The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

by Gavin de Becker

The Gift of Fear is about how we can use our fear and gut instincts to keep ourselves safe and out of harm’s way. The book also shows us how to best predict others’ behavior, particularly the warning signs that indicate danger and violence. You’ll learn behaviors, strategies and mindsets that will help you navigate life with minimal anxiety and maximal safety. 

Summary Notes

Understand violence

“Accept that violence is committed by ordinary human beings who look like you and me. This is what silences denial.”

Violence is a real part of life. It’s something that can happen to any one of us, and an innate human trait that we all share. It can be deeply uncomfortable to face this fact, but facing up to the truth that violence can happen to anyone is the first step in being able to prevent it, or save ourselves from it.

Denial may be a way of making ourselves feel safer, but it is counterproductive. It gives us a false sense of security, blinding us to the very real possibility of harm coming to us or our loved ones. It is also a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for our own safety. When we deny the reality of violence, we are less likely to be safe, and less likely to see the warning signs that predict violent behavior.

The good news is that violence, just like most other human behavior, is predictable. We often hear that extreme acts of violence are arbitrary, senseless, or random, that no one could have seen them coming. These descriptions are both untrue and disempowering. They lead us to believe that there’s no way we can know when danger is on the horizon, making us feel more anxious and less capable. 

However, there are clear indicators that reliably anticipate the likelihood of violence and dangerous situations. Human beings are experts at predicting each other’s behavior—it is a fundamental skill of living in a society. We are continuously making predictions: how a co-worker will react to a piece of news, how a driver will react to my signaling left, how my friend will react to a story I tell her, how my kids will react to the upcoming exam… What we need to know is that there is no difference between predicting violent behavior and non-violent behavior. We can trust and use the very same skills that we use in day-to-day life to predict violence and danger.

Actions to take

Ally with fear

“There is nothing to fear unless and until you feel fear. Worry, wariness, anxiety and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear.”

Fear is a survival response that arises in the presence of immediate danger, or the threat of pain or death. It is totally involuntary and usually only comes up in life-threatening situations for a temporary period of time. True fear takes us over unconsciously and directs us to act in order to save our lives. It is usually energizing rather than paralyzing. 

Most of what we normally regard as fear is actually worry, anxiety, concern or some other similar emotion or state. These states are voluntary (i.e., we have at least some control over them), they can persist over time and become chronic, and they do not usually indicate immediate threat to life or safety. It is extremely important to learn to discern true fear from all these other states that we experience. True fear is what can and does save our life; whereas the rest of these emotions do not. Worry, anxiety and concern may fulfill other functions, but they are not life-saving. 

If we want fear to serve us in times of danger, we need to first train our fear to be appropriate and accurate. This means turning down the volume on extra and unnecessary worries, so that we can hear true fear when it arises. A good first step is to stop consuming news media that hypes and sensationalizes irrelevant threats. The news is not a good source of information about how to be safer. It also tends to exaggerate dangers that are not pertinent to most ordinary people’s lives. Watching too much news can make us hypervigilant or constantly ‘on guard’. Many people live in a constant state of hyper-alertness, believing it will make them safer, but the opposite is true. Hypervigilance actually reduces the likelihood of accurately perceiving hazards. It masks true fear and danger signals, can generate dangerous levels of panic and generally leads to less safety.

Actions to take

Hone your Intuition

“Trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear.”

Intuition and gut feeling are our most sophisticated and simplest resources when it comes to keeping ourselves safe. They are the result of incredibly fast, subconscious processes and calculations that our brain and body are continuously making, completely under the radar of conscious awareness. Intuition is when you know something without knowing why, and is usually leaps and bounds ahead of linear, logical thinking. In a time-sensitive, dangerous situation, we need our intuition to be able to respond quickly and effectively. We simply cannot afford to waste time rationally analyzing the situation and working out possible responses, or trying to remember someone else’s advice about what to do.

The root of the word intuition, tuere, means “to guard, to protect”. Intuition is Nature’s gift to human beings, our built-in defense and survival signaling mechanism that alerts us to the possibility of threat and danger. Everyone is intuitive; no one is born without this key survival skill within them. There are many shades and levels of intuitive signals: from true fear to apprehension, suspicion, hesitation, doubt, gut feelings and hunches, anxiety, physical sensations, persistent thoughts, and wonder and curiosity. Each of us has a unique intuitive process and signal, and we need to become familiar with these communications.

The enemy of intuition is denial. Denying our intuition is not only counterproductive, but can be dangerous. We have all had the experience of thinking (after the fact): “I knew I shouldn’t have done that.” This is a sign that we received the intuitive signal in the moment, but we did not listen to it. Human beings are the only animals that choose to ignore survival signals. When you feel something intuitively, take it as a cue for curiosity and exploration. Scan your environment and your experience and try to identify the hazard that your intuition is alerting you to. Then, you can analyze and assess what kind of a threat and how much of a threat it poses. You may or may not choose to act or change your behavior, but you can still learn from your intuitive signals. Remember that everything your intuition communicates to you is meaningful, and in the service of your safety. No intuition is a waste of time.

Actions to take

Make better predictions

“Evolution gave us introspection so we could model other human beings and therefore predict their behavior.”

The ability to predict others’ behavior is common to all human beings, as we are social animals. We rely on our behavior-predicting skills day in and day out, simply in order to be able to function as members of society. It is absolutely vital that we understand and trust our predictive abilities. When we outsource predictions to external ‘experts’, we start to lose touch with our own innate predictive skills. Remember that as a human animal, you are already an expert in knowing when you are safe and when you are in danger. While we all share these skills and use them successfully throughout our lives, there are a number of ways to improve the accuracy of our predictions. 

In predicting behavior, we need to use imagination and introspection to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Since we are trying to predict how someone else will react, it is their perspective that matters, not ours. We can ask ourselves common-sense questions like: what are they feeling? What do they believe? What are they trying to achieve? We should never assume that others will react the same way we do, especially when predicting the likelihood of violence. 

The best predictions rely on perception rather than judgment. Perception is objective information that is coming to us in the moment, for example, what a person is wearing, carrying, saying, or doing, or what they have done in the past. Judgment is subjective information based on unconscious beliefs and biases. To make good predictions, we need to be aware of and filter out our judgments about others. Like denial, judgment usually gets in the way of accurate predictions and intuitive signals. It can lead us to discount feasible possibilities too early (“she’s too quiet to do something like that”) or fixate on incorrect possibilities for too long (“It has to be him, he’s got such a nasty background”). 

When there is a lot of information, it can help to narrate our experience out loud. Telling a story organizes our thoughts and perceptions, and it can also point to important clues that we may otherwise dismiss. It is especially important to attend to the seemingly random details that pop into our heads—these supposedly unrelated ideas are actually a way that our intuition brings something pertinent to our attention.

Actions to take

Strategies for Safety

“Your safety is yours.”

There are many strategies and tools that can enhance your safety. The first step is always to take responsibility for your own safety. We have been conditioned to leave it to governments, schools, workplaces, technology, or other people to keep us safe and to live in a bubble of denial about violence. However, the truth is that your safety is your own to manage and protect. While these systems and institutions can and do help, in the final equation, we only have ourselves to rely on.

The good news is we are all equipped with a number of innate skills that help keep us safe from harm: the most important are fear and intuition, and perception and prediction. We can also equip ourselves with additional protective behaviors, such as keeping our senses open, being aware of danger signals, learning how to say no clearly and firmly, and staying calm when evaluating hazards. All of these life skills will support and enhance our decisions and actions in dangerous situations.

Actions to take

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