Physical, mental, and emotional self-awareness are crucial components of self-defense. Many predators are very adept at assessing people’s vulnerabilities and needs. Hardening yourself as a target starts with an honest, objective self-assessment.
Personality can be described as habitual characteristics of behavior, temperament, and emotions. Think about what you project about yourself to others. How do others generally perceive you? Do you come across as assertive? Shy? Demure? Compliant? Quiet? Cooperative? Trusting? Suspicious? Domineering? Strong-willed? Weak? Insecure? What personality traits make you a soft or a hard target? Are you easily flattered, impressed, or otherwise influenced by other people? Which type of people or under what circumstances?
Your current mood and constitution
Predators are also generally attuned to their targets’ vulnerabilities due to their current moods and physical constitutions. When you are lonely or sad, for example after a recent loss or break-up, you may be more susceptible to someone’s charm, manipulation, or faked solicitude than when you are physically and emotionally healthy and strong. The serial killer Ted Bundy was a master at tuning into his victims’ physical and emotional conditions. For example, one of his victims had just broken up with her boyfriend. Another one was preoccupied with exams.
Your passions – how people connect with you
Also think about your passions. Do people use your social, political, recreational or other interests to attempt to manipulate you? Predators sometimes fake shared interests to gain their targets’ trust and make them let down their guard. Obviously, most people enjoy social interaction with others who share their interests. A lot of us do. But be careful when new acquaintances try to use your passion to force trust or to manipulate you into doing things you wouldn’t do otherwise.
Your current focus
Make a habit of asking yourself, where is my focus? For instance, as you are running in the early morning hours with few people on the trails and your thoughts wander to your work or kids, train yourself to return your focus to your surroundings.
Throughout the day, whether we are driving on a freeway, walking down a city sidewalk, or enjoying our morning run, our thoughts digress. For instance, you may be worrying about an exam, a presentation at work, or your sick dog. You may be fatigued or worn out by a nasty cold. You may be upset about an argument with your spouse or a friend. Pre-occupation with thoughts about the past or the future often diverts our attention from our environment. Thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, for instance pain from a sore throat, can all distract us from sensing and processing signals from the world around us. One way to harness your situational and environmental awareness is to make it a habit to refocus on the present moment.
At a seminar at the annual Martial Arts Industries Association conference in 2014, a presenter suggested that we should ask ourselves periodically, “Where am I? What am I doing? What should I pay attention to right now?” This is good advice for business; it’s also a good habit for safety. It’s so easy to tune out as we are driving or walking or doing anything else throughout the day. This simple series of questions can bring us back to the here and now. And that is where we need to be so that situational awareness can protect us against ambush as well as accidents.
Awareness of your physical self: gait, posture, and demeanor
Mental and emotional self-awareness is your first step to hardening yourself as a target of opportunistic predatory violence. Another crucial step is physical self-awareness.
Researchers Betty Grayson and Morris Stein conducted a classic study on victim selection with prison inmates convicted of violent crimes like armed robbery, rape, and murder. They showed the inmates videos of pedestrians walking down a busy New York City sidewalk and asked them to identify people they would pick as targets. The criminals’ answers were remarkably uniform even though they couldn’t articulate their criteria. Analysis of the videotapes showed that the inmates’ victim selections were based on perceived vulnerability and lack of environmental awareness rather than other criteria like size or gender.
The preferred victims’ postures, gait, body language, and general demeanor were similar in that they signaled timidity and weakness. For instance, their posture was slumped and their gait lacked “synchrony” or fluidity and wholeness. Shuffling, a short or awkward stride, and a general lack of athleticism and of awareness were seen as signs of vulnerability and weakness. The Stein/Grayson study suggests that people demonstrating environmental and situational awareness and athletic, fluid body movements are less likely to be targeted.
You can project more assertive body language by practicing these postures and movements:
- Roll your shoulders back and straighten them.
- Lift your chin.
- Look around you with a relaxed demeanor, rather than looking down.
- Walk with a comfortable, fluid stride.
- Keep your hands out of your pockets and unencumbered.
- Engage in physical activity that you enjoy and that helps you become comfortable with you body and with movement.
Awareness of your voice and how it’s perceived by others
Our voices also communicate assertiveness as well as insecurity and vulnerability. You can train yourself to sound more assertive. Start by becoming aware of the tone of your voice, and its rate, pitch, and inflection. Work on developing a calm and confident tone. Talk with a moderate rate, not too fast and not too slowly. Listen to the pitch of your voice. Practice for a moderate pitch, neither too high not too low. When we are suddenly afraid and the autonomous nervous system activates a sympathetic nervous system response, our voice changes and becomes high pitched, raspy, and fast. We can counter this effect by slow breathing: breathing in slowly, holding our breath for a second, breathing out even more slowly, and then repeating the sequence. Slow breathing can calm us physically as well as mentally.
It’s especially important to note the inflections at the end of your sentences. If you raise your voice at the end of a sentence you’ll sound unsure. For instance, when you tell someone, “I’m not interested” or “Leave me alone” and raise your voice at the end, you may well be perceived as asking a question or making a plea, rather than giving a command. If your inflection stays at the same level, the voice signals a willingness or invitation to continue interaction. You may also be perceived as being unsure of your intent. When you watch national news with experienced broadcasters, listen to their use of inflection. As long as someone’s presentation is continuing, they’ll also continue with the same inflection. At the end of their statement, they will lower their voice. Practice lowering your voice at the end of the sentence when you give a direction, and you’ll instantly sound more assertive.
Good self-awareness is a great way to start hardening yourself as a potential target.