Self Defense

Are You Mentally Prepared To Defend Yourself?

In his book, The Way is in Training, Matthew Little wrote, “Technical skill and physical preparedness are both useless without a commensurate development of the mind.” Let’s take a stab at exploring that in the context of the armed civilian.

A reader requested that I write a bit about the psychology of defending yourself to the death. Perhaps that is better stated as the mental preparedness or mindset necessary to fight for your life which includes the willingness to continue living your life after possibly taking another. It’s an interesting topic with many facets that a single blog post can only scratch the surface of, but it is a topic worthy of discussion and very serious thought. As Winston (the character in John Wick) asked, “Have you thought this through? I mean, chewed down to the bone?”

Mindset is at the core of self defense. From what I recall from the martial arts I studied in my youth, the concept of “mind, body, and spirit” was frequently mentioned and I think that mind being the first element identified by the concept was intentional. Some prominent firearms training organizations include this concept in their slogans and marketing. For example, the first thing one sees on the homepage for Tactical Response is a slideshow with mindset as the first item, that’s followed by tactics, skill and gear. Again, the order is intentional. Another example is Active Self Protection, who uses “Attitude, Skills, Plan” as a slogan in their logo and throughout their content. I suspect attitude in this slogan is synonymous to mindset. Other synonyms might include terms like “mental preparedness” or “emotional fortitude”. Regardless of the term used for mindset, it seems like every philosophy that surrounds every martial art fundamentally identifies mindset as the foundation that is required and necessary in order to win a fight universally. Even various depictions of the Combat Triad introduced by the late Jeff Cooper, which was used to explain the philosophy of violence places mindset as either the foundation of a pyramid or the base side of an equilateral triangle.

So yeah, mindset is important. But, what is it? This is a hard question to answer. In fact, I’ve heard a couple of podcast episodes (one from EDC: Every Day Conversations and another from American Warrior Show if memory serves me right) where there was a conversation to somebody quoting or paraphrasing something to the effect of, “How do you teach somebody to mindset? It’s not an action or a verb.” – which I think is attributed to Craig Douglas if I am not mistaken. My apologies if I got any of those sources and attributions wrong it’s been a little while since I listened to those podcasts and didn’t go back to confirm them since I’m not aware of an efficient way to search through the content of those podcasts in order to quickly identify the episode and the point in those episodes where those discussion took place. (If someone knows of a good technique to do that, then please let me know.) The point is that mindset is somewhat of a nebulous concept that is better understood by those who have a fair amount of first hand experience with fighting and violence, but is difficult to articulate and explain to those who lack that experience. I’m in the same camp with those who lack that experience.

I expect many of you may be wondering, why is Uncle Zo writing about mindset and attempting to explain a nebulous concept when he just admitted is in the lacking experience camp? That’s a fair question and one that I’ve asked myself. While I may not have a full grasp of the concept, I do think I have a decent handle on it. At least an academic understanding if nothing more. Keep that in mind, should you decide to continue reading.

Still reading? Okay then. Here we go. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In my opinion, which I’m still refining, mindset is part confidence and part commitment. Both of those components are developed over time as one works on becoming better prepared to deal with a violent encounter including its prevention (avoiding it), intervention (fighting to break contact), and postvention (dealing with the aftermath). Neither confidence nor commitment are things that can be taught. They are things that are built through education, developing abilities, and introspection. Let’s break these components down a little bit more individually.

Confidence comes from having well placed and earned trust in our abilities and tools. Abilities, in my opinion once again, aren’t limited to marksmanship and tactics. It also includes our abilities to make good decisions. Meaning we know in our heart of hearts that we are unlikely to make a serious mistake that could result in a negative outcome that Claude Werner’s work has warned us about. Confidence minimizes doubt which in turn minimizes hesitation. 

Confidence also comes from being adequately prepared to solve the self defense problem that is in front of us. This means being competently skilled and familiar enough with our tools while knowing enough about violent encounters so that there is little to no novelty about what is happening. Based on my limited understanding of the research and work from Dr. Paul Whitesell, Jeff Cooper, John Hearne, and Dr. William Aprill, novelty is something that our brain doesn’t deal well with and can trigger the flight, fight, or freeze response that occurs when the limbic system, or “animal brain”, takes over preventing the use of our cognitive abilities during the encounter which can lead to serious mistakes and negative outcomes. 

I suppose another way to say it is that confidence comes from genuinely knowing what to do without hesitation or freaking out. 

Commitment comes from knowing and understanding what is at stake coupled with having a deliberate game plan. The stakes at a minimum are serious injury or death for yourself and loved ones present. Those are pretty high stakes, but like I said, those are the bare minimum. Consider the long term effects of a serious injury that might permanently disable you. That can have a considerable effect on one’s quality of life and the quality of life for those who depend on you. Another set of stakes to consider are the stakes associated with the aftermath using lethal force for self defense which comes in the form of potentially substantial financial, legal, psychological, and spiritual costs. 

I believe that since there are stakes associated with both winning or losing, commitments to deliberate specific actions are very important and begin the moment we don our defensive equipment for the day which helps build and maintain the commitment. For example, consciously reminding ourselves why putting on a holstered pistol with something far more precise than “because it’s better to have not need than need and not have” like “because somebody may leave me no choice but to shoot them in self defense”. The commitments to specific actions we make can also help us to avoid violent encounters. For example, thinking of something like “if I get a weird vibe as I pull into this gas station, then I’m just going to leave and drive down the street to another one” as one is pulling into a gas station to gas up their vehicle. Or maybe when we notice somebody approaching us directly from across the grocery store parking lot as we putting the recently purchased groceries in the truck we make the commitment to “attempt make eye contact while they are still more a certain distance away so they know we see them” or “making verbal contact once they reach a certain distance” while positioning ourselves so that the vehicle is between us and them. These planned actions, or what Tom Givens would call premade decisions, do more than hasten our resolve. They help maintain our confidence as the situation unfolds and is hopefully avoided altogether. In some ways, they may also aid the mindset in the aftermath of a self defense incident because they represent the actions the violent offender took that lead us to the conclusion that we can, may, should, and must shoot.

It might appear like I’m mixing tactics and skills with mindset and that’s because I am. All of the aspects that prepare us for a self defense encounter are connected and intertwined. They supplement and complement each other. The use of observational skills provides us with time to deploy known tactics which affect our mindset. In other words, we are adapting to the unfolding situation in real time using tools from our toolbox with genuine confidence which allows us to maintain presence of mind as stress increases. Yes, the situation itself is dangerous and chaotic, but it can be managed and dealt with. The real danger lies in finding ourselves not knowing what to do – that’s the novelty that brings about real panic.

Again, we’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. More specifically, we’ve scratched the surface of this topic by exploring my understanding of mindset which is far from complete. I don’t know that anyone is ever completely and fully mentally prepared to defend themselves, but there are things that we can do to become sufficiently prepared through education, training, and introspection. This likely falls short of what Matthew Little meant by “a commensurate development of the mind” in his book, The Way is in Training, but I think it’s a good start in the right direction.


  1. My dad taught me growing up that I had to make an internal decision as to when I would use lethal force against someone, and to be sure that I was comfortable with that decision so that I wouldn’t hesitate when it came down to that. He said it would be a decision that would change as I grew, but that I ALWAYS had to know where that line was.
    And, due in no small part to his training, I have been able to avoid those situations for the 40+ years I have been carrying a weapon of some sort.

    Thanks for posting this article, Uncle Zo!

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