The Gift of Fear and other Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence

by July 31, 2012 07/31/12
Gift of Fear Book

I’ve recently finished reading a book by Gavin De Becker called The Gift of Fear. While book reviews are something we don’t often cover on ITS, this is a book that I not only feel each of you should read immediately, but that every member of your family should read as well.

This is hands down, one of the best books I’ve ever read and the most applicable to any of the skill-sets we advocate here on ITS. Primarily, what we all encounter on a daily basis, fear of the unknown.

De Becker describes this fear of the unknown as unwarranted and a curse, while advocating true fear as a gift. This book explains how to tell the difference between the two and teaches us how to trust and act on our gut instincts. This book could truly save your life!

Gavin De Becker

I’d like to take a paragraph to introduce De Becker and what makes him an authority on the subject at hand, because like you, I was skeptical until I started reading the book, which has become a bible for me personally.

Gavin De Becker is a three-time presidential appointee whose pioneering work has changed the way our government evaluates threats to our nation’s highest officials. His firm advises many of the world’s most prominent media figures, corporations and law enforcement agencies on predicting violence and it also serves regular citizens who are victims of domestic abuse and stalking.

De Becker has advised the prosecution on major cases, including the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He has testified before many legislative bodies and has successfully proposed new laws to help manage violence.

His biography might read well, but I’m here to tell you that this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what information he brings to the public with The Gift of Fear or what his organization, Gavin De Becker, Inc., has done to help through their vast resources and organizations they support.

The Gift of Fear

Around two years ago I wrote an article titled Dealing With Violent Confrontations and have even recently shared my experience with a fear inducing incident of my own. What I have always and will always advocate, is trusting your gut (i.e. listening to your instinct.)

I picked The Gift of Fear up after the recent incident I mentioned, because I wanted to learn more about what I experienced and how I handled the situation. While I had a lot of supportive comments and people sharing stories of their own fear inducing experiences, there were also many that wrote it off as nothing more than American paranoia.

Through reading The Gift of Fear, I’ve found an authoritative voice stating that I did exactly what I should have in that incident. Put manners aside, quieted my mind and listened to my instinct. While it’s hard to address feelings and emotions, let alone instinct, in the article I described my response to an unidentified man who quickly and feverishly approached my personal space. I’ll let you read the article for yourself if you haven’t yet.

De Becker describes listening to your instinct as law and that if you’re constantly living in a state of fear and paranoia, you won’t be able to hear your instinct in the situations where it’s warranted and trying to save your life.

There’s a fantastic comparison in the beginning of The Gift of Fear that really brought things into perspective for me. De Becker relates the intuition of humans to animals. Our intuitive abilities are superior to that of animals and that we’re in top form because we add to our experiences every day. The thing about animals is that we as humans have something extra that they don’t; judgement.

It’s also that thing called judgement that gets in the way of our perception and intuition. It causes us to disregard our intuition unless we can explain it logically, rather than honor it. No animal in the wild would suddenly be overcome with fear and spend their mental energy thinking that it’s probably nothing.

Unfortunately, De Becker describes our initial response as writing off the feeling of someone’s unusual behavior being sinister as being paranoid instead of appreciating the powerful internal resource. We rush to ridicule the impulse, especially in others, as witnessed by the comments in my article.

We, in contrast to to every creature in nature, choose not to explore – and even to ignore – survival signals.

Violence for All

Something that I also sat up and took notice of is that De Becker states that people who commit terrible violence choose their acts from among many options that we’re all capable of imagining.

Just the fact that we’re all capable of being able to conceive terrible violence is evidence that anyone can do the same, even those willing to act on it. The real lesson from De Becker in this situation is that to work towards prediction and prevention, we have to accept that these acts are done by the “we” of humanity not by interlopers who somehow sneaked in.

Something we’ve also been seeing first hand in the news reports from the Aurora tragedy, are interviews from people who knew James Holmes as a quiet guy, or someone who kept to himself. De Becker talks about this too as a hackneyed myth and that a more accurate statement should be “neighbors didn’t know anything relevant,” but instead news reporters present non-information as if it’s information.

