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The Nuts & Bolts Of Awareness
Learning To Detect Trouble
What if violent criminals looked different?
If they did, and you knew what gave them away, would this reduce the
chance of becoming their victim? You bet it would. Unfortunately rapists,
muggers and predatory reprobates don't look any different than a
"normal" person. However, the good news is that they can be
recognized by their behavior. If you know what to look for, you can recognize
a problem as it unfolds and stay one step ahead of a human predator. That is
the goal of awareness.
Communication is Predominantly Non-Verbal
People communicate their intent in three ways. Seven percent of your
ability to interpret that intent is based on words, thirty eight percent
through voice, and a whopping fifty five percent is projected through body
language. Why is this important?
A predominant aspect of self-defense involves the communication process. Human
predators don't just pounce on the first person that comes along. There is an
evaluation process that occurs where they deliberately or unconsciously
assess the "victim potential" of a target. In doing so, they
project's their intentions by watching, following and even
"testing" you. If you understand this process you will spot
predatory intent before an assault is initiated.
In future articles, I will explain victim selection and predatory behavior
in greater detail. For now, realize that knowing what clues to look for will
allow to anticipate and respond effectively to a potential confrontation.
What is Awareness?
Awareness is the ability to "read" people and situations
and anticipate the probability of violence before it happens. It is knowing
what to look for and taking the time to notice safety-related aspects of what
is happening around you.
Awareness is not about being fearful or paranoid. It is a relaxed state of
alertness that you can incorporate into your character. It is neither
desirable, nor necessary, to go about life hectically scanning your
surroundings for the boogey man around every corner. Your level of awareness
should be appropriate to the circumstances you are in.
Some circumstances call for a greater degree of awareness than others.
Obviously, you would want to be more aware when walking alone to your car at
night than when shopping in a crowded mall with friends.
What is Successful Self-Defense?
How you define success determines the strategies you implement to achieve
it. Many people confuse the ability to defend themselves with the ability to
fight. If your image of successful self-defense is fighting off an assailant,
your solution will be directed at learning physical techniques. You would be
missing the point.
Success in self-defense is not winning a fight but avoiding it. The
ultimate success in self-defense is when nothing to happens! If that's not
possible, consider this philosophy: If you can't prevent it, avoid it. If you
can't avoid it, defuse it. If you can't defuse it, escape. If you can't
escape, you may have to fight your way out of the situation. If you do have
to fight, it will be as a last resort, not a first. Does this philosophy
influence your success strategies?
Predatory/Defender Time Line
The sooner you detect and recognize a threat, the more options you have to
respond to it. Imagine a time line spanning from the time a predator forms
the intent to commit a violent crime and the moment he initiates it upon you.
The time it takes you to detect, recognize and respond, impacts how
successful your actions are likely to be. The sooner you act, the more
flexible and deliberate you can be in avoiding, escaping or responding to the
Awareness strategies focus primarily to the "pre-incident" phase
of the encounter; to the cues and signals you can detect and recognize that
allow you to anticipate the event before it occurs.
Knowing What to Look For
There are three primary aspects of awareness: knowing what to pay
attention to, paying attention to safety-related details and matching the
degree of your awareness to your circumstances.
Effective Self-defense Requires a Map
The brain's ability to recognize and understand anything is a result of
having a mental map or blueprint relevant to that experience. Psychologists
call these maps, "schemas." They consist of our accumulated
knowledge, experience and beliefs and are activated when we recognize
patterns associated to them.
A good mechanic can detect what's wrong with a car by the clunks, squeaks
and rattles it makes. Paramedics can diagnose unseen injuries by the
patient's symptoms. Hunters can track an animal for miles based on broken
twigs, displaced soil and clues invisible to the untrained eye. They have the
mental maps that allow them to do this. Diagnosing a potential confrontation
requires self-defense maps.
In his book, "Vital Lies, Simple Truths," psychologist Daniel
Goleman describes how schemas work. "The (process) that organizes
information and makes sense of experience are ‘schemas,' the building blocks
of cognition. Schemas embody the rules and categories that order raw
experience into coherent meaning. All knowledge and experience is packaged in
schemas. Schemas are...the intelligence that guides information as it flows
through the mind."
Schemas allow us to make sense of the world and influence what we
recognize, understand, notice and ignore. They allow us to interpret
patterns, predict outcomes and respond in appropriate ways to what happens in
Evaluating Your Self-defense Schemas
Effectively defending yourself requires an accurate mental map about self-defense situations. Assessing your own schemas is difficult. We tend to resist or ignore anything that challenges our existing perception of the way things are. Schema enhancement is impossible without an open mind and curiosity about the way things really work.
