Fear, self-talk and self-defense

Loren and I were talking last week and he mentioned something that would be an interesting topic to talk about here. It combines the three things I mention in the title:

  • Fear
  • Self-Talk
  • Self-Defense

Here’s what I mean:

We all like to think of ourselves as bad-ass mo-fo’s who eat nails and spit them out as bullets. It’s a nice and comforting thought but it isn’t accurate: except for rare cases, most people will feel fear when they’re in a self-defense situation. That fear can manifest itself in many different ways but I’m only going to focus on one of them now: negative self-talk.

Picture this situation

You’re having drinks with a couple buddies in an up-scale bar, a place where the bad guys usually don’t come.  You’re having fun and so is everybody else there. Nothing going on but everybody having a good time. But you do a regular radar sweep every now and then, just in case.

During one of those sweeps, something pings on the screen: one guy gives off a negative vibe. You let your sweep pass him by and then observe him in your peripheral vision. A couple of things become apparent right away:

  • He’s huge. Taller, heavier and at first glance, a lot stronger than you.
  • He’s from a specific Eastern-European ethnicity. One that has a large, exceedingly violent and very tough criminal element in the city.
  • He moves like he knows how to fight. The way he stays balanced, the coordination and deliberate movements, they all let you know he’s busted some skulls before.
  • His expression is extremely negative. His face says he’s angry as hell.

So you do a quick check of your surroundings, look for routes of escape, improvised weapons, obstacles to use against him and most importantly: how to get your friends out in one piece too. You use another sweep to mask that you’re looking at him for more information-gathering and something happens: he looks right at you, giving you the evil eye.

That little voice inside your head suddenly pipes up and says:

“Damn, he’s big. He must hit really, really hard…”

Not exactly a roaring vote of confidence from your subconscious…

Not to leave you hanging: I managed to avoid a confrontation with that guy, even though it took a lot of maneuvering to stay clear of him. No blood, no foul and all is well that ends well.

Negative self-talk

That’s what Loren and I were discussing: sometimes, that voice in your head just starts undermining your efforts to avoid problems and defend yourself. If you listen to it, it becomes so much harder to get out of the situation in one piece.

Why does this happen? Hard to say, there could be many different reasons for it.

Think this doesn’t apply to you? Think again. It can happen to anybody: people with no training or experience and experts with hundreds of violent encounters under their belt.

In the next part of this post, I’ll discuss some of the ways to deal with this but for now, I’d like to ask you to share your own experiences:

What did the voice inside your head say when this happened to you?

Just write it here in the comments and I’ll use it in the next post.

Click here to read Fear, self-talk and self-defense, Part Two


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  1. Hey Wim,

    I too used to get voices like that but in my case I would transition to aggression easily if it came down to it. You see I viewed big guys that thought they were tough as the threats as opposed to “normal” sized aggressors (I was not too worried about them). Not that I was looking for a fight but I just tooled up easily for big guys.

    One example was I ended up knocking out a big guy in my capacity as a door man one night and started getting this little guy hassling me for a couple of months after that point. I gave that guy every chance and was surprised one night when he came in with the big guy. The big guy started walking out of the bar with a drink and I was on him with the little guy mediating the peace. :)

    Little guys were not threat but apparently I did not cut big guys any slack… not sure what this says but it came to mind with your post Wim.

  2. Well it probably started when I was a beginning belt (blue) and had my first sparring experience. The guy was probably about 6′ 4″ (4″ taller than me) and he just came at me and ran me over. Never mind I threw my counter punch, I ended up on the ground. I had a lot to learn about angles, stick and move and such but I think that day I started seeing all big guys as a potential threat.

    After that I got good at body shots and it worked well for me since most black belts seemed to be head hunters. I would salivate to go against the biggest guy and knock the wind out of him as he (over-confidently) would charge me. :)

    I guess it helped that the three biggest guys at the karate school were my teachers… I learned what I could get away with and would would not work so when I worked at the bar I guess my suspiciousness of all “big guys” carried over… you see they were slower and easier to hit anyway… and as you know Wim most untrained big guys cannot fight their way out of a paper bag… they just think they can because of their size.

