Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thine Enemy and Thyself

Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Photo: author

Whether you are just starting your self-defense journey or have taken your protection seriously for some time, this series of articles is intended to provide you with a comprehensive overview of the areas you should be paying attention to. While this series is certainly going to be more valuable to the newcomer, I believe all of us who choose to live in a way that takes responsibility for our own protection should occasionally take time to consider fundamental self-defense concepts and examine our plans and preparations. The full work of this series will be done in several parts, each of which addresses a different set of issues. Each part will become increasingly more specific, as we start with broad concepts that apply to anyone and will finish with advice on creating a specific plan for your next steps. As you might expect, each section of this article could be an article (or a book!) on its own. It is safe to say that Personal Defense Network has at least one DVD, if not several, as well as additional articles and video clips related to each section. I encourage you to spend time researching each in more detail before going on to the next collection of information.

Increase Your Awareness

Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Gather information about the areas you spend the most time in: your home neighborhood, where you work, and surrounding communities.
Photo: Caleb Causey

Much has been said about “situational awareness” in self-defense circles over the past few decades. Most of it has revolved around the presumed imperative that you are constantly assessing your surroundings, always aware of whose company you are in, and ever vigilant against any potential predator having an opportunity to victimize you. That is ridiculous. In some fantasy world, living in a condition that allows you to be so in-control of your surroundings that you are never in danger might be Utopian. In our world, you’d need to be in a cinder block room with your back to the wall and your eyes on the locked door in order to make it real. Sounds kinda like prison, doesn’t it? It is an impossibility to live in a complete and constant state of high awareness about every aspect of your surroundings, unless you actually are in a prison cell … and I don’t call that “living.” Accepting a certain amount of risk and giving up some control are parts of life, parts that shouldn’t be denied. All that said, it certainly helps if you do have some idea what is going on around you, what the real dangers in your life may be, and when something simply isn’t normal. There is a lot of living room between knowing everything all the time and complete surprise. Some people have referred to being comfortable in that space as having a “Counter Ambush Lifestyle.” The description acknowledges that you could be caught off-guard, but you are taking reasonable precautions and believe you are prepared to deal with emergencies as you become aware of them.
Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Proceed with caution if you find your car boxed in by two larger vehicles. Photo: Rich Nable

The evolved discussion about awareness is one that has been accurately described as gathering intelligence about the world around you. In thinking about situational awareness in this way, you can become educated, have a firm grasp on current events that affect your security, and make informed decisions about what risks you may be exposed to in the near future. You will also be prepared to identify anomalies that could represent threats in your environment and, when you are in surroundings for which you do not have a high level of established information, you can “keep your guard up” a bit more than usual. This is far from living a paranoid lifestyle. Furthermore, understanding that you can never really be in complete control of your surroundings while you are going about the normal activities of life keeps you from falling into a false confidence about your safety or deluding yourself with hyperbole about how aware you really are at any given moment. The evil in the world sometimes takes the form of cunning and opportunistic predators whom you will only become aware of at the exact moment they choose, regardless of the precautions you take. In regard to self-defense, the first thing you should gather information about is what violent crimes are being committed against your peers in your area. When I say “your area,” I mean the places you spend significant amounts of time, primarily your home, where you work, and the surrounding communities. I use the word “communities” very specifically, as crime trends can vary greatly based on the somewhat arbitrary concept of what neighborhood you are in. The cliché about being on the “wrong side of the tracks” persists for a reason. Crime can be dramatically different from one neighborhood to the next, especially in the vicinity of large cities, where diverse socio-economic demographics exist across the whole, but dense pockets of similarity (of every gradient) can often be found.
Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Research your “most likely attack” based on your age and gender, among other factors.
Photo: Grant Cunningham

By learning about what types of crimes are being perpetrated, you can better spend your resources preparing for your most likely attack. Remember to include aspects of who you are in your research. If you are a girl in her late teens living on a college campus, you will probably find a very different “most likely attack” than if you are a male college professor in his 60s living in the same neighborhood, who might find a third variation at the top of his list. You may want to research adjoining communities or those that you frequently travel through as well. Also try to learn as much as you can about who is committing the attacks. While the concept of “profiling” has taken on a nefarious tone in the media (often in regard to reasonable law-enforcement activities), it is really just a common-sense approach to knowing who to watch or look out for.

