"That’s What the Police are for," & Other Myths about Self-Protection

I oversaw a violence prevention program run in a Midwestern inner city middle school in the early 90’s. During one of our classes, I was talking with one of the group members who had been shot a couple of years before (Yeah, let that sink in for a second). He said to me, “You know what surprised me the most about being shot, how much it f!@#$%g hurt!” How much it hurt? Are you kidding me? What did he think it would feel like?

Unfortunately, this young man had no realistic frames of reference as to what to expect in that violent encounter. Maybe, if he did, he would have made some different choices, maybe not. The point is, people have a lot of beliefs about violence and self-protection. Beliefs that they get from the media, beliefs that they get from partial stories from other friends, beliefs that they don’t even really realize that they have. In 30 years of training in combat arts and self-protection and 25 years of working in the field of psychology, 21 of which as a clinical and forensic psychologist, I’ve seen, heard, and discovered a lot of reasons why people do not develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to protect themselves both physically and emotionally. In this article, we will explore and address 10 of the most common reasons people give and beliefs that contribute to not taking self-protection training.

1. It won't happen to me.

One of the most common beliefs that leads people to not seek training is, “it won’t happen to me.” This is, by and large, accurate. As a matter of fact, not only is it unlikely, it is less likely than it has been in the past 20 years[1].

Wait a minute, “How is that a problem?” you might say. Simple. Do you wear your seat-belt? Do you tell your teenage son or daughter, “don’t bother wearing your seat-belt, the chances of you being killed on an auto accident if you’re the driver are only 1 in 113 and if you are an occupant its 1 in 606, so, there is no need to take this precaution? Of course not! Wearing your seat-belt is a small thing that you can do in case a big and unexpected thing happens that allows you to increase your odds of making it through it safely. Well, that is what self-protection training is.

2. If it happens, I'll just rise to the occasion and just act on instinct.

In a crisis, everybody freezes, at least for a moment. If you add to that sudden and unexpected violence, your ability to rationally think your way through a situation falls apart. You develop tunnel vision, your ability to create and process speech leaves you just like it did the first time you thought about asking that really hot guy or girl out. Motor skills deteriorate (ever try to sign your name when you were really upset?). Add to this a high amount of pain (imagine something suddenly hitting you in the back of the head, seeing stars, and feeling blood). When those things happen, people revert, they fall backwards on what they have done in the past. Do you have experience with this kind of situation? If the answer is “No,” then you are going to freeze. If the answer is “Yes, lots of them,” then we need to talk about making some life style changes.

You would never say, “I have never played a musical instrument, but I have heard Mozart a few times, and have seen someone play a piano on tv, so, I would be ready for playing a concert at Carnegie Hall. I’ll just rise to the occasion and act on instinct.”

3. Training that kind of stuff just makes you paranoid, always looking for something to go wrong.

The exact opposite is likely to be true! Training plus increased situational awareness means that you only alert to danger when there is credible danger and stand down when there is no reason to be on alert. Paranoia happens when you see everything as a potential threat. Being able to realistically assess threats and having confidence in one’s ability to protect themselves, should the need arise, provides a piece of mind, not paranoia.

4. I am too busy, don't have enough time for, or have too many family responsibilities to do that.

The brutally honest response to this is, “How many of those responsibilities do you think you can get done from your hospital bed, or worse?” Like virtually every other preventative or maintenance things that people do, this never feels urgent until you need it. You don’t start knitting your parachute when you’re in the plane!

5. It's all a bunch of B.S.. It doesn't really work and you will probably just end up getting yourself hurt.

This commonly held belief is just plain wrong. Almost everyone knows a story about someone who was robbed, sexually assaulted, car jacked, or some other violent offence. Many people know stories of someone who was hurt, maybe badly, during that offense, but knowing how to recognize a bad situation, avoid it if you can, flee from it if you can’t avoid it, de-escalate it if you can’t flee, and fight if you can’t flee increases the odds of stopping the violent offence by more than 50% and increases the chances that you will get hurt worse than if you didn’t fight at all by only 3%! Yep, you double the chances that you stop it and increase the risk of getting hurt by 3%. This is according to the largest study conducted, to date, looking at the effects of how people’s responses to attacks effect the outcomes of the attacks[2].

6. If something bad happens it's just going to happen, no matter how much training you have.

Do you practice that same philosophy with everything in your life? You know, if I am going to stub my toe, then I am going to stub my toe, what’s the use in putting on shoes today, Really??? If someone is going to rob me, then they are going to rob me, why bother putting my money in my pocket, I should just leave it setting on the dash board of my unlocked car with the windows rolled down and the keys in it while I go in to watch Gone With the Wind (sorry Clark Gable fans).

7. That's what the police are for.

Uhm, actually, NO! Unless you are a police officer or married to one and standing next to them when you are being attacked, then police will almost always arrive after, not while the attack is going on. Like it or not, you are the first responder. You are the one person guaranteed to be there, during any assault, who will be there on your side and there to protect you.

8. I'm too __________( fill in the blank "old, young, heavy, frail, injured, passive, damaged...), to learn self-protection.

If you are having this thought, take it as evidence that you need to learn self-protection. People believing that they have to wait for some other condition to arise before it is the right time to learn to protect themselves miss the entire point of self-protection. I have never heard of a situation where, in the middle of an attempted mugging, the victim said, “wait, I am too fragile and passive to be attacked,” and the assailant said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were a little better prepared to fight me off. Here is my card. Please go learn self-protection skills, work on your self-esteem, strengthen your bones, and then call me. We can resume this at that point in time. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a nice rest of the evening.”

9. I'll learn that later.

(See numbers 1-8)

10. It's ok I don't need it, I have my conceal carry permit and I carry.

OK, so, lets drill down on this one a little bit. Let me first tell you that I am a proponent of training and the lawful carrying of concealed firearms (in the states and areas where it is legal). If you carry, be honest with yourself, when was the last time you practiced drawing your weapon? How quickly were you able to do it? Was it under optimal conditions such as footing and light? If the person was less than an arm’s length away (the average distance that an assault occurs from) would you have been able to draw your weapon? Could you have retained it if the assailant grabbed it? What if you fell to the ground? Have you ever practiced fighting someone off of you, on the ground, while someone was on top of you trying to grab your weapon? I think you get the point. Actual assaults are dynamic, fluid, and fast.

There are plenty of other stories that people are told and that they tell themselves that stop them from taking action, learning, practicing, and confronting their own barriers to learning to protect themselves. Some of them may be accurate, some may be inaccurate, some may be true, but not very helpful. Honestly asking yourself if any of these beliefs are ones that you hold, and what it costs you believing them may be the kind of thing that lets you notice and recover your power to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy, safe, and secure.

Dr. Kennedy is a clinical, forensic, and sports psychologist and a consultant in the areas of threat assessment, small business, corporation, and organizational safety, and self-protection. Dr. Kennedy can be contacted for consultation at (937) 383-3565 or drkennedy@psyd.org.

[1] FBI Uniform Crime Reporting https://www.ucr.fbi.gov/

[2] Kleck , G., & Tark, J. (2004, December 27). Draft Final Technical Report: The Impact of Victim Self Protection on Rape Completion and Injury.

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