Fear, self-talk and self-defense, Part Two

In the first part of “Fear, self-talk and self-defense“, I mentioned the negative things that can pop into your mind when you’re about to go toe-to-toe with somebody. Like I explained there, it’s something that can happen to anybody. It doesn’t really matter how well trained you are or how much experience you have. Sometimes, your subconscious mind just decides to mess with you. But what can you do about it? Here are some ideas:

fear, self-talk and self-defense

Kratos, God of War, who feels no fear, aka *not* You

Accept it.

Start by accepting, at a gut level, that this can happen to you. You don’t have to like it, that’s not what I mean. But you have to accept that this can happen to any of us, including you.

Usually, when I say something like this to students or clients, I get a “Yeah, yeah, I got it.” type of response. Which is fine by me, it’s not my own training we’re talking about. It’s their ass on the line when they’re about to be shredded into little pieces by some behemoth street-punk who’s stoned out of his mind. Unfortunately, it’ll be too late to do anything about that little voice in your head when it sabotages your confidence by pointing out just how big that guy is.

The thing is, you can increase your odds of avoiding this situation. All you need is to anticipate it happening. To do that, you have to start by truly accepting you might fall pray to this negative kind of self-talk.

Unfortunately, we all have a tendency to avoid accepting such facts. I guess it’s human nature to rather ignore an ugly truth than face it and deal with it. If you’re real honest about it and can admit to this line of thinking here’s a way to break that self-induced illusion of being a fearless god of war. Though I have to warn you: it won’t be a fun ride.

  • Close your eyes and relax.
  • Focus on your body, relax your muscles and feel them. Feel the air going in and out of your lungs, feel your heart pumping blood throughout every part of you with each beat.
  • Now picture everything you love in life in vivid detail: your husband/wife, your children, your family, job, hobbies, etc.
  • When you have all this in your mind, say out loud:

I will die, they too will die, everything dies.

And then you imagine the great, empty void of space and time. The nothingness we all end up in, until the end of time…

If you can accept this, truly accept it for the fact of life it is (let’s leave religion out of this conversation, thank you), then you’re ahead of the game. It’s not a fun thing to do (and you can blame Jim Butcher for giving me the inspiration in one of his books.) but it helps putting things in perspective and face reality instead of the illusions you might not want to give up.

Illusions about self defense and your own skills are no different from this. Accept that you too, not matter how tough, trained or experienced you are, can fall prey to these negative thoughts when you find yourself in a self-defense situation.

If you don’t want to believe me, here are some comments from Loren on the previous post.  Believe him. His credentials are as good as it gets.

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.

Train for it

Now that you’ve dealt with the fact that your own sub-conscious mind might get in the way when you’re in a street-fight, here are some ideas you can use to work prepare for it in training:

  1. Positive self-talk. Like Loren said in the above comment, try to overwrite the negative thoughts preemptively with positive self-talk.  I don’t mean telling yourself “I have mad skillz, I am teh Mazter!!!” but more along the lines of “I’ll do whatever it takes to get home alive.” or “I’m not going down, no matter what.” or “I’m not going to give up, ever.”
  2. Educate yourself. Read books, talk to others who’ve been there, watch documentaries. In short, find out how it was for those who already experienced this and see which solutions they offer. I’ll give you some resources at the end of this article.
  3. Don’t be a slacker. You can’t fool your subconscious mind. If you haven’t been training regularly, it knows you haven’t. No matter how much you  lie to yourself, it knows you haven’t been putting in the hours of blood, sweat and tears at the gym. So it also knows that you aren’t as ready for violence as you could be and is more likely to spout off some negative thoughts to express the doubts it has on how well trained you are to handle that ugly looking mugger…
  4. Don’t die in training. When you do scenario training (or any other training really), don’t accept to “die” when you mess up. Don’t train to fail, train to overcome no matter what. Even if you get knocked down, would have been killed in a training drill, keep on going until you “win”. Obviously, you need a supervising party in those training sessions, to avoid things from escalating when you and your training partner go at it.
  5. When you do fight, fight for more than yourself. Here’s what Clint said about fighting five guys when he was the bouncer in a tough bar.

