*Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote under a different name a long time ago.*

The cry of “Self defense!” is common among those who get into trouble for fighting. Often this is heard from both parties, which makes the statement suspect. The phrase “self defense” in essence means to protect oneself from harm by striking an attack or attacker so that you are not harmed. Self defense is a complex concept. The defining the word is the easy part. In terms of cultural and legal meanings, it gets even more confusing; however, the purpose of this article is to examine what goes into self defense, rather than what comes after.

There are four major concepts within the topic of self defense: knowledge, attitude, awareness, and skills. Each concept contributes to your personal safety. If any one of them is left out, the danger to yourself increases dramatically.


Simply put, Knowledge is knowing what’s out there. You may see on the local news that there was a murder two blocks over. You may read in the newspaper that there have been a string of robberies targeting convenience stores. You may hear on the radio that there is a major storm approaching quickly. These are items that serve to catch the attention. You now know that they took place and that finding yourself in a dangerous situation is an increased possibility.

Beyond the attention grabbers used by the various media, look at the details of the incident (or approaching situation). The murder victim was a reclusive man. He was killed when he surprised a burglar in his house. The convenience store robberies all took place in the Westlake area between the times of 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. The approaching storm is predicted to be the worst storm the city has seen in 50 years. These details tell you that the murder was an incidental killing and not done by a serial killer, it’s probably a good idea to stay out of the Westlake area convenience stores between 9:00 in the evening and 3:00 in the morning, and that covering the windows and making sure you have enough supplies for at least a week after the storm hits is a smart idea.


Most self defense courses and workshops will tell you that attitude is how you present yourself. Many will even tell you some basic body language to use: head up, shoulders back, relaxed gait. What is often left out is that attitude is as much internal as external, as much mental and emotional state as posture. This is not to say that such workshops ignore the internal aspect, just that they tend not to explicitly state it. In many ways it is easier and faster to fix the outward appearance. Since workshops rarely last more than half a day, the decision (a wise one in my opinion) is to spend more time teaching knowledge and skills.

The internal aspect of attitude should not be ignored, however. Confidence and mental readiness take longer to build, but will withstand more scrutiny on the streets. Most support groups have some form of the phrase “Fake it ’til you make it.” In essence, that is what one shot workshops teach in terms of attitude. By faking the appearance of confidence, you may prevent a possible predator from thinking of you as an easy target. That shell, however, is very thin. Those more observant will see the slight hesitation in the footsteps, the unusually fast breathing, the flickering eyes. With an internal framework of confidence and mental readiness, the exterior presentation is not a shell, but a natural byproduct.


If you closed your eyes right now, could you list off all the exits to the room you’re in? Could you tell which is the closest? Could you tell which would be the fastest to get through? Awareness is knowing what’s going on around you. Of all the components of self defense, awareness is the one that uses all five senses. Perhaps more so than attitude, having an active awareness takes work. It is also one of the hardest aspects to train. Though few instructors of self defense deny the importance of awareness, almost none bother to attempt to teach it in workshops. Most of the workshops I’ve attended merely give lip service to it. “You have to be aware. Be aware of people around you. Be aware of traffic.” After that, they move on to a different topic. No advice on how to be aware. Not even a short mental checklist for when you enter a room. To most people, awareness is passive. While there is a passive element to it, effective awareness is active.

When you walk into a room, where are the exits, where are the obstacles, who are the people, and what can be used as improvised weapons in the worst case scenario? A simple four item mental checklist allows people to feel in control of the situation. A person with a sense of control has more confidence than one who does not. An active awareness affects attitude. It also lets you know when something is wrong with a situation.


The last line of self defense are your skills. By skills, I don’t just mean fighting ability. Skills are your actions. They answer the question “What are you capable of doing?” A few of the self defense workshops I’ve attended focus on three or four release type skills and spend the rest of the time on learning how not to need them. Defusing a confrontation is one of the most valuable self defense skills a person can have. Successfully defusing a situation prevents the need for fighting. Having the people skills that allows you to avoid a confrontation in the first place is even better. If you end up with violence, all your other self defense skills have failed. It is only at that point, that you need to have a strong grounding in fighting skills. Conversely, and somewhat paradoxically, by having a strong foundation of fighting skills you provide the framework on which to build your knowledge, awareness, and attitude.

As an analogy, look at a play. Knowledge sets the stage of your day to day living. Knowing what the stage looks like is vital if you don’t want to trip over the props strewn about. Awareness is understanding the plot of life’s play. Once the ebbs and flows of the plot are determined, you have the opportunity to rewrite your part. If knowledge is the stage of living and awareness is the plot, attitude is the actor. Attitude sets the patterns of thinking and behavior. Skills are the acting in a play. They are what determines what happens.

Although Shakespeare was speaking of the stages of human existence in his famous soliloquy in As You Like It, we can use it to summarize the lines of self defense.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…

Knowledge, attitude, and skills are in the first three lines. Awareness, as life’s plot, is outlined in the subsequent 24 lines. To defend oneself is to prevent harm coming to you. Through knowledge and awareness, you can analyze any particular situation. Through attitude and skills you can change the situation. In all cases, self defense is very much an active, rather than reactive, event.