De Becker states that by the frequency of this cliché, you could almost believe that normalcy is a pre-incident indicator for aberrant crime. It isn’t. However, one of the most common pre-incident indicators, is violence in one’s childhood.

Predicting Violence

Predicting stranger-to-stranger crimes is based on a few details, as De Becker describes, but even the simplest form of street crime is preceded by a victim selection process. These can include being the right appearance or “type” and generally outside the victim’s influence. I would add though that being a harder target will also cut down on allowing yourself to appear to be the right type.

De Becker breaks this down too into conditions that make someone available to a criminal and that are completely within our control. For example, accessibility, setting and circumstance. “Will you engage in conversation with a stranger when you’d rather not? Can you be manipulated by guilt or the feeling that you owe something to a person just because he offered assistance? Will you yield to someone’s will simply because he wants you to, or will your resolve be strengthened when someone seeks to control your conduct? Most importantly, will you honor your intuition?”

Intuition falls right back into predicting violence and it’s always learning. De Becker states that some signals it sends may occasionally be less urgent, everything is meaningful and unlike worry, it won’t waste your time.

Living in Fear

De Becker explains that fear is something that surrounds us always, but walking around in a constant state of vigilance can misinform your intuition about what really posses danger. This is something I digested very carefully, as I take situational awareness very seriously and still do after reading this book. I don’t consider my situational awareness as being hyper vigilant either, I feel it’s balanced well and that I’ve refined it even more after De Becker’s advice.

Honoring accurate intuitive signals and evaluating them without denial (believing that either favorable or unfavorable outcome is possible,) you need not be wary according to De Becker, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there’s something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully.

“When you accept the survival signal as a welcome message and quickly evaluate the environment or situation, fear stops in an instant. Thus, trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear…While few would argue that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to stay there. They may have forgotten or never learned that fear is not an emotion like sadness or happiness, either of which might last a long while. It is not a state, like anxiety. True fear is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger, yet unwarranted fear has assumed a power over us that it holds over no other creature on earth.”

De Becker lists two rules about fear and that if you accept them, they can improve your use of fear, reduce its frequency and transform your experience of life.

  • Rule #1. The very fact you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening.
  • Rule #2. What you fear is rarely what you think you fear, it is what you link to fear.

Rule #1 couldn’t be any more true. How many times have you lied there in bed thinking about what would happen if someone was standing over your bed right now with a gun. Guess what, the thought is precisely all the evidence you need to know that very thing you fear is NOT happening.

The second rule is one that needs a little explanation from De Becker. His example is the fear of getting up and addressing five hundred people at an annual convention. The fear is not just the fear of embarrassment, it’s 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.

When you truly analyze what it is you fear and it’s chain of causality, it can help alleviate that fear or let you know exactly what you need to change to alleviate it.

Other Topics

Some of the other great topics De Becker address in The Gift of Fear are workplace violence and the pre-incident indicators surrounding it and help in predicting it. There’s also fantastic help-giving resources near the end of the book, such as questions you should be asking your child’s school.

For example, are background investigations performed on all staff? Are acts of violence or criminality at the school documented? Are the statistics maintained? May I review the statistics?

There is one part in the book’s appendices that talks about gun safety and this is the only part of the book that I don’t completely agree with. Rather than discuss it here, I’ll leave it up to you to review it yourself.

Again, I can’t suggest enough that you and your loved ones read this book. Even if your spouse doesn’t share the mindset you do, The Gift of Fear does an excellent job of speaking directly to everyone, regardless of their mindset, preconceived notions or beliefs. I implore you to find the time to purchase and read The Gift of Fear, I can’t think of a better way that a few hours and ten bucks could transform your life and potentially save it.