I started thinking about my kids and if I would see them again . A thousand things rushed through my mind. They separated 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 , don’t think I have ever seen you before. He then told me we went to school together 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 wasn’t from there he wouldn’t believe 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 adrenalized I couldn’t 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 was either hurt them or I would never see my kids again. Scared me pretty bad but I came out alive.

In a follow-up comment, he said this:

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 wasn’t being paid to start trouble. This was a time that talking meant I was weak and scared in their eyes. I couldn’t afford to let that happen.I don’t espouse violence as a solution to problems but it sometime be your only option. I didn’t know what these guys were planning or carrying so I had to do anything I could to go home

Fighting for something other than yourself is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to defeat negative thoughts. When you have more to live for than your own life, things change on a fundamental level. Here’s how I see it:

I have two kids and a kind lady I love very much. I want to grow old with her and see my kids grow up into adulthood and hopefully teach my grandkids how to kick the schoolyard bully’s ass. Every day when I go out, I want to come back home to them. I don’t want to go to jail, nor do I really want to hurt anybody else. But I don’t want to end up dead even less. I have responsibilities toward them as a father and a partner. I have to make it back in one piece, no matter what.

Looking at it that way, if negative thoughts do come up, you have another image to replace them with: getting to spend more time with your loved ones. All you have to do to achieve that result is fight your way out of the bad situation you’re in and get home in one piece. Despite all the fear you might feel or the thoughts undermining your determination, that’s your ultimate goal.

Some more information

Like I said, getting more information helps in accepting you’re human and could have such a negative thought in the moment you need it the least. Here are some books you should read. They’ll help you not only prepare for this eventuality but also give you  broader information about violence and how the human mind reacts to it. Highly recommended, every one of them.

On Killing
On Killing, the premier source for information on combat and it’s psychological aspects
On Combat
On Combat, the sequel to On Killing. Just as solid.
Sharpening the Warrior's Edge
An excellent book on preparing the mind for combat.


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  1. Kevin Keough says

    Curious. I found myself with mild but persistent recollections of violent encounters working every sort of psychiatric unit though heavily weighted on urban admissions units, state, VA’s, etc. along with a juvenile prison and detention center—-earlier this evening

    . I mentioned to Rory earlier that only once was I aware of anxiety-fear in well over 1000 take downs, not infrequently quick hog tying, transporting, and tucking them in with 4 pt leather restraints. “Patients” have rights that inmates, perps, predators, etc. don’t have——no strikes, no pressure, no pain. We seized and contained. The typical psych pt.is no more dangerous than the average normal citizen. That said, nobody in their right mind decides on a nasty, strong, enraged paranoid new admission as the strip searches happened; sometimes 2-3 simultaneously.

    The one time I ever wondered about an outcome was working a dual diagnosis unit that the hospital dumped all bad actors including CI: guys…..census of 40 —baddest and maddest indigent crazy mother fuckers —that I grew to love. Nursing administrators transferred all male staff to other units making it my job as “staff psychologist” to play “men in the white coats” for all of them with backup 15-20 min away. If you’ve never spent time doing it I will only suggest it is a good bit more hazardous than most imagine.

    Anyway, some nurses had pushed this guy’s buttons and enjoined doing it—big surprise a guy I got on well with turned strong as an ox, nimble as a fox, bucking like a horse, spitting out his intentions to beat these two staff members. I get a rear bear hug as he goes for one woman, fall backwards so I break his fall, and hold tight. Now more than 15 min have gone by, fatigue is coming, sweat is messing with my hold, i realize the nurses had not called for back-up, and were really slow getting the injection. Three knuckle heads started circling and talking about a mutiny and white on black assaults on pts.

    Anybody that says craziness isn’t contagious are dangerously ignorant. The male pts were looking for pay backs on the bullshit some staff on this unit had been playing. So, things are looking real interesting. Two things got me past that fuck me awareness. First, nobody could get hurt and there were no exceptions–unthinkable. Second, the black white stuff was Rodney King broiling hot. So, “you mother fuckers hit your beds now—fuck the cigarettes—now and I am not playing psychologist right now. You pick now to fuck with me as I am keeping “your brother” down ? fUCK THAT–he hurts them he goes to the big house. Now the dude is sobbing as he fights me.