Revisiting Situational Awareness

Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

While the people in the foreground are clearly distracted and would likely be criticized by the “situational awareness” traditionalists, take a look at the people in the background. They are just as oblivious to their surroundings as they focus on the presenter who is addressing them.
Photo: author

Once you have some idea what and whom to be preparing for, start paying attention to your environment in regard to who and what are normal. This is where we revisit the traditional version of “situational awareness.” While it may not be practical to know everything at all times, it isn’t too much to ask that you set a baseline of information for the people and things that are normally around you. If you know your neighbors and their cars, for example, you will be more likely to recognize a stranger who could represent a threat outside your home because he, or even his vehicle, represents an anomaly. This is the best way to think about the usefulness of being aware of your surroundings. When there is something different, particularly something different that might line up with the precursors of the types of crimes and criminals you are concerned about, raise your immediate level of attention to put a higher priority on your safety. In my book, Counter Ambush (2012), I applied the concept of having one dollar’s worth of attention to spend at any given time. In normal life, you might be spending various amounts on various things: conversation with your kids, what you are going to have for dinner, an attractive person across the street … but when there is a threatening anomaly, you can devote a higher expenditure to the potential problem and disregard the less urgent things. Some other simple things you can do in your everyday life to increase your safety fall under this heading too. Know where the exits to rooms and buildings are, as well as the location of emergency equipment. If your spouse has bought a fire extinguisher or your employer has purchased an automated emergency defibrillator, but you don’t know where they are stored, they aren’t going to be of much help to you in an emergency. This also goes for potential defensive tools, both purpose-designed weapons and improvised devices. It would behoove you to strike up some conversations about safety and security with your family, neighbors and co-workers. You might learn valuable information, find out that you have allies, or at least encourage some of them to take their own safety more seriously.
Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Safe or not? What does your intuition tell you? Photo: Cecil Burch

At the intersection of a specific lack of situational awareness and complete surprise is intuition. People have an innate ability to recognize anomalies, including a potential threat, which goes beyond articulable knowledge. I specify articulable because you could have a gut feeling about something being wrong because you have non-cognitively recognized an anomaly based on prior knowledge. Humans are excellent at identifying (and developing) patterns. When a pattern is violated, your brain can focus your attention on the issue. This focus is often felt as fear or, at least, unease. Trust this feeling. If you think something isn’t right or is worth paying extra attention to, follow that feeling. It probably isn’t an angel whispering into your ear, but is likely grounded on sound information that you may not be able to identify in the moment. Increasing the amount of information about what could go wrong, what is normally happening in your environment, and what resources exist to help you allows you to pick up on changes that could put you in danger. You can’t always have your back to a wall and eyes on everyone around you, but you can increase your odds of seeing something coming and responding appropriately if it does by having a solid foundation of knowledge.

Be Reasonably Fit

Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Can you lift your children onto (or down from) a top bunk? Photo: author

The fitter you are, the more prepared you are to defend yourself and deal with any variety of non-criminal emergencies. While that may seem an obvious statement, it is one that many people seem to be missing. Take a look at any group of police officers, security guards, or students at a defensive shooting class and you’ll see a few examples of people who don’t appear to be setting a solid foundation of fitness under their vocational or lifestyle choices. I am certainly not advocating for everyone to be a professional athlete or obsess about being faster and stronger. But I do think it is missing the point to obsess over firearms skill (for example) and not be capable of getting up off a soft couch without assistance and making everyone else in the room think they may need to render assistance or administer medical aid in the aftermath of your failure. I advocate what is known as Functional Fitness. If you can’t get through the normal activities of your day without struggle and/or discomfort, and aren’t prepared to exert yourself for short periods of time at increased levels of physical activity, you should think about improving your fitness. Insert a disclaimer here about disabilities and short-term injuries … obviously, there are specific cases where you’ll be prevented from being fully functional. I have found that most people have the ability to be very honest about areas in which they both should and could improve, though some choose not to be.
Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

How about lifting a moderately heavy box from the floor to a counter top? These are examples of Functional Fitness. Photo: author

The first thing to examine is your range of motion. If you cannot move comfortably at all of your joints throughout the normal range of human motion, figure out why. Flexibility? Try yoga. Injury? Rehabilitate or consider surgery to repair damage. Significant extra weight? Change your nutrition plan. After range of motion, examine your strength, speed and power. Can you lift everyday items from the floor to a table top? Can you put the box of Christmas decorations into the attic? How many trips do you have to make to bring a cart’s worth of plastic grocery bags into your home from the car? Can you pick up every member of your family (one at a time!) and get them over your shoulder to carry them to safety? Could you at least drag them to safety in a worst-case scenario such as a fire? How quickly can you perform those tasks? How quickly can you get from one end of your home to the other or sprint a short distance to evade an attacker?
Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thy Enemy and Thyself