In order to evaluate your own mental maps, and determine where they can be
improved, consider the "Three A's."
Accurate mental maps are essential to effective self-defense. You establish
and refine them by learning about violent and predatory situations; how they
happen, where and when they happen, who they are perpetrated by and so on.
This involves learning to recognize pre-assault patterns and developing an
inventory of skills and strategies to resolve confrontations.
We build experience by using what we have
learned. By consistently applying awareness and prevention strategies they
become habits. Soon they are unconscious and automatic. Physical and
scenario-based training drills can reduce your fears and desensitize you to
the threat and exertion of combat. (See the article "Reach Out
and Punch Someone" for an example of this type of training).
Beliefs dramatically affect your perceptions and
behavior. Do your beliefs empower or disempower your ability to protect
yourself? Are they realistic and functional or based on fantasy? Evaluate
your beliefs about your power to defend yourself and, if they don't
contribute to your skill, resilience and ability to respond, change them.
When you lack knowledge or experience in an area your maps about it are
absent. Absent self-defense maps result in people being naive about their
safety, more likely to place themselves in risky situations, and oblivious to
signs of danger. If someone with an absent map encounters a confrontation,
they are more likely to panic, freeze or react ineffectively. In self-defense
jargon, that's called, "Not Good!"
An assumed map occurs when a map associated to an experience is flawed,
inaccurate and erroneous. A map of Winnipeg is useless is Chicago. A map that
is wrong won't help you produce the results you desire.
Assumed self-defense maps are more prevalent than
you might think. Even trained martial artists often hold an unrealistic
perception of what a "real fight" is like. They confuse the chaos
of violent encounters with sparring. They confuse martial art techniques with
the ability to defend themselves. That's like equating hockey with golf!
Studying self-defense is about developing and refining accurate mental
maps of confrontation. We must build an accurate mental database of
knowledge, experience and beliefs about self-defense situations and our power
to respond effectively to them. The purpose of these articles, my courses and
seminars, and the Protective
Strategies Self-defense Resource Center is to assist you in the
development of your self-defense maps.
Note: In this discussion, I don't mean to imply
that people without extensive self-defense training are helpless or unable
to respond to threatening situations. It is indisputable that far more
"untrained" people successfully defend themselves from assault
than those with formal training. We all possess the instinct to survive.
More important than learning self-defense skills is respecting,
re-awakening, and tapping into existing instincts that have been neglected,
denied, or suppressed. Self-defense training is not always a matter of
"installing" new maps but "dusting off" and improving
the ones we already have.
Attention is the process of consciously attending to a thought, activity
or event. It is one thing to know what to pay attention to. It is another
thing all together, to pay attention on a consistent basis.
What we are conscious of is a function of our short-term memory. The
capacity of short-term memory is limited, at any given time, to about seven
"chunks" or pieces of information. Our senses bombard us with far
more information than we could ever hope to acknowledge or be aware of. The
vast majority of what is happening around us is "filtered out," and
only a small portion of it reaches the conscious mind (short term memory).
The mind is selective about what it pays attention to. To a great extent, the
schemas we have stored in our long-term memory determine what we notice and
what we don’t. Schemas influence, usually unconsciously, the filtering out of
stimuli deemed to be irrelevant or unimportant. This further emphasizes the
need to develop accurate self-defense schemas. Unless we do, the signals and
cues we need to stay safe will be filtered out and ignored.
Distraction and Preoccupation
Being distracted or preoccupied can occupy the limited capacity of the
conscious mind and disconnect us from what's going on around us. Distraction
is when our mental focus is occupied with external stimuli such as loading
groceries in your car, fumbling with your keys or being drawn to something
unusual. Preoccupation happens when our mental focus dwells on internal
stimuli such as thoughts, worries and daydreaming.
Distraction and preoccupation are inevitable. Even if you wanted to, you
wouldn't be able to eliminate them for extended periods. However, if you are
preoccupied or distracted when you should be attending to your surroundings,
you won't detect a predator positioning himself for an assault and you won't
be able to defend yourself. It is important to identify situations in your life
when a higher level of vigilance is necessary and minimize distraction and
preoccupation during those times.
Attention is like a Spotlight
Imagine that your attention is a beam of light. Whatever you point it at
is what you notice. Inevitably when you point the beam in one direction you
neglect another. Attention works something like this.
Since our consciousness is limited, we must develop the ability to aim the
beam of our attention at details relevant to our safety. We need to pay
attention to the "right things" (people watching or following us,
potential ambush places, escape routes etc.) at the "right time."
