One of the most difficult challenges of self defense training is confronting that which scares you. You first learn to accept that the world isn’t always Disneyland and that some people are truly dangerous.
You’ve put yourself into situations which simulate dangerous situations, then repeat your stress response until you get it under control. It isn’t glamorous. It really isn’t even fun or interesting.
My instructor, Bryan Broussard of Naked Ape Martial Arts says 500-1,000 repetitions before a move becomes muscle memory and 3,000 for an automatic response. Mastery? Let’s place that around 10,000+ repetitions. Sound dull? It is!
So, what do you do, when a dangerous situation arises before you’ve hit your 500-1,000? Here’s a basic strategy that you can start implementing immediately, and all it requires is your attention. In martial arts, we call this Yi, or intent. You first train your awareness and your ability to focus.
I know, its a bummer. Yes, you’re going to have to look up from your phone and pay attention to the people around you. Uuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhh isn’t this why they invented smartphones?? YES. But don’t be a victim to someone else’s designs, regardless of the form.
Step 1: Confront Your Fear
“The only thing we have to fear, is fear, itself.”
First, let’s address the feeling of dread some of you felt the instant I asked you to pay attention to the people around you. We have developed a cultural attitude of willful ignorance and psychological isolation. Everywhere you go, people have their faces in a screen, their ears covered by headphones, lost in some other world of their choosing. But no matter how far away in fantasy or podcast you dig, you’re still right here with all the rest of us.
Your attention is one of your most precious gifts and a powerful tool.
Why do you think advertisers spend so much money trying to snag your attention?
Predators and opportunists use this to their advantage, too: they are always on the lookout for people who aren’t paying attention and people who show visible signs of fear. There’s a very simple truth: what you project, you become. Meaning that, even if you don’t fully believe you’re strong and fearless, if you LOOK strong and fearless, few people will harass you and eventually, you will become as you’re pretending to be. If you have to: fake it til you make it. I’ll teach you the techniques right now, it is up to you to practice and to confront yourself every step of the way. NEVER be a victim again, especially to your fears.
Step 2: Scan and Re-Scan
Now that we’ve addressed the (un)natural fear of human interaction, let’s deal with the real tools to determine when your fear is warranted. First, become aware of your surroundings. This is a basic tool all trained military and police personnel have entrenched into their automatic responses. Without even trying, they can tell you how many people are on a bus, and give general descriptions of their appearances, if they’re traveling alone or with others and even more. They can spot a suspicious person instantly. They can also spot other people who have trained. This is how:
Look slightly over your left shoulder, then slowly scan toward the right, observing casually every person or unusual detail in your field of vision from left to right. Glance over your right shoulder and observe anything behind you. Now, do the same thing but scanning at knee-level, then repeat at chest-level and head-level. Once in awhile, glance above you and directly behind you.
What You’re Looking For
Specifically, as a person who might not be as strong or quick or capable as an assailant, you’re looking for anyone who is looking at you. This might be a predator. There’s that fear again, right?! This is real, folks, and we’re talking about serious issues. The key here is to not be the gazelle anymore. Hunters target and assess their prey WAY before an attack. They’re looking for weaknesses. They’re looking for an absence of attention. They’re looking for an “easy lunch.” They’re looking for their next victim. What you do, through your attention and body language, is say, with confidence, “look elsewhere, bub.”
Be cautious to not engage in prolonged eye contact. After-all, catching someone’s gaze could be an accident, or they could be completely innocent but “interested,” or they could take any confrontation as a challenge, threat, or invitation. Try to not visibly react. Keep your gaze moving, and don’t over do it. Especially if you’re someone who uses your phone a lot. Simply glance up and lightly scan once every minute or so. Another tactic is to wear your headphones, but don’t play any music or listen to anything. Use it as a visual barrier that says, “I’m not available.” It will deter most people able to read visual cues, and anyone who can’t or ignores it, will give themselves away instantly as a person incapable or unwilling to respect your boundaries. These are people with whom you should use cautious awareness.
Step 3: Stand Up for Yourself
“Puff up! They hate that!” -Batty, Furngully
Look at the difference in posture here! Krista is cowering, with her mouth open, eyes wide, she is in a vulnerable posture and could easily be overwhelmed, or, in her case, scooped up and carried off. In contrast, Batty’s posture is a bit extreme, but he has made himself bigger, his gaze is focused and strong, his claws are pointing toward his assailant. This is how the hypothalamus interprets the information of bodies: the visual cues tell us that one of these is a victim and the other one would be trouble for our agenda.
