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How can I feel more confident in situations that make me feel unsafe?
July 20, 2012 5:06 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to make myself feel more capable in situations where I feel unsafe?

Note: I assume that many people will recommend talking with a therapist. Let's take it as a given that I will explore that route, and please focus on other things I can do in your answers.

In the past few months, I've been in a couple situations where I felt really unsafe, and then had that unsafe feeling compounded by the folks I went to for help. In the spring, two thieves stole my cell phone off my person in brood daylight, and then I was berated by the police for how I handled the situation when they came to my apartment to make a report. Since then, I've been very wary when I'm walking by myself, and uncomfortable when police are around.

Last night, I went to a marathon screening of the Batman movies, and was seated next to two young men who between them had consumed at least two and a half bottles of hard liquor by the end of the second movie, and were talking loudly through the showings. Before the third film, I went to a manager outside the theater, while both guys had gone to the bathroom, described them and what they were doing, and requested that they be asked to leave. I gave her directions to where they had been sitting. I expected her to take care of it herself, but she wanted me to wait with her to identify the men. This made me feel really unsafe and panicky. It ended up being resolved in a way that I didn't have to stand there with her, (in fact, I hid out in the ladies roomuntil my boyfriend told me the guys had gone), but the unsafe and panickyfeeling didn't go away for a few hours, until we were back home.

So, here's what I'm looking for: 1) ways to prepare myself now, before I'm in a situation that makes me feel unsafe, so that I feel more capable to handle myself in that kind of situation, even if I do feel unsafe, and 2) things I can do once I'm already in a situation like that and starting to feel panicky, so that I can take control of myself and extricate myself from whatever is making me feel that way. What do you think might help?
posted by ocherdraco to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
ugh...i feel for you...i got sorta half-mugged myself a few years ago by some dudes in an SUV wielding baseball bats...but I remembered something that REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY works: DON'T YELL 'HELP,' YELL 'FIRE!' (nobody wants to help...everybody wants to watch your house burn down...they'll help if they see you, however...you just have to make them look)
it was like a bomb went off how fast every light on the street blinked on...the muggers immediately jumped in their SUV and drove away.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:14 PM on July 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


This might sound really weird, but hear me out. Have you ever considered martial arts training? Years ago I trained at a dojo that was women-only, with more of an emphasis on self-defense. Over time I noticed that I carried myself differently. The instructors radiated a Do-Not-Fuck-With-Me vibe that was noticeable at a distance. Not that you would ever have to use it, but there is something about feeling able to defend oneself that can stiffen one's spine and put you more in touch with your power. It becomes kind of a virtuous circle.
posted by ambrosia at 5:19 PM on July 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


Self-defense classes are what I usually recommend. The fact is, to some extent you need to be desensitized to that panicky feeling and have some reflexive responses for a variety of situations, and the only way to do that (safely) is to practice in a controlled environment. A competent self-defense instructor will have a bunch of drills to work through the uncomfortable feelings and techniques to de-escalate situations. If this is something you want to pursue, I'll drop a line to my head instructor and get you a recommendation for your area. (Like all things, there are good and bad self-defense classes.)

Incidentally, it sounds like you handled the situations just fine - you got out of a threatening situation unharmed, and you took appropriate steps in the theater, including not making yourself a target for unstable individuals. It's totally normal and fine that both of those situations freaked you out and made you a little triggerable afterwards.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:19 PM on July 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


I would love recommendations for good self defense classes. I'm in Brooklyn.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:21 PM on July 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find that planning an exit strategy before going to an event and knowing where the door is once I arrive somewhere is helpful.

I also learned this from my psychiatrist, but he told me that for the most part, I am in control of whether or not I want to stay somewhere (of course, this varies by situation). Sometimes, certain places may not feel emotionally safe such as sitting beside those two individuals in the theater and in that case, you have the power to move or even leave.

Going with a friend, family member, or SO somewhere you don't feel safe and sticking with that person throughout the event is also a way to help feel more safe.

If I'm walking home late at night I will have 911 already plugged into my phone as if I'm going to call, except I don't. But, it leaves me feeling a bit more reassured knowing that at anytime I could press the green call button without looking just in case of emergency.

I can't recommend martial arts classes enough. It will help you psychologically feel more in control and does not require you to have anything except your body in order to defend yourself.

