"How do you overcome the fear of being physically hurt by someone?"
"What do you do when you have to confront someone that's stronger and a better fighter than you and you know they always can 'push the violence' button if things escalate?"
In the BROJO forums this week, this question provoked some great discussion on bullying, self-defense, and how to best respond in situations where you feel physically threatened.
The original question added some background...
"I think a lot of people like me who had been physically punished during childhood have some sort of fear of confronting people especially those who are bigger that them. As you can tell, [for me] the keywords 'bigger' and 'physical' bring back difficult memories from childhood.
"How do you change that?"
If you're struggling with the fear of confrontation, and worry about being physically harmed by someone, this article is for you.
However, before I begin, I need to make it clear that I'm not a conflict-resolution expert. I don't defuse violent situations for a living. Everything I'm about to say is based on my own personal experiences and knowledge, and both are limited here.
Still, perhaps my experiences will help you re-frame yours, and try something new.
My Life Experiences
When you're threatened with violence, your heart leaps in your throat. Your threat-response system kicks in and tries to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze. You feel panicked, and trapped, and want to do all 3 at the same time.
It's no fun.
As a young boy, I wasn't large, or aggressive. I was quiet and introspective, and as a result I caught the attention of the occasional bully who wanted to impress their friends.
It didn't help that I had a fear of confrontation, and little physical strength or speed- I was an easy target. I managed to make it through childhood with zero actual fights, by simply avoiding bullies, and keeping to myself.
On the few occasions that called for it, I found that I could run like a frightened gazelle, leaping fences when I had to.
Oh the memories. Coming home from school could be so fun.
Since then, I've found that running from confrontation isn't always the best answer. It leaves the problem unresolved- and more importantly, you lose something on the inside... self-confidence perhaps, or self-esteem and self-respect.
Whatever it is, I got sick of feeling that way, and have since reframed confrontation in a much more suitable way.
To improve your own situation, it's important to reflect both on how prepared you are before a fight occurs, and how to best handle yourself during a fight.
First, Be Prepared
Do you feel ready for a fight? If someone threatened or attacked you right now, do you feel that you would panic? What would you say? What would you do?
It's natural for your emotions to escalate when you're threatened- but if they're going off the charts, you won't be able to respond as effectively.
High cortisol - the feeling of panic - is often a worse enemy here than that bully. It will affect your ability to think and respond rationally. To see the big picture. To control your response intelligently.
Being prepared for a violent confrontation makes all the difference, because with preparedness comes confidence.
Your Mental Response - What Should You THINK?
When you're in a fight, your rational thinking will be limited. Don't wait until then to prepare your rational thoughts- it will be far too late.
In particular here we're talking about focusing your attention on 4 specific things;
- Why is this person threatening you, and what are their intentions?
- Who else is around?
- Where can you escape?
- Are there weapons around?
Let's look at each of these.
#1 - Why is this person threatening you, and what are their intentions?
Is this person raging, over-emotional, frustrated, and looking for someone to acknowledge and understand their pain? Did they just have a horribly bad day, and you undeservingly ended up in the line of fire?
Or are they intending to harm you?
This one question may well be the most important question of the moment, and yet the most difficult to answer. Worse, the answer might change mid-argument at any time.
The reason this answer is so important is that it determines your reaction. Are you going to talk this out, and seek to de-escalate the situation? Or is that possibility gone and you need to actively protect yourself?
Ultimately you want to be fully capable at both talking and defending yourself, but choosing which option to use will always be a crucial decision.
#2 - Who else is around?
Do you have allies?
Don't depend on them to jump in, but having allies helps. If nothing else, they're "safe", which means that staying near them may afford some protection. They're an unknown quantity to your attacker, and they're witnesses to their behavior too.
It's very important that you don't rely on bystanders for help, due to a psychological phenomenon known as The Bystander Effect. People typically won't help, particularly when others are also present- though you might have better luck with close friends or family. Don't blame them, just accept that this is the reality of human psychology.
Does your antagonist have allies?
They're probably a threat here. Be very aware of them. Unless you are trained in fighting multiple attackers, don't allow them behind you.
#3 - Where can you escape?
Which direction can you run that provides the most safety?
Towards or into your "allies" may be helpful, because it creates a barrier between you and the attacker, and confusion. As I've mentioned, don't expect anyone to help you, but you might get lucky too.
The exception of course, is if your attacker is armed, out-of-control or extremely violent, they you may be putting others at risk.
Making snap judgements here is essential.
Are you safer behind cover? Or do you need to create distance? Is there a door you can lock?
If you're lucky, your intuition sparked up before things went sideways, and if so you had a few moments to assess the situation before the shitstorm happened.
Use those moments wisely, and remember- panic is your enemy.
In urban warfare, groups move slowly from position to position always making certain they have multiple exit options, and that they're fully aware of risks and cover. In that environment, making good decisions is essential, so rushing and panicking is simply not an option...
Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
#4 - Are there weapons around?
Be aware of anything that can be used as a weapon.
Guns and knives, sure- but that also means a beer bottle, a pool stick, a rock.
Why? Because it can be used against you.
This next part is my personal, unresearched opinion- and I'm open to being challenged here.
Unless you are trained in weapon use, I personally do not recommend that you try to arm yourself and use a weapon. Chances are you'll just enrage or taunt your attacker, and your situation is not much improved.
If you are unskilled with the weapon, or hesitate to shoot / stab / club your attacker, then you can be easily disarmed and at that point, it's far more likely they'll use that same weapon on you.
Why? Because they feel like you've just threatened them with violence, and proven your guilt. In their over-emotional mind, it's likely that you're the bad guy here, not them.
See the problem?
And that's not all. if you're forced to use that weapon because you've enraged someone, and you stab or shoot them, what are the repercussions for you? You would have to clearly prove self-defense, and that may be difficult if you were the only one armed.
But this is just my opinion.
Instead, you can seek to make the weapon inaccessible by staying between your attacker and that weapon, or- by grabbing that weapon and tossing it out of reach.
At the very least, this creates space between you and the weapon- if they go for it, you get added time to create distance and safety.
Again, all of this depends on you being clear-minded and aware of the circumstances of your situation, so make these decisions early, before the cortisol hits.
Your Verbal Response - What Can You SAY?
It's helpful to have a few prepared statements ready to go before a confrontation ever happens.
This is not the time for a debate- in this situation, their rational mind has already flown the coop. On a lot of levels, you're pretty much dealing with a rather large and violently angry 3 year-old.
Your goals are to;
- Acknowledge their emotion
- Show that they have your your awareness & attention
- Bring the attention of other people nearby to the situation
- Demonstrate confidence and self-control ( rather than panic )
- "State-break", or disrupt their emotional state. If you can cut through their emotion, you may be able to reach their rational thoughts, and you stand the best chance of de-escalating the their emotions and avoiding violence altogether. If not, at least you tried. State-breaking is very powerful, and is worthy of its own study if you want to master your social skills here.
What to say...
Which statements you use will depend on what you think is happening in their mind, but here are some examples.
If someone is highly emotional and agitated...
"Wow, sounds like you're having a bad day."
"Hey! I can see your angry, let's talk it out."
If someone misunderstood your comment, or took it badly...
"Whoa! I didn't mean any offense."
If you spilled your drink on someone...
"Wow that sucks! I am such a klutz."
If you asked out a guy's girlfriend accidentally while he was at the bar getting drinks...
"Damn! You're a lucky man, I can see why she chose you."
"You two have a great night."
Speak very loudly, and clearly, and don't rush. Be brief, and use simple words. Pretend you're on stage speaking to an audience of 3 year olds.
Speaking loudly and taking your time will be perceived as confidence and self-control. It will confuse them that you're not immediately cowering in fear... clearly, you're less afraid than you should be... so you know must something that they don't.
Also, they are "seeing red" and their ears are ringing- you need to cut through that noise in their head, in order to reach anything resembling rational thinking. Bonus- you want everyone in the room to hear, and see what's happening.
This is no longer a private conversation.
Make it a performance.
If you are naturally funny, making the right joke at the right moment can completely break someone's negative emotional state. But only do this if you're skilled and natural with humor.
Your Physical Response - What Can You DO?
We instinctively fear the unknown- especially when we predict it will hurt.
Overcoming the fear of physical confrontation comes down to familiarizing yourself with that situation, so that your mind, body, and emotions are prepared.
There are two main things you can focus on;
#1 - Learn self-defense
**Develop the basic skills that enable you to defend yourself effectively.**
Studying martial arts is the most effective way to do this, but even a boxing class at the gym would help.
I liked karate, it had a lot of elements I found useful, but many prefer Krav Maga for its focus on practical situations like being attacked with a knife or gun, begin attacked at the ATM, or carjacked, etc. It's very situation-oriented.
Choose a martial art that you like ( and enjoy practicing ), and that creates advantage for you. Here's my take on where you might start-
- Are you large and powerful? Consider Judo.
- Are you mid-sized and fast? Boxing, kickboxing, karate, or groundfighting / BJJ.
- Are you tall and have long legs? Taekwando.
- Are you short and light? Krav Maga, and aikido may be your best bets.
Even Very Large Humans have weaknesses, which superior knowledge, training, speed can exploit. Krav Maga is just ruthless. Watch some of Bas Ruttens fight videos if you really want to up your self defense game against larger opponents.
#2 - Learn to take a hit
We fear most what we don't know, and if you have no idea what taking a punch or a kick feel like, you'll be far more anxious. That fear will affect your ability to think, and your ability to respond - and your visible anxiety will identify you as an easy target.
You really don't need your mind working against you, so make it a priority to sort that out.
