Understanding These 5 Hard Truths About Violence Can Save Your Life

Melanie Wasser

Violence is rarely the answer, but when it is, it’s the only answer.

As a society, we have focused nearly all our energy on the first part of that statement. We don’t just want to believe that violence is rarely the answer—we want to believe it is never the answer— and so in recent years we have set out to identify every instance where that is true. Admittedly, there are many of them, and we have gotten very good at describing them to anyone who will listen. As good as we’ve become at advocating nonviolence, we have gotten even better at dismissing those rare instances where violence actually is the only answer. We put asterisks next to those events and pigeon-hole them as the exclusive domain of criminals and cops. We have not only convinced ourselves that this vision of the world is real, but we have taught it to our children as gospel by building layers of protection and insulation around them to reinforce the truthfulness of our vision. Unfortunately, we are not seeing straight. We have created a society where the blind are leading the blind. My goal is to open your eyes.

I am a violence expert. I know what violence is, how it works, how to use it, and how to avoid it. As an expert in the field of life-and-death self-defense for the last twenty-five years, I have counseled, trained, and taught tens of thousands of men and women across the globe. Rich and poor, big and small, frail and strong, military and civilian—I’ve seen them all. Each of my students has a different story, but 70 percent of them have something in common: they only sought out help after surviving an act of violence.

The general unpreparedness for the specter of deadly violence is the one thing that has confounded me the most. When it comes to other rare events that can have destructive consequences on our lives, we aren’t shy about preparing for them. We have fire extinguishers, disaster preparedness kits, car insurance, health insurance, flood insurance, and life insurance because we know there are things in this world outside of our control, and being prepared for them gives us confidence that we will be able to get through them if and when they arrive.

So why do so few of us have a plan for unexpected violence?

The concepts in I put forth here will lay a critical foundation for correctly processing and performing the mental and physical elements of self-protection. Understanding the methodologies and principles behind violence is the only way to properly employ it in a real-life situation.

1. Violence is a tool.

Because we are so uncomfortable with violence, we have convinced ourselves subconsciously that the “what” and the “why” are the same things: in other words, we tell ourselves that, because criminals often use violence, violence itself is always criminal. But that’s a big mistake: violence is a tool like any other. As with any other tool, the proper object of our moral and ethical judgment isn’t the “what”— after all, you wouldn’t call a screwdriver or a toothbrush evil— but rather the “why,” the ends to which human beings choose to direct it.

2. Real violence is much different than competitive violence.

Schoolyard fights are are instances of what I call “social aggression.” They are quasi violent scenarios that stem from conflict and jockeying within the social hierarchy. I call them quasi-violent not because I don’t take them seriously, but rather because they don’t always involve violence as we understand it— sometimes it’s just talking or threatening—and they’re less about physically destroying the other person than they are about asserting social dominance, gaining some advantage, or elevating social status.

But there’s a scarier, more urgent form of violence we face today. I call violence of this nature “asocial.” Asocial violence is violence that has nothing to do with communication or reshuffling the pecking order. Asocial violence is nothing like that: it doesn’t try to change the order, it tries to wreck the order. It’s the kind of violent interaction we instinctively run from— the kind in which there is only mayhem, death, misery, and horror.

At the end of the day, all violence has the potential to be a matter of life or death. The difference with asocial violence is that death and destruction are not its by-products; they are its purpose.

3. You must be able to recognize asocial violence—and take action when you see it.

It is essential we understand this distinction between social aggression and asocial violence right now. Social aggression is about competition; asocial violence is about destruction. Competition has rules; destruction has none. Social aggression is about communication—implicitly with status indicators but explicitly with lots of taunting and posturing. There is no talking with asocial violence. Open your mouth and you are likely to eat a lightning-fast punch or a jacketed bullet traveling at 2,500 feet per second.

If there is one reliable way to distinguish between the two kinds of violent encounter, it is the presence or absence of communication. Asocial violence, on the other hand, is brutally streamlined. It’s quiet. It happens suddenly and unmistakably.

When it comes to asocial violence, if you have not been able to foresee and escape it, you must render your attacker one of three ways to survive: incapacitated, unconscious, or dead.

4. In a life-or-death situation you don’t have to be bigger, stronger, or faster to be the one left standing.

If you look at somebody bigger, faster, and stronger and immediately think, “I’m at a disadvantage,” I have news for you: you are. But that’s only because you just put yourself there for no reason.

The truth is that anyone can do debilitating violence to anyone else. Your size, your speed, your strength, your gender—all the factors that untrained people think make the difference when it comes to violence— all matter far less than your mindset and your intent. And anyone can cultivate those. The tools to protect yourself against lethal violence are much more accessible than you think. You don’t have to earn a black belt or put on an extra fifty pounds of muscle. You do have to learn about the vulnerabilities that make all human bodies equal, and you do have to build the intent to take advantage of those vulnerabilities in time to save your life.

Never think “I’m at a disadvantage.” Instead, think, “How close am I to his throat? Can I get to his knee? Or his groin? Or his eye?”

Is he stronger than you? Not with a crushed throat, he isn’t. Is he faster than you? Not with a shattered knee. Is he far more dangerous than you, with scads of training, experience, a gun, and an indomitable iron will? Not with a broken neck.

5. Real violence isn’t a competition.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to remember that real-life violence isn’t a competition. Predators aren’t looking for a challenge. If you give them enough hoops to jump through, more often than not they’re going to pick someone else. They’re looking for the easiest victim—the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s like that old joke about the two hikers in the forest who come across a hungry bear. One of them stops to put on his running shoes. The other tells him not to bother, since there’s no way a person can outrun a bear. His hiking partner says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” Be the hiker in the running shoes.

But what does a difficult target look like? A difficult target is aware of his or her surroundings. A difficult target never takes away one of his or her sensory systems in public: he or she never voluntarily limits the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Anything that hampers your senses makes you more attractive to a predator.

A difficult target takes basic precautions. Difficult targets lock their doors. They keep their windows shut and locked at night. Lastly, a difficult target walks and moves with confidence—the confidence that comes from knowing that he or she, in the last resort, can deploy the tool of violence when it’s necessary. That confidence shows in your body language and on your face — it’s a constant and silent deterrent. It says, pick on somebody else.


Just remember, this knowledge is meant to help you prevent violence from ever entering your life and to prepare you for it in the unlikely event that it rears its ugly head. I can imagine some of you thinking to yourselves right now, “Jeez, Tim, paranoid much?” But preparing for asocial violence doesn’t make you a paranoid person. Paranoia is a symptom of lack of preparation— it’s the fear that there is a threat lurking around every corner, coupled with the insecurity that comes from uncertainty and ignorance. Men and women who are truly prepared don’t have to be paranoid— they know how to identify real threats, and they know that the correct response to those threats is ingrained in their habits and training, ready to be activated when it’s a matter of survival. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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