    My daughter was 2.5 years old.

    I got out of that one via luck, impossibility that anyone could get hurt on my watch—-rooted in the real truth—-an image of my smiling baby girl who’d was waiting at home for her Daddy.

    Wim, the self-talk you discuss and then illustrate with Clint’s stories work for me. It was my baby girl. And it has been my kids for 23 and 19 years that has gotten me home most nights since.

    • Damn Kevin, that one could have turned real nasty. Glad to hear you came out in one piece.

      • Kevin Keough says

        Yeah, but in locked units where you live with the guys for 12-16 hours a day and you have time to get to know each other and reach certain unspoken “agreements” that minimize the worst for everyone

        First, they all knew I’d keep them as safe as humanly possible from staff member’s sadistic shenanigans, each other, orient and calm the rotating resident psychiatrists so the newbies’ overblown fears of the place didn’t lead to jacking up patient medicines en masse to “zombie zone” (better the young psychiatrists took xanax rather than inflict psychopharmacologic induced catatonia on 40 guys).

        Second, they had too much experience of life without somebody to maintain order in utter chaos and were sufficiently certain that I’d unleash “the way it worked on other units” if they violated our peace accord and embarrass the mutinous triads by lasso-ing their asses into seclusion faster than they could count to seven.

        So, I had prepared for such a scenario……still that baby girl worked her magic.

  2. My favourite writing on this subject comes from “Bushido Shoshinshu” (Code of the Samurai) by Daidoji Yuzan. The introduction is all about and I’m paraphrasing “Keeping Death in Mind.”

    Good Stuff,

  3. The following is a bit from a book I just completed with coauthor Lisa Place, Fight Back: A Woman’s Guide to Self-defense that Works and will be out in a few weeks. This cut if from a section on the power of self-talk.

    The words are from an East Coast police officer, New Jersey, if I recall correctly, who works in one of the most violent sections of his city. People die on the sidewalks there every week and he and his fellow officers have been bloodied many times in their struggle to maintain peace. This officer is most adamant about surviving in this world and, as you will read, his mindset is so powerful that he will never give up. I’ve cleaned up that language a little.

    “In my mind, I’m never going to die in the street. Absolutely never. If a man tries to punch me in the head, the fight is on. If he cuts me, the fight is on. If I’m shot, the fight is on. I’m not losing a fight to a scumbag out there in the street. Period. That’s it. No !%&*! out there is going to get me. The only way he gets me is to cut my head off, and I mean that. I’ll fight you as long as I have breath left in me. I don’t think any of those animals in that street can beat me. I’ve gone that way for 18 years patrolling those streets, and that’s the way I’m going to keep on going. In my mind, you don’t lose the fight.”

    If you saw the guy say these words you wouldn’t doubt him one bit. His intensity and his belief in what he says—and what he tells himself every day—is incredible

    • Thanks for this extra piece Loren. The officer’s mindset makes all kinds of sense. If you’re up to your neck in alligators every day, it doesn’t serve you well to think of them as cute pets that just grew too big to keep but are really sweethearts at the core.

    • Kevin Keough says

      Loren, do you know if he works Camden ? Just wondering ’cause it sounds like “Camden”. Right down I-95 in Wilmington, Delaware (aka “asshole of the Universe” as a friend calls it) we are giving serious thought to bringing in the National Guard pronto to quell the shite storm brewing in the city. The only serious alternative is to re-deploy state troopers and the county police to help keep the lid on things as they are in the Winter of 2011; 14-15 shooting deaths already this year primarily clustered in three neighborhoods; most active one is 4-7 blocks away in “Hilltop”. I wonder if the NJ cop credits our air pollution for some of his “going down is unthinkable, impossible, and not in the storyline” headset—-no, it is more than a headset—–you feel it in every cell, me thinks. I believe the air accounts for my version of his attitude. Gotta love city jungle air in the morning and evening.

      Dark humor aside, I admire his attitude. Having kids might trump the air in contributing to mindsets like his. I bet he is in Camden.

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