Your posture is absolutely vital to how you are perceived. Even if you don’t feel confident, standing upright in your posture and walking with purpose, direction and confidence will reduce the amount of opportunity anyone will have to make you a victim. Even if you don’t believe it, learn the techniques and start doing it. Correcting your posture improves your mood, circulation, helps combat fatigue and promotes longevity. If you really want to feel it in your bones, try yoga.
If you don’t believe me at all, check out this TED Talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy:
Step 4: Question Why
Okay, so you’ve fixed your posture and you’re working on your fearless awareness. What do you do if someone actually -gasp- tries to talk to you? First of all, NEVER EVER let anyone get close enough to touch you. More on that below. Not everyone who approaches you is trying to take advantage of you. Someone people just want money, or a signature, or to flirt with you, or maybe they’re just a talker and they want to socialize. It is your job to decide where the conversation is going. Its a little bit like chess. The board is open, but you can’t take my queen. I have a strategy and I’ll protect my interests. Predators and opportunists will use almost any reason to open a dialogue with you. Usually they need help or they’re offering you help. As a general rule, if someone approaches you, offering help, that is the most vulnerable spot for you. Once you agree to the help, you’ve given that person some authority over you and your situation. 95% of people have pure intentions and reach out as Good Samaritans. But that 5% who are looking to take advantage, will use this opportunity to leverage something from you. Someone genuinely helping from their heart, will not ask anything in return, and might even become embarrassed if you offer. For example, someone offering to help with a flat tire.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Can I take care of this myself?
- What do they have to gain?
- Have they already crossed my boundaries (touching, asking personal questions, etc)?
- Are they asking me to go somewhere else (never do this)?
- Are they wanting something in return?
Go forward with your choices and agreements in the confidence that you’ve considered any agenda on the other person’s behalf. If you truly need the help, take it, but don’t give any more than what is required. Be gracious and get away.
Step 5: Watch Their Eyes
People who want things can’t stop looking for them. People who want drugs will look all around for the next dragon’s tail. People who want sex will fixate on sexual markers. People who want control will look for variables. People who want to win will look for their finish line. People who want social interaction will look for eyes. People who want money will look for signs of money: nice shoes, large, fancy purses, newer phones, cash being folded, jewelry. People who want to be left alone will look away. People who want to disappear will look down. People who lie will avoid directness in their gaze. People who are content usually gaze at the horizon.
Eyes can tell you almost everything about a person. You know the expression, “he smiles with his eyes?” It refers to someone who smiles so genuinely, that he smiles with his whole face. That what he observes is pleasing and joyous, not just “lip service,” smiling with the mouth to appease others. Skilled predators can fake a lot of things, but very few people can lie with their eyes. There’s a reason they say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Your eyes express who you truly are inside. What do your eyes say about you? Try sitting with yourself for 10 minutes in the mirror, gazing at your eyes. Try on a few feelings and see how your eyes react. Look upon your own eyes and yourself with love and compassion.
Step 6: Don’t Agree
In “The Gift of Fear,” Gavin de Becker talks about the ways that predators “invite” themselves into our vulnerabilities by getting us through a series of agreements. It is similar to how salespeople are trained: 5 “no’s” before a “yes.” Someone who is looking for a “big yes,” which can be as innocent as trying to pick someone up at a bar, will attempt a few “small yes” tests, to gauge the agreeability of their target.
Unfortunately, some of us are so accustomed to being people-pleasers, that we are seldom on the lookout for the people who have architected a strategy of advantage. I’m steering away from gender-typifying, because this trait is not gender-specific. There are many ways which opportunists will try to get you on their program, like appearing as your savior or hero, asking if you need help, are you lost, etc. They might nod yes as they’re asking you a question: a psychological cue that you should agree. Here’s a basic outline of how we agree to allow others entry: Imagine someone meeting you in a bar:
- May I sit here?
- Do you like wine?
- Do you like whiskey?
- Do you have any pets (personal information)?
- May I buy you a drink?
- Do you enjoy ____? (a skilled observer will peg your interests early on, so don’t be overly-impressed by this, it is actually a warning sign)
- Are you hungry?
- May I buy you dinner?
- You seem a little tipsy, may I drop you off?