You'll be surprised that a punch doesn't hurt as much as you imagine, and pain focuses you like nothing else.
Also, it's entirely possible that the confrontation might start with you getting hit, from behind, before you even knew what happened. You're in a bar, someone freaked out. Boom! You've been hit... immediately, your brain needs to know what happened.
You need to know how to recover quickly from that woozy, confused state, and get your wits about you so you can react intelligently.
Fight! Engaging in a Threatening Confrontation
Great, now you've been training in your favorite martial art for some years. You're feeling more confident, and you know that you could probably handle yourself in a fight.
Suddenly, one day, you're confronted by someone who is threatening you.
Accept Your Emotional Reaction
Being physically threatened sucks.
As I described at the beginning of this article...
Your heart leaps in your throat. Your threat-response system kicks in and tries to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze. You feel panicked, and trapped, and want to do all 3 at the same time.
But all of these emotional and physiological responses are entirely normal, and are designed over millions of years to help keep you alive.
Let those feelings wash over you. and pass out the other side.
Your emotions are simply saying,
"There might be danger here."
Thanks emotions, message received, 100%.
Now you can let go of those emotions - they've served their purpose - and focus on the real problem at hand.
Decide Whether There's a Threat
Why is this person threatening you, and what are their intentions?
Your response hinges entirely on this.
I've touched on this above, but it deserves repeating.
Humans are complex beings, and our behaviors and moods can be affected in dramatic ways by everything from;
- extreme stress, anger, or depression
- neurological or psychological conditions
- hormonal, neurotransmitters & chemical imbalances
- drugs & alcohol
You need to have an idea what you're dealing with. If your antagonist is in a steroid rage, extremely drunk or in a diabetic coma... you likely have no hope of talking them down.
I've been threatened before by an angry, knife wielding flatmate, who was drunk off his ass. The next day, he had no memory of the incident.
Don't assume your opponent is thinking with their whole brain.
Choose Your Response
My approach is generally "words, feet, forearms, fists."
What I mean by that is that I give preference to my responses in that order of priority;
- Words - First, attempt to communicate, state-break, discuss, seek to understand, empathize, de-escalate, and resolve the problem.
- Feet - Leave the situation, any way possible. Sometimes you can walk out the door, Sometimes you'll get a good sprint in on the way.
- Forearms - If you have no other choice but to fight, then fight- however if you're the superior fighter, you can simply defend yourself easily against an unskilled attacker. By "forearms", I'm referring to simple blocks, parries, sidesteps. Soon they'll tire, feel stupid, and the anger will fade, likely becoming embarrassment. Or else they'll give up trying to hit you, and bite you instead. Happened to me once.
- Fists - The last resort, put them down. If you're unable to simply defend yourself, and you have to protect yourself or someone you love, put that attacker down fast. Subdue them quickly with the least permanent damage possible. A swift kick in the nutsack, a leg sweep landing them breathless on their back, a grapple and choke hold- use what you've trained for. Commit to this decision 100%, you can't be half-assed about it... but understand that if you've gotten to this point, you've already lost. Violence is a no-win situation. If you lose, you lose, and if you win, you still lose. This is a last resort, and there will be consequences either way.
But... You Coward!
"Isn't it cowardly to run? Shouldn't a man choose to stand and fight first?"
Let's be real- modern societies frown on violence. Even if you're "in the right"- even if they attacked first- winning the fight can have consequences. You may get injured, or you may injure them and have medical bills to pay. You may have to prove to the police that you acted in self-defense, and had no other choice.
"But, I've trained for this, shouldn't they be taught a lesson?"
In some US states, if you're a 3rd degree black belt in any martial art, you're automatically "at fault" if you're involved in a fight where someone is injured.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Look at the options.
- If you fight, and lose, you'll likely suffered a far greater harm than if you'd talked it out or left the situation.
- If you fight, and win, what have you won? Are you friends now? Will they like and respect you tomorrow? Chances are, they'll just ambush you with more friends.
This is why I say that fighting is a no win situation.
Choose it only when you have no other choice.
I hope my thoughts have given you more to consider when you reflect on threats & violence and how to respond to it.
If there's one key takeaway, it's this...
Preparedness Is Everything.
- Sort out your thoughts in advance
- Sort out your verbal responses in advance
- Sort out your fight / flight decision in advance
- Sort out your self-defense and verbal skills in advance
- Sort out your fear of getting hit, or being confronted, in advance- practice these things in the dojo
Do these things in advance because in-the-moment you will have zero time or capacity to think or react rationally.
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Verbal Skills can be divided into hard and soft skills.
Soft skills include;
- Acknowledging their emotions
- Identifying with their pain
- Discussing solutions
Hard skills include;
- A commanding, loud, assertive voice
- Direct statements- "Stop", "Don't touch me", "Don't come near me"
- Calling on the attention of others