I have been told not to talk on the phone while walking home alone late at night because it attracts more people that way since the person may be able to tell that I'm alone since the conversation sounds one-sided.
posted by livinglearning at 5:25 PM on July 20, 2012


I think you should give yourself more credit for coming out of those situations safe. You took as much control as anyone could be expected to, too: reporting it to the police, telling the manager, staying in the ladies room until you were sure you were out of danger. I think those are all great coping skills. View your wary-ness when walking alone as another indicator of something you are actively doing to be in as much control as possible of your situation.

Carrying a panic alarm (like this, though not a specific recommendation) and holding tight to it in your pocket can also help.

Panicky is often an useful feeling, as far as I'm concerned. Read "Gift of Fear" if you haven't already.
posted by argonauta at 5:29 PM on July 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


ocherdraco, did you see this NYC-centric previously, "Don't Talk to Me"? Good suggestions in there.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 PM on July 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd say there's a bit of a "fake it until you make it" which you can exercise.

Basically, if you start ACTING like you have confidence and swagger and can confront any bad stuff that comes your way, you will find that 1) bad stuff doesn't come your way as often, and 2) when it does, your act will allow you to be the confident person you want to be even if you don't feel you own that confidence on your own behalf.

How you create this act is up to you. Perhaps you emulate a type or a specific person who you have seen or believe would be the person you want to be in such situations. Or maybe you just become that idealized version of yourself which actually is confident in such situations.

Either way, putting on the armor of certainty, being an actor in situations where you would normally feel uncertain, may help you through the more mild situation (or even less mild ones) while you build up your own internal confidence to a level where you no longer find you are acting, but that you actually ARE confident.
posted by hippybear at 5:47 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can always breathe. Taking a few slow, deep breaths has an amazing ability to slow down the panic response. It allows you to perceive what's going on around you more accurately, and gives your brain a chance to work out what to do next. It might be helpful to take some yoga classes to get some practice taking control of your breath and using its power to help you do what needs doing. There are other things you can do to use your body to calm your mind, and to communicate strength and confidence to yourself and to those around you, like having strong, upright, balanced posture.
posted by Corvid at 6:16 PM on July 20, 2012


The website No Nonsense Self Defense has some good information about things like situational awareness, threat assessment, ways to get out of a volatile situation, and things like that. The introduction on that page gives a good overview of their orientation and the kind of information they have.

Coming at it from a fairly different direction, The Fear Book: Facing Fear Once and for All by Zen teacher Cheri Huber might have something useful for you.

From your description, I think it sounds like you handled your parts of the situations well, even though some of the other people involved didn't handle their parts of them well. IMO, the theater manager should have understood that you wouldn't want the disruptive drunk guys to know that you were the one who complained. And I think police sometimes lose sight of the fact that many people have no experience of being the victims of violent or criminal behavior, so it's not surprising that when it suddenly arises they don't handle things the "best" way or the way a cop would if the cop were the one in the situation.
posted by Lexica at 6:25 PM on July 20, 2012


I have a couple of suggestions and both are predicated on things you know rather than things you have. Pepper spray/alarms/weapons/etc can be taken away from you, or you might have a confrontation while your defense tool is stashed in your handbag, snugly useless.

1. When you feel panic starting, grasp something - anything - really hard with your hands. The reason you don't panic and get lightheaded until AFTER a car crash is because you're gripping the steering wheel (and this accounts for why passengers usually freak out before the driver does.) You can do this trick with just your fists but I find it works better when I'm grasping something. An instructor in a first-responder class taught me this.

2. I agree with the suggestions for a martial arts course, but I suggest one that's not specifically designed for self defense. I don't especially want to be reminded two nights a week that I'm a target. I studied kung fu for several years; it taught me balance, control and fighting techniques, sure, but the biggest thing now is this: I don't flinch. If someone gets in my face, I shift into horse stance and start watching for an opening.
posted by workerant at 6:30 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


What can I do to make myself feel more capable in situations where I feel unsafe?

I hope this isn't going to be an unhelpful answer for you ocherdraco. But I think your feelings of wariness and being unsafe in those scenarios were the most "capable" feelings to have. Let me explain what I mean. Your body and brain are trying to keep you alive and have optimized that. Both situations that you have described were legitimately dangerous situations. In the moment, the best way to keep your person safe around unstable, drunk young men is to get away from them and not get put in a position where they might target you. In an area where people are getting mugged in broad daylight, it's logical to be wary in that area. So your brain is very capably giving you the best possible feelings for giving you the best chance at staying alive.