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m2ball
m2ball

The Gift of Fear is a VERY gunphobic book. This great book is marred by its anti self defense position. He rambles on about the USA vs Japan gun death statistics. America is not, thank God, Japan. De Becker conveniently fails to mention that it was JAPAN who treated us to the Rape of Nanking Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, Kamikaze attacks and the brutal torture of Allied POWs. Also the total lack of Japan's civil rights. Americans are not the obedient, unquestioning automata that the Japanese are.

de Becker has provided some great information, but undoubtedly scared many readers away from owning a handgun and training with it. He may have helped to create more victims than counseled.

m2ball
m2ball

The Gift of Fear is a VERY gunphobic book. This great book is marred by its anti self defense position. He rambles on about the USA vs Japan gun death statistics. America is not, thank God, Japan. De Becker conveniently fails to mention that it was JAPAN who treated us to the Rape of Nanking Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, Kamikaze attacks and the brutal torture of Allied POWs. Also the total lack of Japan's civil rights. Americans are not the obedient, unquestioning automata that the Japanese are. de Becker has provided some great information, but undoubtedly scared many readers away from owning a handgun and training with it. He may have helped to create more victims than counseled.

james bridges
james bridges

I read this book many years ago,and have to agree it will change the way you think. I didn't care for protecting the gift as much,just not as life changing.

One thing I was continually reminded of while reading this book was a section of the book"Flight of the Intruder" by Steven Coontz. In the book there is an incident, where the main character can't explain why he took a certain action to avoid a certain catastrophe,only that something didn't "feel right".The discussion continues to describe that what he saw/felt/heard had only registered at a subconscious level and was a product of training and professionalism,that in the same way we build muscle memory we can train our minds to recognize and act on inputs with little or no conscious thought.

Two thoughts on this

1. Better train the right way.

2.As in the Gift don't ignore "those feelings".

james bridges
james bridges

I read this book many years ago,and have to agree it will change the way you think. I didn't care for protecting the gift as much,just not as life changing. One thing I was continually reminded of while reading this book was a section of the book"Flight of the Intruder" by Steven Coontz. In the book there is an incident, where the main character can't explain why he took a certain action to avoid a certain catastrophe,only that something didn't "feel right".The discussion continues to describe that what he saw/felt/heard had only registered at a subconscious level and was a product of training and professionalism,that in the same way we build muscle memory we can train our minds to recognize and act on inputs with little or no conscious thought. Two thoughts on this 1. Better train the right way. 2.As in the Gift don't ignore "those feelings".

Amy O'Brien
Amy O'Brien

Great review. I read this book years ago, and re-read parts of it from time to time as well. Also, his follow up book, "Protecting the Gift" (geared for parents and other caregivers) should be passed out at hospitals with the new parent gift bags. It is so easy to be nervous about letting our kids out into the world, and like in the "Gift of Fear" deBecker empowers parents to make reasoned decisions about potentially dangerous situations.

JTM
JTM

Great article. I read this book several years back as part of my trying to understand the psychology behind violent encounters. We all know of the dreaded "freeze" that can happen (even to experienced martial artists) when the balloon goes up, and I was intrigued as to the mental processes behind this phenomenon. This was an excellent read and is highly recommended in understanding how and why we react as we do in the face of violence.

If you're interested in this subject, Lt Col Dave Grossman's "On Killing" and "On Combat" delve more into the psychology of warfare.

Time for a re-read, methinks....

JTM
JTM

Great article. I read this book several years back as part of my trying to understand the psychology behind violent encounters. We all know of the dreaded "freeze" that can happen (even to experienced martial artists) when the balloon goes up, and I was intrigued as to the mental processes behind this phenomenon. This was an excellent read and is highly recommended in understanding how and why we react as we do in the face of violence. If you're interested in this subject, Lt Col Dave Grossman's "On Killing" and "On Combat" delve more into the psychology of warfare. Time for a re-read, methinks....

Niccole
Niccole

I haven't read this book, but have been meaning to ever since I read his other book, "Protecting the Gift", which is about protecting children from predators. Really awesome book, full of great information. A serious must if you have children. I expect "The Gift of Fear" to be just as good.

Christopher Doner
Christopher Doner

I read it over a decade ago and enjoyed it. I think it's time to revisit it. Debecker's anti-gun stance was the only thing I took issue with.

