Personal Safety: Awareness

In an article published on a feminist “news” site, claiming to address the topic of self-defense, the author used a line that still bothers me. The line was “and the amazing and impossible ‘be aware of everything around you all the time.’”

This mischaracterization of the subject of awareness does have a basis in a deeper problem. For many years, the common line was “be aware of your surroundings” and the term “situational awareness” was taught without depth for so long that some in the self protection industry prefer not to even use the term anymore. I still use it, but that is because it is very descriptive and helpful, if some information is given as a follow up. Still, I understand why some people shy away from it.

What follows is my take on the concept.

I prefer to look at situational awareness as a sliding scale. Some people use a color code to go with it, I do not. I tend to avoid things like that as the teens I work with see such things as a gimmicky trick rather than the memory aid it is intended to be.

The scale of situational awareness that I use is:

Calm and relaxed awareness

Heightened Awareness


  1. Calm and relaxed awareness

As we go about our day to day, there is simply no need to be in a state of hyper-vigilance. It is unnecessary, and probably more than a little unhealthy. Added to the problem of hyper-vigilance is that such a state would be incredibly hard to maintain. And after a certain point of imagining ninjas around every corner, you might start to overlook lesser, but still real threats. There will, no doubt, be a mental burnout that would accompany keeping one’s self in such a state of awareness. This is where so many people who promote preparation and awareness send the signals that allow people to justify labeling them as part of the lunatic fringe of society.

Much more appropriate would be a calm and relaxed awareness. This would be much healthier in that you will notice good things, beautiful things all around you every day, and who doesn’t need that? This will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is allows learning, healing and growth.

But beyond this, you will also enhance your ability to see when something is out of the ordinary. In the martial arts we use the very basic example of warm weather and a guy in a heavy or long coat. This is an exaggeration, obviously, but it is used to illustrate a point.

When you teach yourself to notice the everyday things; the out-of-the-ordinary stand out that much more. The little things will be less likely to go unnoticed, and that is key for personal safety.

What we notice is what we remember. Think of a time when you may be telling your spouse about a dinner party at work, and perhaps your spouse asks, “Was Mrs. So-n-so there?” and you say, “As a matter of fact she was.” And your spouse asks, “Was she wearing the watch we gave her for her birthday?” “You know what? I really don’t remember!” You can see and not notice. This is something that people do all of the time. So, anything we can do to enhance our ability to notice the things that are odd will be helpful.

Heightened Awareness

If something does seem out of the ordinary, we will move to the state of heightened awareness. This is a stage where we are not yet taking action, we are simply looking at things a little more closely.

We are looking for evidence.

Suppose you are on a train, and someone gets up to exit the train but has left a bag or a package on the train that they had brought with them. Here, we would go into a heightened state of awareness.

It is then that you determine what the next step is. If the evidence shows that there was nothing to be concerned about, you then return to the calm and relaxed awareness state. If suspicions were confirmed, it is time to go to the next level.


This stage is going to mean different things to different people, as well as being largely determined by the specifics of a situation. Space does not permit, nor does inclination urge that I attempt to provide a list of every possible circumstance. Such an attempt would be doomed to failure at the start anyway.

Action can mean attacking the bad guy, but it can also mean running or hiding. It can mean notifying Law Enforcement. The situation will dictate what is appropriate and possible at that moment.

In closing I wish to add an often overlooked element of awareness and that is self awareness. For any awareness to do us any good at all, we have to be aware of our state of mind, what words are pouring out of our mouths, and what we are doing that is influencing the behavior of those around us. If we are being a loudmouthed jerk, or making threats (verbally or physically through the use of threat displays), if we are trying to be the one to get the last word in or have the most clever (or rude) comeback, we are adding to the fire that is burning down our personal safety. More than any physical technique we could ever learn, being aware of ourselves and our influence on the situation is essential to personal safety.