I recently finished reading The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. It is a powerful book about the survival signals that protect us from violence. I think everyone could benefit from reading this book, women especially so. I recognized many components within its pages that I teach in my Vancouver/Richmond BC women’s self-defense class.
The Gift of Fear breaks down the process by which fear is generated and shows how it serves to warn us of danger. De Becker posits that fear is ignited by our subconscious mind, which is registering signals of danger that our conscious mind hasn’t seen or has dismissed through “logic.” I always teach women that when they experience real fear, the kind that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, they should listen to their instincts and take action to get away from the person or remove themselves from the situation that is causing the reaction. But this experience of acute fear is very different from the kind that many women experience on a day-to-day basis, a general fear that violence could happen to them randomly. This is not “authentic” fear, according to de Becker, but is actually worry, a form of fear that is manufactured, and it actually debilitates a person’s ability to sense real danger.
The Price of Worry
This distinction between fear and worry is vital. Women who constantly worry about their safety, looking at every man on the street as though they might be an attacker, looking around every bush as though they expect to find a man hidden there with a knife, keep themselves in a heightened, anxious state all the time. By doing this, they lose the ability to sense signals of danger when it’s actually present. As de Becker puts it, “We are far more open to every signal when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.”
The Price of Ignorance
On the other hand, there are women who prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than face the possibility of violence. These women believe that if you identify and name a risk that it somehow brings it about. This line of thinking, as de Becker puts it, goes on the logic that if we don’t see it and don’t accept it, it is prevented from happening. These are the kinds of women who avoid taking a self-defense class saying, “I really don’t want to put myself in a position in which I’ll have to think about it.” It is essentially a fear of fear. When faced with actual danger, they may see the signals they need to make an accurate prediction of what will happen, but then tell themselves they’re being ridiculous, only to walk straight into the lion’s den.
It’s About Balance
As with most things, the solution is balance. Women should make a habit of practicing caution and precaution in their daily routines, maintaining a relaxed state of awareness when they are out and about. Precaution means practices such as avoiding dimly lit unpopulated paths at night, avoiding plugging into their iPods when they go out for a run, taking a taxi instead of transit or walking when they’ve had too much to drink, etc. Caution means taking action when there is a reason to, like crossing the street if they think someone might be following, moving to the front of the bus if someone is making inappropriate, suggestive remarks, notifying building security if someone is suspiciously lurking a parking lot, etc. We need not live in a constant state of worry, but we also shouldn’t ignore potential risks. By practicing awareness we gain the confidence necessary to live free, but take action when action is required.