Rory Miller's "Meditations on Violence" and "Facing Violence" are very good and worth reading as someone mentioned in the comments above.

Christopher Doner
Christopher Doner

I read it over a decade ago and enjoyed it. I think it's time to revisit it. Debecker's anti-gun stance was the only thing I took issue with. Rory Miller's "Meditations on Violence" and "Facing Violence" are very good and worth reading as someone mentioned in the comments above.

Carolina Patriot
Carolina Patriot

I read Gift of Fear when it first came out and several times since, and like others, I have given it as a gift more than once. We have "civilized" our intincts away to varying degrees and this book helps to reclaim these vital survival tools! I applaud ITS for this article! Read this book and share it!

Bama
Bama

EXCELLENT book!! I've read it 5 times, and each time I finish it I give that copy away (first one to my little sister, each subsequent one to various other women I care about). I've been a bouncer since 1981. I've worked a lot of juke joints, biker bars, redneck dives and rat holes over the last 31 years, back home in Alabama, in Georgia and around the west. I've got a very highly developed Spidey sense; I'll verify that this book is chock FULL of useful information.

martino
martino

I'm cheap and I don't get much 'free' time to sit and read (the only real free time I get is sitting down for an hour at night with my wife while my daughter naps) so I'm hoping work will see this book as somehow work-related and buy the audiobook version to put in our corporate library so I can listen to it while I drive so I don't have to buy it (since my local library doesn't have it).

I see there is a sequel to this book called "Protecting the Gift" (about your children) fyi - maybe worth a read too :)

martino
martino

I'm cheap and I don't get much 'free' time to sit and read (the only real free time I get is sitting down for an hour at night with my wife while my daughter naps) so I'm hoping work will see this book as somehow work-related and buy the audiobook version to put in our corporate library so I can listen to it while I drive so I don't have to buy it (since my local library doesn't have it). I see there is a sequel to this book called "Protecting the Gift" (about your children) fyi - maybe worth a read too :)

Exploriment
Exploriment

Some of my own comments from a review I wrote of it:

One of those books I have read repeatedly and bought repeatedly, both to give as gifts and because I lend it to people and they lend it to someone, and they lend it to someone, etc., so, I never see it back. Which I’m totally okay with.

Anyone who is a woman, has a women they care about in their lives - a mother, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter, a niece, a female friend - in other words, all of us - should read this book.

HIGHLY recommended reading!

Exploriment
Exploriment

Some of my own comments from a review I wrote of it: One of those books I have read repeatedly and bought repeatedly, both to give as gifts and because I lend it to people and they lend it to someone, and they lend it to someone, etc., so, I never see it back. Which I’m totally okay with. Anyone who is a woman, has a women they care about in their lives - a mother, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter, a niece, a female friend - in other words, all of us - should read this book. HIGHLY recommended reading!

Justin
Justin

Yes a very good book indeed...I too wanted to learn why I act the way I do in those situations and make myself better and learn more about it...and it really opens things up! The lady at the register at barnes and noble said it was a great book also and she made her three college daughters read it.... I was laying in bed last night reading it and taking bits of it and talking to my wife about it, who loves to argue over any book and loves to dismiss my constant situational awareness as being TOO MUCH...and stated that you cant live your life like that...just then I read past the part of the young lady getting on the elevator with a strange guy that made her uneasy and ignoring her gut...Gavin really puts it in a bigger picture when he said "is it that much worse to wait for the next elevator or get inside a giant steel locked box with him?" Shut the wife right down...haha

Brav0Charlie
Brav0Charlie

I picked up this book recently after you mentioned it on a previous post. And I think this was the book you were reading when you were packing for HSP Disruptive Environments course last month. It gave me a broader plane of perspective. The biggest thing I got from this book, is to not worry so much. The quote, "...creating worry, explore and discover why." Is what really made me stop and think.

Great review. Thank you for posting Bryan.