Reducing fear in those situations might make you feel more comfortable, but I question whether it is always a benefit, rather than a harm. For example, I think there are way more situations where men, on average, feel less fear than women. Or on average feel that they are capable in situations where the average woman might not. And I think that is why we often hear about men getting killed in motorcycle accidents, crashing planes and race cars, falling down mountains, killed in bar fights, killed in fistfights, and they just have a higher death rate overall at every age.

So many martial artists will tell you that in many situations, the best thing to do, no matter what their skills are, is to just try to get away. Just try that first before anything else.

So, I think in truly dangerous situations a feeling of lack of safety that makes you want to run and hide is often a sign that not only is there nothing wrong with how you feel, it's the most optimal way to feel too.
posted by cairdeas at 6:34 PM on July 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't especially want to be reminded two nights a week that I'm a target.

This is a hallmark of a bad self-defense class. A good one will focus on setting boundaries and giving you tools to get through stressful situations, most of which will not be muggings (but the tools transfer very well there.) Not that I'm knocking martial arts - far from it. Developing body control, getting used to physical contact and generating power are things that are good for everyone. Especially women, who often don't get an opportunity to do those things growing up.

But I think your feelings of wariness and being unsafe in those scenarios were the most "capable" feelings to have.

I totally agree that it's a useful feeling to have and to recognize. But the "fight, flight or freeze" instinct it triggers (everyone forgets that third one) is not useful in most situations and needs to be overridden with training.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:46 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Restless_nomad: "Self-defense classes are what I usually recommend. The fact is, to some extent you need to be desensitized to that panicky feeling and have some reflexive responses for a variety of situations, and the only way to do that (safely) is to practice in a controlled environment. A competent self-defense instructor will have a bunch of drills to work through the uncomfortable feelings and techniques to de-escalate situations."

A million times this. The Impact Self Defense affiliate here in Santa Fe is so awesome. The one in the NYC are is called Prepare Inc.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 6:56 PM on July 20, 2012


I agree that you've responded more than appropriately.

To me it seems that the confidence you require is actually about having confidence in your own decision-making capabilities in those situations. Once you feel more comfortable with how you responded - which was great - and realise that your feelings are simply telling you to STAY SAFE (not that you've done anything wrong), the better you will feel.

This mostly comes from trusting yourself. And you have evidence that trusting yourself works.

What dents our confidence is that other people (particularly in positions of power) don't behave how we expect them to and then we doubt our abilities.

But that's THEIR failing. And you know that. Place more trust in yourself that YOU were doing your job to the best of your ability - that is, protecting yourself.
posted by heyjude at 6:59 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with the suggestions for a martial arts course, but I suggest one that's not specifically designed for self defense. I don't especially want to be reminded two nights a week that I'm a target. I studied kung fu for several years; it taught me balance, control and fighting techniques, sure, but the biggest thing now is this: I don't flinch. If someone gets in my face, I shift into horse stance and start watching for an opening.

Seconding this. I train in Wing Chun Kung Fu and just tonight the instructor elaborated on the fact that the type of training we do teaches you how to react without thinking. You become desensitized to that fight or flight feeling and you become almost comfortable to confrontation (including hitting someone and someone moving into your personal space). It's also a great physical workout. There's a branch of our school in Brooklyn. Moy Tung (my Sifu) lives here in Richmond, VA. They will give you free intro classes where they will cover the basics of the system to see if it's something you'd want to do long term. I cannot emphasize how much this training has helped me gain confidence is all areas of my life.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:00 PM on July 20, 2012


Thanks, everyone. I've downloaded The Gift of Fear on my phone and have started reading, and I'll be looking into self defense and martial arts classes.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:30 PM on July 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lexica And I think police sometimes lose sight of the fact that many people have no experience of being the victims of violent or criminal behavior, so it's not surprising that when it suddenly arises they don't handle things the "best" way or the way a cop would if the cop were the one in the situation.

Yes, this.

From your description, ocherdraco, I am guessing the cops gave you a hard time about calling in the robbery after you had returned home rather than as soon as it happened.

From their perspective, they want to get the robbery call over the air as soon as possible after it happened so they can catch the perps.

At the same time, they are used to dealing with robbery victims so they should understand, as Lexica points out, that being robbed is upsetting and can be traumatic and that getting home as soon as possible after being robbed is a perfectly valid response.

So, go easy on yourself, it is on the cops, not you. They should have been kind when taking the report from you and not acted like jerks. I used to have a job where I worked closely with a police department and I can tell you that the empathy of the responding officers varies a great deal.

Because you are asking how to do things differently, though, I will just (kindly!) point out, a good thing to be aware of is where you can go for help when you are out walking around.

