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

By Gavin de Becker; Published In 1997
Genres: Nonfiction, Psychology, Self Help
At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.

Believing that others will react as we would is the single most dangerous myth of intervention.

Denial is a save now, pay later scheme.

Every day, people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in mid-thought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it. A woman could offer no greater cooperation to her soon-to-be attacker than to spend her time telling herself, “But he seems like such a nice man.” Yet this is exactly what many people do. A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago—it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself: “I’m not going to live like that, I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.” When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator. Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of? The inner voice is wise, and part of my purpose in writing this book is to give people permission to listen to it.

Every human behavior can be explained by what precedes it, but that does not excuse it,

Ginger is not distracted by the way things could be, used to be, or should be. She perceives only what is. Our reliance on the intuition of a dog is often a way to find permission to have an opinion we might otherwise be forced to call (God forbid) unsubstantiated.

I encourage people to remember that "no" is a complete sentence.

If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to them—nine more times than you wanted to.

I have learned that the kindness of a teacher, a coach, a policeman, a neighbor, the parent of a friend, is never wasted. These moments are likely to pass with neither the child nor the adult fully knowing the significance of the contribution. No ceremony attaches to the moment that a child sees his own worth reflected in the eyes of an encouraging adult. Though nothing apparent marks the occasion, inside that child a new view of self might take hold. He is not just a person deserving of neglect or violence, not just a person who is a burden to the sad adults in his life, not just a child who fails to solve his family’s problems, who fails to rescue them from pain or madness or addiction or poverty or unhappiness. No, this child might be someone else, someone whose appearance before this one adult revealed specialness or lovability, or value.

In the original form of the word, to worry someone else was to harass, strangle, or choke them. Likewise, to worry oneself is a form of self-harassment. To give it less of a role in our lives, we must understand what it really it is. Worry is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic. If you choose to worry about something, have at it, but do so knowing it’s a choice. Most often, we worry because it provides some secondary reward. There are many variations, but a few of the most popular follow. Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t do anything about the matter. Worry is a way to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we’re doing something. (Prayer also makes us feel like we’re doing something, and even the most committed agnostic will admit that prayer is more productive than worry.) Worry is a cloying way to have connection with others, the idea being that to worry about someone shows love. The other side of this is the belief that not worrying about someone means you don’t care about them. As many worried-about people will tell you, worry is a poor substitute for love or for taking loving action. Worry is a protection against future disappointment. After taking an important test, for example, a student might worry about whether he failed. If he can feel the experience of failure now, rehearse it, so to speak, by worrying about it, then failing won’t feel as bad when it happens. But there’s an interesting trade-off: Since he can’t do anything about it at this point anyway, would he rather spend two days worrying and then learn he failed, or spend those same two days not worrying, and then learn he failed? Perhaps most importantly, would he want to learn he had passed the test and spent two days of anxiety for nothing? In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman concludes that worrying is a sort of “magical amulet” which some people feel wards off danger. They believe that worrying about something will stop it from happening. He also correctly notes that most of what people worry about has a low probability of occurring, because we tend to take action about those things we feel are likely to occur. This means that very often the mere fact that you are worrying about something is a predictor that it isn’t likely to happen!

intuition is always right in at least two important ways;
It is always in response to something.
it always has your best interest at heart

It is similar to one brother asking another, “Why did you grow up to be a drunk?” The answer is “Because Dad was a drunk.” The second brother then asks, “Why didn’t you grow up to be a drunk?” The answer is “Because Dad was a drunk.” Some more complete answers are found in Robert Ressler’s classic book Whoever Fights Monsters. He speaks of the tremendous importance of the early puberty period for boys. Before then, the anger of these boys might have been submerged and without focus, perhaps turned inward in the form of depression, perhaps (as in most cases) just denied, to emerge later. But during puberty, this anger collides with another powerful force, one of the most powerful in nature: sexuality. Even at this point, say Ressler and others, these potential hosts of monsters can be turned around through the (often unintentional) intervention of people who show kindness, support, or even just interest. I can say from experience that it doesn’t take much.

It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different--men and women live in different worlds...at core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.

I’ve successfully lobbied and testified for stalking laws in several states, but I would trade them all for a high school class that would teach young men how to hear “no,” and teach young women that it’s all right to explicitly reject.

Just as rapport-building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is a bit uncertain (the opposite of explicit). Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises his expectations, increases his investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.

Most men fear getting laughed at or humiliated by a romantic prospect while most women fear rape and death.

Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.

No” is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you.

Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn't so.

Surveys have shown that ranking very close to the fear of death is the fear of public speaking. Why would someone feel profound fear, deep in his or her stomach, about public speaking, which is so far from death? Because it isn’t so far from death when we link it. Those who fear public speaking actually fear the loss of identity that attaches to performing badly, and that is firmly rooted in our survival needs. For all social animals, from ants to antelopes, identity is the pass card to inclusion, and inclusion is the key to survival. If a baby loses its identity as the child of his or her parents, a possible outcome is abandonment. For a human infant, that means death. As adults, without our identity as a member of the tribe or village, community or culture, a likely outcome is banishment and death. So the fear of getting up and addressing five hundred people at the annual convention of professionals in your field is not just the fear of embarrassment—it is linked to the fear of being perceived as incompetent, which is linked to the fear of loss of employment, loss of home, loss of family, your ability to contribute to society, your value, in short, your identity and your life. Linking an unwarranted fear to its ultimate terrible destination usually helps alleviate that fear. Though you may find that public speaking can link to death, you’ll see that it would be a long and unlikely trip.

the brilliant book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes seven key abilities most beneficial for human beings: the ability to motivate ourselves, to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, to hope, to empathize, and to control impulse. Many of those who commit violence never learned these skills. If you know a young person who lacks them all, that’s an important pre-incident indicator, and he needs help.

There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means he is troubled.

The solution to violence in America is the acceptance of reality

The unsolicited promise is one of the most reliable signals because it is nearly always of questionable motive.

Those men who are the most violent are not at all carried away by fury. In fact, their heart rates actually drop and they become physiologically calmer as they become more violent.

Threats betray the speaker by proving that he has failed to influence events in any other way. Most often they represent desperation, not intention.

We must learn and then teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait. People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Like rapport-building, charm and the deceptive smile, unsolicited niceness often has a discoverable motive.

We want recognition, not accomplishment.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.