    To this day, although my fighting days are (hopefully) over – my adrenalin starts pumping if there are too many big guys in a social situation… I guess a carryover from my Neanderthal roots. :)

    • Understood John. I’m a big guy myself so I’m allowed to speak: I hate seeing big guys pull crap they can only get away with because of their size. It’s’s childish and short-sighted. Sure, it’s fun to run over smaller people, but you don’t learn much from it.
      Body shots are indeed a great tool!

  3. Hi Wim , I was working a bar in Amarillo, rough little biker joint. Five guys in the back shooting pool and eye fucking me every chance they got. I didnt know them or recognize them from anywhere. My mind kept telling me that it was a simple case of mistaken identity . I intentionaly walked by them several times and let them see me in a better light. No good the eye fucking kept up and they began talking and nodding towards me.

    Kinda freaked me out , I am paranoid as it is and didnt know what to think but that I am fixing to either get jumped and hurt or I am going to have to kill these guys. I started thinking about my kids and if I would see them again . A thousand things rushed through my mind. They seperated and started walking towards me trying to circle up and surround me. Five guys , three my size , one older and smaller, on medium sized and young. In my head I am screaming get the fuck out of there, but I cant run , not what I was hired to do.

    They got up on three sides of me and the older one asked if I knew him . I said Nope , dont think I hav ever seen you before. He then told me we went to school tohgether and I made his life a living hell. I was at a loss . I asked him where he was from , he said Amarillo . when I told him I wasnt from there he wouldnt believ me. Man I was freaking on the inside I just knew that I was fixing to get stabbed. Only thing I could think to do was Hit first and Hurt them as quick as I could. I pulled my pocket knocker out and started flailing them with it. After the first two dropped I was so adrenilized I couldnt stop myself and went after the other three. I took some pretty good hits and gave everyone of them a reason to remember me. All I could think wa either hurt them or I would never see my kids again. Scared me prety bad but I came out alive.

    • Thanks for sharing that scary episode Clint, damn. I wouldn’t want to go up against one guy your size; let alone three plus two more.
      Do you think flashing your mind on getting to see your kids again got in the way of acting or did it work as a catalyst to fight harder?

      • I really think that not seeing my kids made me take off any restraints I might have had.I always tried to talk a situation down I wasnt being paid to start trouble. This was a time that talking meant I wa weak and scared in thier eyes. I couldnt afford to let that happen.I dont espouce violence as a solution to problems but it sometime be your only option. I didnt know what these guys were planning or carrying so I had to do anything I could to go home

        • Thanks Clint. I think you’re right, that having kids can be a powerful motivator to do everything in your power to come home alive. I’ve had similar experiences.

  4. When I was a cop, there were a few times when I was dealing with people who were about to go violent that I would think, “Man, I should have trained harder.” In fact, I was already training as hard as I possibly could, but I was training for competition. Even as a young, fit guy in my 20s, I had had enough experience as a military policeman in Saigon, Vietnam and as a city cop in Portland, Oregon, to know that there was a big difference between sport and reality. After about four or five of these uncomfortable moments, I gave up competition and devoted my training to the street.

    When I was working on my book Deadly Force Encounters, my coauthor Dr Artwohl and I found that 26 percent of officers involved in a deadly force incident, roughly one out of four, had thoughts that were intrusive and distracting during their shootings. Often the intrusive thoughts were bizarre, such as one officer who said that when a man shoved a gun in his face, his first thought was, “Wow, that is just like my partner’s gun. I wonder where he got it.”
    In the heat of battle, many people think of their family. One police officer said that during a gunfight, he had a vision of his three-year-old boy toddling around in front of him in his pajamas. These intrusive thoughts are not always distracting; sometimes they can serve as an inspiration or motivation, as in the case of another police officer in who was shot in the face. He says that a sudden thought about his young son motivated him to get up and return fire, killing his assailant.
    Psychologists don’t’ exactly know why we have these intrusive thoughts. We do know that positive self-talk has been proven to be highly beneficial, the most important of which is, “I will survive and keep going, no matter what.” Often, wounded police officers report that this was all they heard in their minds after they were shot, and it was essential to their survival. These are the kind of intrusive thoughts that we must program into our minds if we are to survive in combat.

