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Step up and step forward (Attitude and Fear in self-protection)

Attitude is the atom of effective, efficient and practical self-protection. It should make up every element of what is being taught and reminding individuals of its importance should be done tirelessly. Explaining this to a child is as fundamental as it is to an adult. Unfortunately, it is all-too-easy to get lost in scenarios and techniques both in relation to personal security and self-defence. However, there is no excuse. Without an attitude, nothing really works, especially in stressful situations. This brings us onto the real topic of this blog post: fear.


To have a good attitude to self-protection is to have a rational understanding of fear. Children are all-too-familiar with fearful experiences no matter how much their parents might try to protect them from actual danger. To discount it is to ignore the influence of the amygdala, one of the most primal regions of the brain that probably evolved around the time certain species of animals transitioned from living in water to life on land. There is a good reason why pop psychologists refer to our most primal feelings as being part of our reptilian brain. In fact, the existence of the amygdala goes back further than reptiles to our much older amphibian ancestors. Therefore, humans have never been without fear and the first homo-sapiens were born with an already highly developed fear processor that had been through over three million years of adaption. Our very survival is dependent on our ability to fear. Just as we teach the importance of having a good attitude, so should we teach the fact that everyone fears.



From an infant’s earliest recollections, they will have experienced some form of fear, whether it is from a genuine threat or their imagination. This is why, when working with the four to seven-year-old category, the Animal Instincts programme addresses the issues of separating reality from fantasy in a child’s mind. A young child is more likely to be scared by a non-existent bogeyman than if it is the very real and lethal bottle of bleach. However, contrary to wishful thinking, distinguishing between bad and good fear doesn’t disappear with age. It just gets more sophisticated. This is why all Animal Instincts courses will address the nature of fear and how its understanding should be taught according to the age group.


Good fear is largely tied to awareness training. It’s still a part of attitude training, because being alerted to a danger is of little use if no positive action is taken. The case studies in Gavin De Becker’s seminal work The Gift of Fear demonstrate just how natural being aware actually is in the average person. Unfortunately, it also shows how social conditioning influences an individual to override danger signs in our fellow human beings. Attitude prompts us to listen to our gut and to take the appropriate action.


Bad fear groups together everything that falls outside an individual’s comfort zone and limits their development and/or progress. Some bad fear takes the form of irrational fear, a trait far from exclusive to humans, and can become a superstition, even manifesting in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder behaviour. Bad fear can be quite rational. An individual might avoid doing something because doing so is likely to result in some degree of pain – be it actual physical pain, such as aching muscles, or emotional pain caused by feeling embarrassed in front of his or her peers. What defines it as bad fear is the positive outcome of performing the task that the individual fears. 



A great way to begin cultivating the attitude muscle against bad fear in the field is to put it directly into lessons from day one. One of the most difficult things for individuals to do is step forward into the unknown. Clearly, there are plenty of examples where it would be foolhardy and good fear not to walk unprepared into an unknown situation. However, when it comes to training, the students have the reassurance they are working with a qualified, experienced and trustworthy teacher in a position of responsibility. Explain, before you demonstrate anything, the importance of stepping up. 


Stepping up can be a powerful action. By making this decision, an individual demonstrates willingness to face the unknown. When discussing this with the class, point this fact out. A good amount of self-protection is about listening to good fear and taking the best action, no matter what the bad fear is saying. Good fear is the gut feeling that tells an individual not to drink an excessive amount of alcohol at a party, knowing it will result in becoming extremely vulnerable; however, bad fear is that not drinking might result in social alienation. The problem here is that both fears are driven by the same parts of the brain. Bad fear will win out if the individual doesn’t have a strong enough impetus to resist peer pressure. Such a weakness can lead a person down a very dark road where they might endanger themselves, hurt others and/or otherwise live a very unfulfilled and regretful life. Likewise, to step up and step forward in class is defying the fear of humiliation. The student might not learn more than their peers by being part of the demonstration, but they have made some sort of commitment to the lesson. 



During the early 1990s, it became apparent that facing fear was a huge part of the self-protection learning process. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman put it in his books and lectures that the majority of civilians had a fear of physical confrontation comparable to any severe phobia. Partly inspired by his own experience and to some degree by psychologist Susan Jeffer’s phenomenally successful self-help book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, martial arts and self-protection pioneer Geoff Thompson wrote Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People. His thoughts on the topic were not contained in that book either. Most of his writing, whether it concerns self-protection, philosophy, motivation or fiction, discusses the nature of fear. Although good fear was addressed and supported, Geoff and many of his contemporaries were interested in getting students to handle bad fear. This was the key ingredient that allowed civilised and good-natured individuals to defend themselves. 


Managing real world violence requires the need to act decisively and often to override societal norms and inhibitions. Understanding how to handle the physiological effects of a violent situation from pre-incident to post-incident is a topic for another blog, and it is also regularly touched upon in each Animal Instinct age group. For the purposes of this blog, it is good enough that a student simply understands these are natural impulses they need to channel and not rule their decision-making process.


Cultivate an atmosphere of taking action. Regularly ask for volunteers and tell students to volunteer more often at school, especially when the act frightens them, but they know taking part will be positively beneficial. Challenge yourself by finding more ways for children to take charge of a lesson. Think more like a guide and less like an instructor. Whenever a student volunteers to do something they fear, do not prolong the experience. If it is the first time they have volunteered, keep it very short and praise them. Follow it up on another occasion with a slightly more intimidating demand on their courage, checking between times that they are keen to face down the fear again. 


Such a bad fear-defying attitude only helps to reinforce personal boundaries and to keep a student proactive in the world outside of class.