Self Defense Awareness

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 situation.

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 our lives.

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.

Paying Attention

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 it. Detecting and recognizing danger is based on accurate mental maps. Attention involves adjusting your conscious focus toward what is relevant to a particular situation. �

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 awareness:

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 vigilance
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.

Randy LaHaie