  5. Hey Wim, I’ve had this happen to me as well working the door. I am a smaller guy so this is big for me. The last time this happened a recreational white powder user decided I was not big enough to be a bouncer and walks up to start a fight, i remember thinking boy this guy is tall, man he has long arms how do I get in on that, I think he has a weapon as well, this is gonna suck. Then he made a serious move towards me and all that shut off and I went into action and put him to sleep. I was really surprised in how much self talk went on as I have done this same thing many times. great topic

    • Thanks for the feedback Shaun. In my example, I had pretty much the same thoughts. Part of it was fear but another part was like yours, tactical stuff.
      it is inded weird when you look back and think about it: your brain has time to generate such thoughts when you’d think it’d be too busy finding solutions to the problem.

  6. I wrestled in high school and did judo in college and beyond, so one person does not scare me. I feel like that, when a whole group of young loud boundary-crossing rowdy roughians walk in. I turn fear into power and try to escort my girlfriend quietly and inconspicuously to an exit. It’s time to leave, when rowdy elements enter. One could end up like that poor marine, on leave, who just wanted to enjoy a movie on Xmas day.

  7. I was working as a bouncer in a bar here in town and a small group of guys clad in leather came in to do some drinking. One guy in particular stands out in my mind. I am 6 ft 2 in tall and about 250 lbs. (185 cm, 113 kg) This guy was taller and broader than me. He was at least 3 inches tall and probably had a good 20 or 30 pounds of muscle on me.

    I remember thinking. Ugh! I immediately started to think about what I would do to take him down and also avoid his buddies. However, I definitely approached the assessment process from the standpoint that I had a steep hill to climb.

  8. David Pirie says


    Having been a loss prevention officer and a bouncer for many years I’ve had lots of “incidents” with people, both big and small.

    To date, I have always been able to deescalate fights with people as a bouncer, or at least those who were directing their aggression at me (a different story when intervening in a third party conflict but they’re not usually interested in hurting me but rather getting through me to the other guy).

    Working in retail loss prevention is a different story though. People I’m arresting usually have a “fight, flight or freeze” response, so unless they freeze I don’t usually get the option to deescalate.

    Now, I take a certain amount of pride in my willingness to “tackle” (both literally and figuratively) shoplifting suspects regardless of their size, but I did have one incident where I chose not to make contact.

    I was surveilling a large man who was both tall and muscular (sorry, I can’t remember the details of his size). He was loading up a cart to do a “cart push” and when he finally did it I just “chickened out”. I can’t say why other than I remember thinking ,”Jesus, he’s a big fucker!”. I don’t remember him giving off a particularly “bad” vibe or anything, and I’ve arrested people his size and larger before, but this time I just chose to back off. Instead I followed him out, made note of his vehicle and license plate, and called the local P.D.

    I’ve made hundreds of arrests but I can only remember maybe a dozen–two dozen tops–with any detail, usually involving a good fight and/or foot chase. I’ve only had three get away from me once I made contact, but this guy sticks in my mind because he was the only one I ever let go…

    • There may be reasons for why you let him go but perhaps you can’t articulate them because it was your sub-conscious mind that picked them up. Or it might be something else. Who knows? The thing is, this stuff happens. My guess is, eventually it happens to everybody if you stay in the fire long enough. You didn’t get hurt, nobody else did either, so it was a good day.

  9. Dani Nemes says

    Hi Wim,

    I encountered just a few violent situatiuons in my life, and the pre-attack thoughts of me always were: “I wonder, what the fuck I’m gonna do now. What will I do next? Will I headbutt him? What am I gonna do? Will I hit him with my elbow? What am I gonna do?…” And every time what I did, it surprised me as well. I find it weird, but maybe guys with more experience have something to say about this.

    • Hi Dani,

      Maybe it worked so well just because it was a surprise for you? As in, no telegraphing because you didn’t know what was coming either. So maybe it’s not a bad thing?

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