcomes are you hoping for, short-term and long-term?

It’s really important to reflect on your motives and goals for disclosing what happened. As you think it through, you may realize that some motives aren’t healthy or helpful, and that some goals may be unrealistic and set ups for disappointment or worse.

Also, if you really understand why you want to disclose, and what you hope will come of it, you’re much better positioned to do it in the most effective way.

In some cases, this means accepting that you have multiple motives and goals, not all of them so healthy, and doing your best not to let the unhealthy ones run the show.

“Healthy” motives might include: Validation and moral support from someone who is important to you; wanting to help your sensei understand your behaviour; wanting to “get it out” into the open and release your burden of keeping it secret.

Less healthy motives might include: wanting to get sympathy; or make excuses for your behaviour or failure to do something . (Source: Telling Someone (or Not) About What Happened)


4. Think about whether you can trust them to keep confidentiality

man and sensei
A “Slice” of Japan: Usari FRG hosts dinner show. By USARJ NCO Corps. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

If you tell your instructor, you need to consider that they may breach your confidence. They might discuss your history with their significant other at home. They may feel it helpful to mention it to the assistant instructors, and even the senior students too.

Ideally you should know what they are doing with your information, and feel in control of it. But realistically, you might not be able to control this once you’ve told them, however honourable their intentions.

In any case, you probably don’t want to open up to someone who will freely “gossip” about your business in any way, either inside or outside the dojo. One way to help assess your instructor’s trustworthiness in this regard is to pay attention to whether they breach other students’ confidentiality during conversations with you.

Remember though that if you or someone else (including your own children) are currently in danger, your sensei may not be able to guarantee you strict confidentiality; and in some cases may even need to report what you tell them to the authorities.


5. Make sure you trust them to handle what you tell them

You’ll want to consider whether they are emotionally strong themselves, and won’t be freaked out by seeing your own pain. This may not always be possible to tell. Your sensei may have their own unresolved issues around abuse, violence and so on; and this could make it difficult for them to really be there for you. 

Even if they have no “issues” of their own, they may just want to teach the technical side; and not be interested in getting too close to students, or hearing your disclosure.

Secondly, you need to know that you can trust them to genuinely care – and to be competent and consistent in their teaching, and give you what you need in order to heal. Over time you will start to sense this, from the way they teach you.

It’s important to pay attention to how you feel about yourself during and between the lessons. If someone talks a lot about wanting to build your confidence – but you actually end feeling ridiculed or undermined by them during the lessons – this is something to note and reflect on. And vice versa – if you come out of most lessons glowing, that can be a great sign.

As a survivor, you also need to be aware that your sensei may have no personal experience or understanding of real-life violence or other form of assault or abuse. This doesn’t mean they can’t help you in various ways. But you just need to be aware that many people’s understanding of real violence is limited, and this can also include martial arts instructors.

Such people may give you enthusiastic but wrong advice on matters such as handling or recovering from assault – albeit with good intentions. Again, think critically and never automatically assume that someone knows more about violence than you do, just because they are wearing a black belt.


6. People who present as excessively “nice” and “kind” are not always all that they seem

I’ve written about this elsewhere: Why a Nice Guy Broke My Finger: How I learned that nice doesn’t always mean trustworthy.

So at first, you’ll probably want to just spend time carefully watching your sensei and seeing what kind of person he or she really is. Above all, it’s good to pay attention to what they do, not what they say.

If they often say nice things – such as that they love to empower women, or build students’ confidence etc – just take it with a pinch of salt at first. But if you SEE them actually doing these things effectively, that’s different – and hopefully a good sign.

So if you see quiet or vulnerable students blossoming over time – or conversely, if you see people being bullied in class, or female students always quitting after a few weeks – pay attention. 

Watch how they react to small things. Do they handle it well if a student accidentally hurts them more than expected? How do they treat the slower learners in the class? This can give you hints about the kind of person they truly are.


7. Someone who quickly “gets” your vulnerability is not necessarily a good person (although they may be)

sensei cropped
Sensei by Luca Mascaro. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

It can feel good when someone clearly sees your vulnerability, and treats you with care. But while this could be a good thing, it’s NOT always a positive sign. Good and caring people do pick up on vulnerability, and help you where they can. But psychopathic / sociopathic people can also be extremely perceptive and smart about “reading” you.

They can also be very skilled at faking a connection with you. For example, they may echo your own words back to you, and pretend to share your values – thus making you feel like they totally “get” you.

But once you are emotionally attached to them, they can start to show a different, harmful side. This is a reason not to open up too soon; as your may be giving them material to manipulate you with.

So this echoes Point 6 above – your task is to carefully establish what kind of person your sensei is, before you open up to them. There are lots of “How to spot a sociopath”-type checklists online which you can refer to. A lot of these are written for the dating context, but they may also be helpful to you in navigating the early stages of another potentially close relationship (sensei / student).