Kettlebells and dumbbells are effective at increasing your strength and power. Photo: Chris Fry

If you find yourself lacking in these areas, start with simple bodyweight exercises like push-ups and sit-ups. Eventually, exercise with kettlebells or traditional weightlifting can help. Plyometric exercises, which require dynamic movement, are also important as you progress. Remember that these exercises are scalable to any level of current fitness. While you can find information on all aspects of fitness through a variety of resources, I recommend that you consider some professional evaluation and coaching if you are new to these topics or returning after a long hiatus. The last place to focus your initial functional fitness evaluation on is your endurance. Most self-defense situations will be extremely short duration. This is one reason we put endurance, typically referred to as “cardio,” last on the list. It is highly unlikely that you will need to maintain high levels of physical activity or run for extremely long distances in order to protect yourself from violence. And if you focus primarily on this aspect of fitness, you can hurt your development of power, strength, and speed, all of which are more valuable in terms of self-defense. Walking, jogging, or bicycling for miles at a time are good ways to improve your endurance. Your nutrition plan is an integral part of being reasonably fit. I say “nutrition plan” and not “diet” because the latter is often thought of as a short-term project. Approach food primarily as fuel for your body, because that’s what it is. Eating intelligently doesn’t mean you have to avoid sugars, fats, snacks, alcohol, and anything that contains high levels of delicious flavors. It just means using good information to put good things in your body most of the time. If you need to lose weight in order to be reasonably fit, you may need to take more assertive measures early on in your preparation, such as cutting out a large amount of the grains or processed sugars you are currently taking in. Improving the way you approach food is one of the simplest—and yet often emotionally difficult—ways to improve your fitness level.


If you did nothing else other than improve your fitness and become more aware of the potential threats in your area, I think you would be a lot better off than much of the population in regard to self-defense. You’d certainly be more capable of dealing with emergencies, including personal attacks, if they occur … and that should be your ultimate focus. In the next part of this series, we’ll look at ways you can secure your home and the importance of understanding the law in regard to self-defense.
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18 Responses to “Comprehensive Self-Defense, Part 1: Know Thine Enemy and Thyself”

  1. Thomas Sheppard

    Good content, information that we need to re-digest every so often as a reminder. Self and our loved ones safety are primary as watchmen protectors.

  2. Michael

    Excellent advice on all counts…well balanced and thoughtful.
    The “trick” is to make these things into good habits…especially situational awareness!

  3. Mel Merritt

    Most of what you offer makes sense, but at 72 years old and after back surgery your physical fitness comments may need modification. We older fellows may have even more reason to carry, and still have enough sharpness to be situational aware, but have to think ahead regarding an active situation.

  4. Adam

    Very good information. Situational awareness is a must and being fit to defend yourself is true. Don’t become someone’s punching bag, fight back the best you can.

  5. Dave Panarelli

    Great article Rob! I really liked how you broke this down. I particularly appreciated you touching on the importance of our intuition. I talk about not ignoring our intuition when I’m teaching my self-defense classes. It’s great to see another person teaching similar key points to “functional awareness”. I also appreciate you just telling it the way it is. We can’t always be 100% completely aware and anticipate a threat, yet we can place importance in our training on how quickly one can respond to the threat for a positive outcome.

    Thanks Rob,

  6. Jon

    Excellent article and the depth and facets or knowing and understanding the predator and the mind set of situational awareness. Its so true with smart phones how less aware people really are and also the concept the ” things like this only happen to other people”. Physical fitness for defensive is also an important factor if someone has difficulty touching their toes, Thanks for the great work you are doing.

  7. Renny

    The cinder block room with one’s wall to the back does not illustrate a very secure room to me. I watch Hickok45 videos that destroy cider block targets with just a few rounds. Unless the holes in the cinder blocks are filled with reinforced concrete the wall is no more protection ballistically than most other exterior walls. Suggest a better example to illustrate the point. Just saying.

    • Rob Pincus

      I think you missed the point of the example… it wasn’t about “safety” it was about “awareness”. If nothing else, taking things to the extreme example like you did still supports the underlying premise: You NEVER really have 100% awareness in a way that prevents you from being attacked.