Interest & Importance
Schema, distraction and preoccupation are only parts of the attention
puzzle. What we notice is also a result of our interests and priorities. I'll
quote Dr. Goleman again to make my point. "What gets through to
awareness is what messages have pertinence to whatever mental activity is
current. If you are looking for restaurants, you will notice signs for them
and not for gas stations; if you are skimming through the newspaper, you will
notice those items you care about. What gets through enters awareness, and
only what is useful occupies that mental space."
Goleman is not writing about self-defense but his point could not be more
relevant. We notice what we consider (often at an unconscious level)
important or interesting at the time we notice it.
Responsibility Increases Awareness
Have you ever heard of the, "I-never-thought-it-would-happen-to-me
phenomenon?" I'll bet you have and it was probably in relation to
someone who had something happen to them. At the core of the awareness issue
is the need to take full responsibility for your own safety. Until you acknowledge,
"it could happen to you," pre-incident cues may not register
as important or relevant enough to notice. They will go undetected. Unless
you acknowledge a need to be aware, you simply won't be.
Awareness is a deterrent to assault
As you will learn in subsequent articles on victim selection, a predator's
primary targets are people who are unaware of their surroundings and lax
about personal safety. One of the best, most proactive, things you can do to
reduce the probability of being victimized is improve your awareness skills.
Once the predator realizes that you have noticed him he'll move on to a less
observant prey. The fact that you are reading this and exploring the issue of
self-defense, in my opinion, decreases the likelihood that you will fall into
the category of a desirable prey.
Points To Remember
Your ability to recognize a dangerous person or situation makes you safer.
Awareness involves knowing what to look for and disciplining yourself to pay attention.
The ultimate success in self-defense is when nothing happens!
The earlier you detect and recognize a potential problem, the more options you have to resolve
Detecting and recognizing danger is based on accurate mental maps.
Attention involves adjusting your conscious focus toward what is relevant to a particular
So What!!! How can I use this information?
How can you use this information in your own personal safety strategy?
Here are some examples of activities and exercises that will improve your
Accept Full Responsibility for your Safety
Unless you take full responsibility for your safety and make it a priority,
you are less likely to detect and recognize danger cues. You are more likely
to be selected as a target.
Identify situations in your own life requiring a higher level of
You can't be totally aware all of the time, nor do you have to be. Identify
times and situations in your own life where a higher degree of vigilance is
merited. When out jogging alone? When commuting to and from work? When
staying in a strange city? When out socializing at the bar?
Build and refine your self-defense maps by continuous learning.
If personal safety is important to you, read books and articles about it,
take self-defense courses, etc. You may not want to join a self-defense club
or spend all of your waking hours studying self-defense. You don't have to.
However, don't read a single book or take a single course and consider
yourself "finished." Make an effort to periodically review what you
know and continuously build on what you've learned.
Analyze the News
Analyze news events to familiarize yourself with criminal patterns and factors,
which contribute to violent crimes. Apply the questions who, what, when,
where, why and how to these incidents and use your acquired knowledge to stay
out of the news yourself!
Practice Observations Skills
Pre-determine specific things to look for as you go about your day-to-day
activities. For example, when going shopping make a "game" of
spotting as many tall, dark haired men with a moustache as you can. Next time
look for something else. Consider the fact that "playing" awareness
games makes you appear more observant to a predator who may be evaluating you
as a potential target.
Establish self-defense habits
If you knew you were going to be attacked the next time you went to work you
just wouldn't go. The truth of the matter is that you never know when you may
be targeted as a potential victim. Assaults happen at all times of the day
and in all types of setting and situations. The only effective self-defense
strategies are those that you build into your day-to-day behavior. They
become unconscious habits by repetition and consistency.
I have discussed the nuts and bolts of awareness and
attention: what they are, how they work and why they are important. I'm sure
you still have a lot of questions remaining to be answered. There are still
areas of your "map" that needs to be fleshed out and completed. The
Protective Strategies Self-defense Resource Center is intended to assist you
in that process. As you learn more about the components of a comprehensive self-defense
strategy, you will develop a clearer, more specific map to reduce the
probability of a confrontation.
Good luck and Stay Safe.
If you have any questions or comments please click on my name to email me:
Copyright © 2011 by Randy LaHiae, Protective Strategies. All rights Reserved.
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Randy LaHaie has been studying and teaching reality-based self-defense methods
for over 35 years. As a life-long martial artist, retired police officer and personal safety consultant,
Randy has trained thousands of law enforcement officers, high risk professionals and private citizens.For
more extensive and current self-defense advice and resources be sure to visit his blog "The Toughen Up
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