All of this could be completely innocent. Even a skilled observer or a suave person might have zero intention beyond the more socially acceptable ones of a hot date or getting to know you. The point is, again, about your awareness. Are you aware enough to realize when someone wants something from you that you don’t want to give them?
Here’s one way to deal with this: provide barriers; these are clear boundaries which require the other person to prove their respect and patience. It also requires you to respect and be patient with yourself. If you don’t respect your boundaries, how can you ask that of anyone else? Insist you’re not free right now. You don’t have to explain why. If they persist, cut them off. You don’t owe anything to anyone, especially a stranger. Require that person to give you their number, don’t give them yours. Don’t accept drinks, rides, money, favors, food, anything. This provides an “exchange rate” in the minds of many people. It gives them access and they might assume it gives them rights. If you choose to accept drinks, etc, do it in recognition that MOST people who offer favors, do it for a ROI: Return On Investment. They want something. Don’t be surprised when you get their bill.
Step 7: Stay in Your Center
Control your angles and stay off-line. Words are one angle that opportunists will attempt to get permission into your domain. The other is actual physical entry. Either by leaning in, closing distance, reaching out, actually touching, whispering, walking directly behind or steering you in any way, predators and opportunists will use their bodies and their physical presence to subtly intimidate or influence their target. Again, guard yourself against reacting too strongly to innocent contact. Usually, that guy in your office who touched your arm isn’t trying to rape you. Don’t react incongruently. But in public situations, be aware of what is happening behind you, of people who stand unnecessarily close to you, of uninvited and incongruent physical contact (like a stranger cupping your shoulder with their hand on a crowded bus or at a concert). Remain in awareness of your surroundings.
A good strategy is to never stand 100% facing anyone you don’t trust. On the C.O.B.R.A. website guide for Real Estate Agent Safety, they recommend keeping a house-viewer in the 10 to 2 range of vision at all times. I would take it one step further and suggest to never find yourself at 12 facing someone within arm’s reach. This is the closest range of access beyond being grabbed from behind. If you find yourself here, slide one foot back, so you have one hip/shoulder out of range of their hands. There is a ton of information out there regarding strategies once you enter into striking range or find yourself in an altercation or abduction situation.
Unfortunately, this is the realm where we must practice actual engagement to train the muscle memory to respond. A one-off self-defense class where you learned advanced throwing techniques will likely be useless in this situation. When stress occurs and adrenaline is triggered, you really have no idea how you or your body will respond unless you have taken the time to entrench responses. Even with training, so many variables can come up in a situation, it is your best strategy to plan to stay outside of the potential assailant’s grabbing range.
Step 8: Back Out
Step back, say no, shake your head no. Do it while you’re smiling. Do it with grace. Say, “No, thank you!” as you’re walking quickly away. Don’t wait for their answer. Don’t care about their reaction or their response. This is a stranger who approached you, uninvited. In some countries, people get stabbed. They are lucky that you are so polite. Do not turn your back to them. Step backwards until you’re out of range (slightly past arm’s reach), then turn and walk or run away. If you feel afraid, leave. Immediately. Walk away. The gift of fear is that it triggers your subconscious with the awareness that your safety is in jeopardy. All the work you did above is to clear out the triggers of false fear, insecurity and anxiety, to prepare you to listen to the signals of real fear, the authentic warnings of your hippocampus that something isn’t right. Now it is time to respect your inner wisdom and get the heck out of the situation, ASAP. Don’t wait to doubt your inner wisdom. Think about that later, when you’re relaxing in your tub, nursing the adrenaline crash.
I genuinely believe in the good in people. I am not a pessimist. I meditate and teach yoga and I want peace on Earth. I believe in all those things. But I also firmly believe that we should prepare and be prepared for any eventuality.
We live in an unpredictable world, full of free individuals, who choose all kinds of things that solely serve themselves. A select few of these care nothing for the well-being of others, or how their choices will negatively impact others. An even smaller group actually enjoys the power they feel over others, and will victimize people intentionally to experience this, regardless of the outcome to you or to themselves. I’ll leave the deeper spiritual and esoteric aspects alone for now. IMHO, living a fearless life in the face of reality, with a minimum of personal “perspective” and a maximum of personal enrichment, is a worthy life goal. We can’t wave a magic wand and have the world we dream of, but we CAN learn to navigate with efficacy and to grow and blossom in whatever dirt we’re planted.
Let’s live our lives with our eyes wide open.