  8. Moose

    Great article, without being militia-minded or paranoid. Good common sense brought to bear in real time. Being able to recognize those subtle unexplainable promptings, like back-of-the-neck hairs rising, or other “strange” alerting sensory alarms, is an art. Keep up the fantastic training/prepping via your articles, books and dvds. Thanks.

  9. Rick Poe

    I enjoyed your article. Well said and accurate-in my opinion. I also am an instructor with several disciplines (to include firearms and DT).

    I teach much of the same as you mentioned.
    I also bring in Grosman’s analogy of sheep dogs, sheep and wolves. The point is, we all are not wired the same way, however we can train our brain to think as an operator.

    We make choices in life and changing our “method of perception” is a way to do this.

    I could go on and on reference this subject matter for it is a passion of mine.

    Always appreciate your articles.
    Thank you.
    Rick Poe

  10. Eric Forsman

    Rob is spot on on both awareness and fitness. Staying in a constant state of “condition yellow” would (if it were even possible to do) turn one into a paranoid basket case. However, there are also exercises/drills that essentially work to sublimate that condition yellow awareness to threats into the sub-conscious such that it recognizes and reacts to anomalies that potentially could cause a threat. This is not unlike when you are driving and the brake lights of the vehicle in front of suddenly illuminate. Without thinking of what to do or how to do it, you react by taking your foot off of the accelerator and either covering or depressing the brake as required. Perhaps it was simply to slow down for a traffic light or for a pedestrian to finish crossing the street. In that case you continue on without even thinking about it. (You probably don’t remember exactly how many times, or even the circumstances under which you went to the brake on your last car trip). However, had the car in front slammed on the brakes, you would have followed suit, and/or executed an avoidance maneuver. In this case you were consciously alerted (and consequently would remember it). The exercises/drills I teach basically give you the same sort of capabilities in the awareness of the anomalies that may signal potential threats by other persons.

    After doing the exercises for 2-3 weeks you’ll realize that you’ve given yourself this new sense of awareness while walking or driving and no longer have to continue them. (But you may choose to do them occasionally simply because they were interesting/fun to do.) You’ll find that even when walking or driving with a friend and engaged in a conversation, or you are talking on the telephone you note these anomalies around you that you never noticed before. Most are noted and either acted on in a minor manner, or dismissed (much like brake lights), and you’ll actually have to think about them to recall them. However, if you are still walking down the street and looking down at your phone texting, the exercises won’t help you. You’re still liable to trip and fall into that fountain you didn’t see. To be effective the exercises still require a measure of basic common sense.

    Along with the exercises of course, are taught the tell-tale signs to look for that would indicate that someone might be up to “no good”, that you might be or are being considered for, or have become the target of such an action, ways by which you might determine (in some instances) that you indeed are the target, and the methods/techniques to avoid/deter/escape/evade a confrontation once the potential has be detected. Obviously those skills must be in place to both recognize the signs as anomalies, and to react to them appropriately.

    When deciding to carry a firearm for personal defense you are essentially taking on the role of a VIP Close Protection bodyguard, your VIP clients being yourself and your family who obviously deserve the best protection from danger available. Unlike the military and law enforcement whose missions are to confront those that would do us harm, the primary directive of the bodyguard is to protect his/her clients from even encountering harm. Awareness is the key to avoiding harm, keying actions to deter those threats that can’t be avoided, and escaping and evading those that can’t be deterred. Only as a last resort, to a lethal threat, should you have to employ a firearm. (But should that happen you should strive to be able to shoot with the finesse, accuracy and speed of a special operator.)

    The true success of the VIP CP bodyguard is not measured by how well he/she stopped the threat against the client(s), but rather how well potential threats were avoided and never had to be dealt with in the first place.

    Continuing to expand your awareness knowledge and skills (and your fitness to act as required), will tend to increase your confidence and and in turn cause you to display the tell-tale signs to those that might do you harm that you won’t be an ‘easy’ target. That by itself will often cause them to move on to another target. And that’s a good thing!

    That’s my 2 cents; your mileage may vary.

    • Gary Tuckey

      Well said! Based on my “Psychology 101” education, the amygdala part of the brain identifies dangers when the higher regions of the brain do not. Even people who are blind because of neural damage to the brain are able to react to danger by virtue of the amygdala. Bottomline: One’s “gut feeling” or “angel whisperings” can be explained by virtue of this part of the brain.

  11. Steve

    Very Very good reading that is very useful, informative and relevant. Thank you for this.