Be aware of stores that are open you could run into and pay attention to what vehicles are on the streets. Look for cabs. Look for city agency vehicles, such as a firetruck or sanitation truck. You should feel safe flagging down any official city agency vehicle as the operator is going to have radio communication capability with a dispatcher who can immediately notify the police.
posted by mlis at 9:28 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there are way more situations where men, on average, feel less fear than women

I read once more men than women die from "slow" natural disasters - that is, disasters with plenty of warning and notice to flee (ex. hurricanes). More women than men heed the warnings and flee while men aren't afraid (since the threat is less apparent) and so attempt (and fail) to ride it out. So yeah, fear is not necessarily a bad thing.

then I was berated by the police for how I handled the situation

You will almost NEVER handle a situation to a police officer's content. If you fight back they will say you shouldn't have, or that you should have fought back harder, or if your don't fight back they will question as to whether an incident even occurred at all.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 10:37 PM on July 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just wanna chime in... yesterday, I saw these two boys jack a woman's iPhone. It happened with such a quickness and she was of course upset. Now, I remembered the young men and made a call to 911 describing who they were and which direction they were going. The victim, unfortunately, WAS NOT THERE. Thus when police contacted me, there wasn't much they could do because as soon as they asked her whereabouts and I said "she's not here", they said "thank you" and hung up. I understand it's traumatizing, as I've been mugged before, but in order for police to do their job, we have to work with them. So, if we are to identify petty criminals, we need to let go of the fear that holds us back and at least stay with authority to point them out, even if we wish to remain anonymous.

It's all about street smarts and I don't mean to sound condescending but hook yourself up with people who are street savvy and let them teach you, because unfortunately, women ESPECIALLY are walking targets everyday. It's attitude. If I'm walking in a not so-great block, I imagine I'm a wild animal where I can rip their face off as soon as someone tries to fuck with me OR if someone comes off weird to me, in a non-violoent way, I kill 'em with a over-the-top condescending kindness so as to not disturb their inner crazy. You are in control. You are powerful.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 5:55 AM on July 21, 2012


I remembered the young men and made a call to 911 describing who they were and which direction they were going. The victim, unfortunately, WAS NOT THERE

I don't understand this. Did you TELL the woman you were calling the police? If so, what did she say? ...Or did you expect a woman who's just been mugged to stay in the same obviously dangerous location, now sans phone to call the cops?

For all you know she left to locate a phone to call the cops. If I were mugged I would not rely on the idea that someone was calling the cops on my behalf - I would get the hell out of there and file a report when I felt safe.

There's a difference between helping the cops/authorities do their job and needlessly sticking your neck out and getting into worse danger. If you can tell a movie theater manager exactly where the trouble is coming from, and they can go in and see it for themselves, there's no reason for you to accompany them. There is every reason for you to avoid going into a theater and showing people you snitched, because they may be waiting for you outside. When I had to call 911 on my neighbors I didn't give the police my name or even my apartment number. I gave them my building number and as soon as they entered they were able to locate the problem apartment immediately (I honestly hadn't even known where it was coming from).

I understand what you're talking about with the swagger - I pull that in certain places - but that's not a replacement for rational fear. Swagger or no, there are places I simply do not go alone because of the risk.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:37 PM on July 22, 2012


restless_nomad got back to me with her instructor's NYC area recommendation for self defense classes: the Center for Anti-violence Education. She pointed out to me that their website is not up to date, so it's probably best to call to find out when their next classes are.

Thanks again, everyone!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:03 AM on July 24, 2012


(Though I actually do see some upcoming courses listed...)
posted by ocherdraco at 9:04 AM on July 24, 2012


I've received another suggestion for NYC area self-defense classes from another mefite via email. She suggests (based on her experience a few years ago):
Self-defense classes at MKD Karate, located in Jackson Heights, Queens. It's less than a block away from a stop on the 7. Although it's a karate school, I was only interested in their self-defense class. It is realistic, dirty-fighting, useful street self-defense, but at the same time, he was very clear that your first goal is to get away and make noise, not to be a krav maga badass who spinkicks 3 assailants at once. The self-defense class had 0% woo-woo or ritual, which was also very important for me to take it seriously.
She noted that her endorsement is specifically for the owner/instructor, Orlando. There are classes taught by other instructors, she says, "but I can't imagine Orlando would hire anyone who wasn't both qualified and excellent. I believe Orlando is still teaching coed/community self-defense, which is what I took."
posted by ocherdraco at 1:11 PM on July 24, 2012


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