8. If you disclose, your sensei may mentally label you as “damaged”; and you may end up with a fixed role within the class as a vulnerable victim

Emma writes,

I guess my real question is to do with burdening my sensei with all this baggage without really thinking they would want to know, or that it would change their attitude towards me in a positive way. I would be afraid of them thinking I am weak somehow, or asking for special treatment. One thing I like is to just be judged by what I do and how I act in the classes, rather than for anything else.

She’s right to consider this potential impact of her disclosure. Rory Miller writes:

There is great power in the victim identity. Instructors and other students go out of their way to be accommodating and gentle. The survivor can often get out of any drill or derail the whole class by admitting her discomfort […] The benefits of victim status must be given up to outgrow the victim status […] This is hard but critical. The subtle power in the victim status […] is power for people who have been made to feel powerless and it can be addictive.

So if you plan to identify yourself as a survivor, you need to be aware of this risk. You also need to be aware that your sensei may very much enjoy helping you – and find it hard to give that up as you recover. Such a teacher may be able to help you a lot for a while. But as you grow stronger, they can struggle to adapt to the changing relationship, and let go of the knowledge they have about you – and their own role as your heroic saviour.

You need someone who can appreciate the importance of what you have told them – but not let it define the way they see you. Many instructors will be able to do this; others may not.


9. Martial arts have violence at their core

Emma writes: I am quite used to safe touch in a social dancing environment, and teachers making adjustments. She needs to reflect on the fact that martial arts is not dancing. Violence is implicit in what we do, even if we are not overtly / abusively violent towards each other. And this potentially gives a different quality to power relations between the teacher and student within a martial arts setting.

For example, you could have interactions with your sensei (or others in class) which are triggering due to the associations with violence.

So for this reason (although I know nothing about dance) the emotional risks could be higher, or at least different in some ways in Emma’s relationship with her sensei, than with a dance teacher. However, either relations

seiza woman
Martial Women and Girls ACT, July 2013 by Jo Allebone. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

hip could be healing or harmful – so much depends on the individuals, what they are teaching, and how they teach it . . .

And in the right setting, the violent elements of the martial arts can also be an asset and valuable resource for someone seeking to understand and move on from their abusive experience.


10. Strike a balance between protecting yourself and opening up to new experiences

Some of the points in this article may sound dark. But this isn’t to say that you should completely shut down, and not trust anyone at all, due to the risks.

Closing down may be right at some point(s) in your recovery. But if you do it forever, you’ll also limit your opportunity to open up and connect with the right instructor (or other important people in your life) – and gain the potential benefits.

So it’s all about weighing up the risks and benefits, and coming to balanced, considered conclusions about your best course of action. You need to focus on awareness and risk assessment – understanding the risks you are taking, and knowing how much risk you are prepared / able to tolerate . . .

Read Part One of this article to find out more about how martial arts training can benefit abuse survivors. 



7 Responses

  1. Quentin Cooke

    A thoughtful piece. Makes me really think about my role as a sensei. The article highlights to me , that just like parents, who mostly have their children’s best interests at heart, being a sensei doesn’t mean that you have the necessary skills to do the best job. Most of us struggle to get it right, but inevitably, none of us are perfect, and we make mistakes along the way. My advice would be that, your sensei, may well prove to be a great person to confide in, to help you feel supported and to grow, but don’t look on them as a God. As Kai suggests, all you can do is use your best judgement, and let them earn your respect with solid evidence.

    • Kai Morgan

      Thanks Quentin, yes I think there’s always that risk that the student over-idealises their teacher, and has unrealistic fantasies about the outcome of confiding in them. It’s ironic that this has made you reflect so deeply and self-critically, when you are already someone who’s worked so hard to become the best, most humble and sensitive Sensei you can be for your students over the years. Thanks anyway, this is a very helpful comment 🙂

  2. John Hillson

    Fantastic piece, I would love to share it and mention it on my blog. As an Aikido student and teacher, the party line is that we are here to create a better world and better people in a nourishing environment. The sad but obvious truth is that thousands of breakfalls do not directly and automatically create emotionally aware and stable psychotherapists.

    Despite being a registered nurse for years, and a former volunteer with a sexual assault hotline for years, and having a degree in psychology, I am not well prepared to help such students in the context of a martial arts/combat class.

    • Kai Morgan

      Thanks John, I just think there’s a certain irony, that people such as yourself who have substantial relevant professional knowledge and experience, will tend to be cautious and self-critical about your ability to help such a student. Whereas people who know little or nothing can sometimes be very confident and enthusiastic to jump in and want to help. I guess it is because the more you know, the more you are aware of the potential darkness and complexity at stake.

      I think my current view is that a good sensei can help a lot by being kind, consistent, sensitive etc – and maintaining strong boundaries. In this way, they can enable that student to access a martial art safely, and all being well, experience the benefits of that training. But in general, I think it is risky / inappropriate for a sensei to try to play psychotherapist, as you say. However, it might be tempting for a teacher to want to explore that role; and also tempting for the student to want to draw their sensei into that relationship. (Vulnerable people can be manipulative, as you will know well from your work).

      Many thanks for sharing your thoughtful perspective, and of course I would love it if you shared this 🙂 K

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