Brav0Charlie
Brav0Charlie

I picked up this book recently after you mentioned it on a previous post. And I think this was the book you were reading when you were packing for HSP Disruptive Environments course last month. It gave me a broader plane of perspective. The biggest thing I got from this book, is to not worry so much. The quote, "...creating worry, explore and discover why." Is what really made me stop and think. Great review. Thank you for posting Bryan.

Jeff House
Jeff House

Bryan, again you have written an outstanding article for mass consumption. My wife read this book immediately after I finished and put it to use soon after. She was seriously 'interviewed' by a bad guy, who tried several times to get her out of the car to 'look at this..your brakes are failing'. In discussions after she mentioned many aspects of the book...she 'knew' what was going on and recognized danger but still had to fight the impulse to 'be polite'. It turned out ok as he bailed quickly when she started to dial 911 from inside the car...

Thanks Bryan and ITS for a metric shit ton of real world information...

Jeff House
Jeff House

Bryan, again you have written an outstanding article for mass consumption. My wife read this book immediately after I finished and put it to use soon after. She was seriously 'interviewed' by a bad guy, who tried several times to get her out of the car to 'look at this..your brakes are failing'. In discussions after she mentioned many aspects of the book...she 'knew' what was going on and recognized danger but still had to fight the impulse to 'be polite'. It turned out ok as he bailed quickly when she started to dial 911 from inside the car... Thanks Bryan and ITS for a metric shit ton of real world information...

Nick
Nick

I agree, this is a fantastic book. If you haven't checked out Rory Miller's Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected, I would—it's right up there with and is complementary to The Gift of Fear.

Mick
Mick

Your entitled to your opinion on gun safety, but I might find your argument more compelling if it was not chock full of racist sentiment and offending caricatures of the Japanese. And may I also point out that de Becker mentioned that while American's are quick to judge other countries on their civil rights issues the fact remains that the US still experiences the most urban violence, the mentality of which differs from wartime violence and trauma.

Bryan Black
Bryan Black

Thanks for your thoughts and support Jeff. I'm hoping that my wife will do the same when she's done reading it. I told her that if there's one book I want her to read it's this one. Just as in your wife's situation, being on the opposite side it's easy to play arm chair quarterback and say "so what, he just wanted to show her the problem with the brakes." What those that have that response don't understand is that only SHE can make that call and it's HER intuition that stood up and said DON'T! I'm glad to hear that the book helped her recognize the signal that potentially saved her from dangerous situation.

Bryan Black
Bryan Black

Thanks for the suggestion Nick, I'll check it out!

Law
Law

Funny you scream racism when he was giving examples of ACTUAL historical events perpetuated by the Imperial Japanese. Nowhere did he use racial epithets describing them or describing modern day Japanese people as the same as their ancestors. By your logic, is it "racist" and "offensive" to modern day Germans to mention the Holocaust and other acts perpetuated by NAZI Germany? There's a good reason why anti-Japanese sentiment still exists especially in the Asian countrys they brutalized back then.

I take issue with anti-gun stances but judging from the other cooments I might still give this book a chance. I've learned over the years to overcome fears by using different ways to turn it into an advantage, and its good to read other's insights.

Law
Law

Funny you scream racism when he was giving examples of ACTUAL historical events perpetuated by the Imperial Japanese. Nowhere did he use racial epithets describing them or describing modern day Japanese people as the same as their ancestors. By your logic, is it "racist" and "offensive" to modern day Germans to mention the Holocaust and other acts perpetuated by NAZI Germany? There's a good reason why anti-Japanese sentiment still exists especially in the Asian countrys they brutalized back then. I take issue with anti-gun stances but judging from the other cooments I might still give this book a chance. I've learned over the years to overcome fears by using different ways to turn it into an advantage, and its good to read other's insights.

Lizz
Lizz

I read it and had issues with his gun phobia, but I appreciated he seemed to have halfway decent reasons for not liking them.You have to admit that that is a rare occurrence. Perhaps thus is total BS, but it seems like he has lots of childhood trauma associated with guns and now dislikes all signs of them. If you really felt the need, it wouldn't be too hard to turn his own words against himon the issue of gun control.

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