The Psychology of Self- Defense


I was recently having a discussion with some people whose political views vary greatly from mine. I was advocating for a strong military, and expressed criticism of the actions of President Barrack Hussein Obama, in that as observed by Dinesh D’Souza, (YATV, 2016) he has “weakened our military, and alienated us from our allies”, while our national debt has doubled under his presidency. I expressed concern that if Hillary Rodham Clinton were to get into the White House, our nation would be further weakened. When I said I advocated for a strong military, one of my listeners was outraged. You want war then?? No, absolutely not. I want peace. However, in order to have peace, there must be the threat of a response if attacked. So the world should be run on fear?? That is an over-simplification. Here are my in-depth thoughts:

Weakness draws aggression

A basic premise of human psychology is that a display of weakness will draw the attention of a predator. A predator will move on their target if they think they can succeed. Doubt, uncertainty, hesitation, timidity, and fear will all encourage a predator. This applies on an individual level, in Middle schools, Maximum-security correctional facilities, seedy bars, inner city neighborhoods, and rural areas, where your reputation is very important. This premise of psychology also applies on a collective level, between nations. Through deterrence, there has not been a war between major world powers in 71 years. The only use of nuclear weapons was in the last war between major world powers. The nightmare of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) kept the peace in an imperfect world (Vox, 2016). 

Peace through strength

Si Vis pacem parabellum. If you want peace, prepare for war. This applies on an individual level as well as an international one. By developing and maintaining the appearance of someone who is capable, you can deter aggression (United States Krav Maga, 2010; Shankman, 2012) By developing skills and the willingness to use them; you will be more capable of handling aggression if deterrence fails.

Part of this is:

  1. Awareness- of your surroundings
  2. Avoidance- the conscious choice to steer clear of a potential threat, which can often mean swallowing pride and ego.
  3. De-escalation- dialing down your emotions and then someone else’s if steps one and two fail (Kane, & Wilder, 2010).

(For more in-depth discussion of this topic, one must read The Little Black Book of Violence, The Big Bloody book of Violence, Meditations on Violence, and everything on the No-nonsense Self Defense site).

Avoiding Extremes: Never again

Another facet of the complexity that is human psychology is that once victimized, you may go to extremes. One of these extremes is the Never Again mode, aka Reaction Formation. In Reaction Formation, there is s gravitation toward the polar opposite of whatever is associated with a traumatizing event, such as being mugged, raped, assaulted, or years of bullying or child abuse. I have seen this extreme played out many times in my career as a psychotherapist. The woman who is a victim of domestic violence says Never Again. She starts working out, gets into martial arts, and gets a gun. Please hear me carefully:

  • Everybody should work out. I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t. Run, bike, swim, lift weights, do BEW (Body Weight Exercises) walk, throw a Frisbee to a K-9 friend, or at least take the stairs instead of the elevator. Better yet, do all the above.
  • Martial arts, when taught by a good instructor in a good school, is a worthwhile investment for the fitness benefits alone, as well as comradery, and developing balance, agility, and coordination.
  • I totally support gun ownership as a cherished right, guaranteed by a constitutional amendment.

I do not advocate unhealthy extremes and misdirected effort.

In college, I knew a woman who was a serious weightlifter. I learned she trained so hard because she had a series of loser boyfriends who beat her, and she wanted to get strong enough to fight back. Yes, workout, yes, get strong, yes, takes exemplary care of your body. However, not for this reason. You don’t need to get stronger so you can fight your latest loser of the week who likes to hit women. You need to start asking yourself why you choose losers, and change these behaviors, because they are not working, and you keep getting into dangerous situations.

In the Never Again mode, it is too easy to start looking of trouble, to overestimate your abilities, and charge headlong into situations that you’re not ready for. A four-hour course in self-defense does not prepare one for any violent encounter, any more than a four Red Cross First Aid course qualifies one to do surgery. In the Never Again mode, it may be too easy to antagonize others, so you can have the opportunity to be aggressive, and get payback of the years of hurt inflicted on you. This can result in legal problems of excessive use of force if you “win”, serious injury or death if you bite off more than you can chew, humiliation and a rude shock if you find out your skills are not as well developed as or effective as you thought they were, or alienation from others because you perpetually walk around looking pissed off at the whole world, swaggering glowering, accidently printing or flashing your concealed firearm. Moreover, talking about what a badass ass- kicker you are, or how “your hands are registered with the police”.

Avoiding extremes: Over & Over again

He opposite extreme is to re-live the trauma, through the Repetition Compulsion (Diamond, 2008). People undergoing the Rep-Comp place themselves in high-risk situations that replicate the trauma that was endured. This is an irrational, but very powerful drive to rewrite history, and live out a similar situation, with a better outcome. An example is the woman who is raped. The Rep-Comp would be placing herself in very high risk stations with strange men, picking up the most dangerous and unsavory looking characters, having sex with them in a hotel room, or their place, or a car- somewhere with no witnesses, no cameras and in a physically vulnerable position. They have sex, and now the perception is there- I did it. I picked up a stranger, had sex with them, and it was all dune my control, by my consent, and I was in charge. That feeling will last a week or two, then fade, to be replaced by doubt and uncertainty. The woman goes out again, finds another candidate, and repeats the action. Maybe this time the gets too rough, or she changes her mind, but it is too late.

Do you value yourself enough to defend yourself?

Abusers and bullies condition their victims not to resist. Sun Tzu said you should fight only a demoralized and broken enemy, the actual military action is just the coupe grace (Sun-Tzu, & Griffith, 1964). Abuser and bullies know this premise intuitively. They want an easy job. . Human predators are drawn to those who project weakness, through behaviors often rooted in childhood trauma, and then they finish the job on their self-esteem and self-worth. They wear down their victims over time, convincing them they are worthless, useless, incompetent, fat, ugly, incapable, encouraging dependence. The combination of fear of physical assault is only a part of the reason why victims don’t resist or escape. The Fight/Flight/Freeze survival mechanism is short-circuited by conditioning from the abuser.


Valuing yourself also means having the discipline, sell control and perspective not to take things to extremes where you become the aggressor. This means neither reaction forming, and becoming a mall ninja, (Wheat, 2011), or a Tacti- cool wanna be operator, nor foolishly placing yourself in harm’s way, daring fate and a disturbed individual to not hurt you. If you are doing either of these things, it is long past time to find a good therapist. There is something not right and you are going to get hurt or in trouble, or both.


Diamond, S.A. (2008). Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: Repetitive Relationship Patterns. Psychology today. Retrieved May 5, 2016 from

Kane, L., & Wilder, K. (2010). Little Black book of Violence. YMMA: Wolfsboro, NH

Sun-Tzu, & Griffith, S. B. (1964). The art of war. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Shankman, P. (2012). How To Avoid Being a Victim, Anywhere, Any Time. Retrieved April 26, 2015, from

United States Krav Maga. (2010). Do You Look Like a Victim? United States Krav Maga’s blog. Retrieved April 26, 2015, from

Vox. (2016). How deterrence is changing, explained by Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Retrieved May 5, 2016 from

Wheat, B.T. (2011). Mall ninja Street smarts. SWAT magazine. Retrieved May 5, 2016 from

YATV. (2016). The Dangers of Radical Islam. YATV. YouTube. Retrieved May 5, 2016 from




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