It’s not a fight: Understanding the four phases of self defense

The oxford dictionary defines self defense as “the defense of one’s person or interest, especially through the use of physical force.” 

That’s a good definition- if you like vague definitions. 

Self defense is protecting yourself, obviously. But physical force isn’t close to the main element. In fact, self defense begins long before any physical activity presents itself as a possibility.

The four phases of self defense lie along a spectrum. For sure, physical self defense is there. It’s on the far end. We’ll say it sits all the way to the right. 

Chart showing physical defense as the last step on the self defense spectrum.

It makes up one-fourth on a chart, but in reality it’s only a small percentage of self defense. Its percentage only comes into play when everything before it fails.

But what comes before? This month, we’ll take a look at the four phases creating the full spectrum of self defense.


Usually when we think of awareness, we picture walking down the street and knowing what people are doing around you.

But awareness is more than that.

Since awareness gives you early warning of potential threats, it’s the first stage on the self defense spectrum, sitting all the way to the left.

Chart showing awareness as the first step of self defense.

This may sound strange, but knowing what people are doing around you isn’t the focal point of awareness. Instead, ask yourself this question. 

Does the behavior I’m observing fit what I would expect in this situation?

Recognizing behavior that doesn’t match what’s expected helps you spot the common ploys criminals use.

Another aspect of awareness is knowing where your possible escape routes are, where you could seek safety or help, or who around you could be called on for help. One thing to note, though: try to get help, but prepare to fight alone. 

Best case scenario, someone will come to your rescue. You just can’t guarantee it.

Awareness also comes into play in places like drive through lines, at an ATM, or even a stop light. What should you be aware of?

One obvious answer is remain aware of people approaching you or your car. It isn’t normal in these instances. But also remain aware of boxing yourself in.

For instance, when stopping at a red light behind another car, how close do you get? Do you pull right up to the bumper of the car in front of you? If so, you’re trapped.

Instead, stay far enough back that you see pavement between their car and your hood. That means you have room to pull out and leave if necessary.

A further awareness area is weak, or soft, points at your house. If you were a criminal, how would you approach your house without being seen? Is there a dark walkway between your garage and house? Bushes covering a window? Maybe a fence that blocks neighboring views of your back door?

Once you’re aware of potential problems, the next step is easier.


When you’re aware of potential threats, or areas a threat could arise, you can then take steps to avoid the threat. Avoidance is the second point on the self defense spectrum. 

Avoidance is the second step on the self defense spectrum.

Perhaps the most important skill for avoidance is trusting your instincts. Most of us are so used to a lack of violence, it’s easy to feel we’re being silly if our gut tells us something is wrong. 

This sixth sense developed over the course of human evolution. Our brains process thousands of subtle signals before we consciously recognize them. Pay attention to that sense. It’s there for a reason.  

Your sixth sense exists for a reason. Trust it. Original photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Depending on the scenario, your avoidance actions will vary. If you’re aware of normal vs abnormal behaviors, especially in fringe areas where crimes often occur, you’ll spot trouble in time to leave before it occurs.

If not, and someone approaches you, simply establishing the proper boundaries may make you seem a worse target than they thought. Another tactic could be talking loudly to draw attention to yourself, or even calling for help.

Avoidance isn’t just about your person either. Remember in the awareness section when we talked about soft or weak points at your house? Correcting those is another form of avoidance.

For instance, putting a light in the dark passageway between your garage and house, or trimming back the bushes (or replacing them with thorny bushes) in front of your window.

Sometimes, though, you’re unable to avoid the situation. Should that happen, there’s still one more point on the spectrum before we get the fight.


De-escalation is an often overlooked piece of self defense, and an important one. After all, the best self defense is never involving yourself in a violent altercation in the first place. Depending on how it’s played, de-escalation could be part of avoidance, or even part of the fight.

Chart showing de-escalation is the final stage of self defense before physical fighting (defense).

The first part of de-escalation is ensuring we don’t escalate an already tense situation. In order to avoid escalation, we stick to the rule of TACOS; don’t Threaten, Argue, Challenge, Order, or Shame.

In fact, asking nicely but firmly could do the trick. An example I use often is the creeper in the grocery store line. Have you ever encountered one of these? You know, the guy who presses right up against you no matter how far forward you move?

He isn’t an overt threat, but he’s passive aggressive about getting in your space. This type of person usually responds to something like, “You’re making me uncomfortable. Could you please step back out of my personal space?” said with confidence and a little bit of volume (not yelling) while making eye contact.

Quite often, avoidance itself is a de-escalation tactic. Of course, it’s important to know which type of attack you’re facing in order to avoid it properly.

For instance, the guy who just told you to leave before he kicks your ass just gave you the way out. Just leave. 

On the other hand, doing what your attacker says when he wants you to get in his car and keep quiet isn’t likely to end well. In this case, perhaps the better form of avoidance would be pre-emptive, like not taking the short cut through the park at night.

And sometimes, de-escalation looks a lot like the final point on the self defense spectrum. 


Defense- the act of physically fighting back- is what most of us think about when hearing the term self defense. As you see, defense is the last step. It only happens after awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation has failed.

Except in one instance. Sometimes the best de-escalation is a good punch in the nose or kick in the nuts. It’s the proverbial hit, scream, and run away. 

Physical defense makes up one-fourth on a chart, but in reality it's only a small percentage of self defense. It only comes into play when everything before it fails.

But be forewarned: you should know with 100% certainly you have somewhere safe to run, and you can outrun your attacker for that distance should he choose to pursue. 

Otherwise, if you’re dealing with someone who truly means you harm- especially in cases of rape or deadly force attacks- it’s best to follow another rule.

Don’t run away until it’s safe to walk away. 

In other words, make sure the other person is down and out of the fight and you’re confident they can’t physically follow you.

For these scenarios, it’s important to know your definition of win– what you’re willing to let someone do to you, and what you’re willing to do to them. 

It’s also important you understand how much force you’re allowed in any given situation, though generally if you fear rape of death, you can use deadly force to stop it.

And there’s a big plus that comes from understanding the full self defense spectrum. When you go through the stages of awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation, the fight (defense) is less likely to catch you off guard. That means you’re better able to avoid the pitfalls of the fight or flight response.

One more note. Lock this one in your head right now.

If you must fight for your life, never fight fair. Cheat every moment you’re able. Bite, gouge eyes, hit vulnerable targets like the throat, and know how to turn anything within arms reach into an improvised weapon.

In a life or death situation, the only answer to violence is better violence. 


Is self defense about fighting off an attacker? Absolutely. But fighting isn’t the totality of self defense.

The self defense spectrum begins with awareness, moves to avoidance, then on to de-escalation. Only when those three points fail to solve the problem do we move to the last phase, defense.

Self defense isn’t about the fight; it’s about survival. The ultimate goal is not to outdo an attacker, but to go home safely to your family. Any time you’re involved in a fight, there’s a higher than 0% chance you get hurt, killed, or possibly even end up in prison.

If awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation are practiced on a regular basis, physical defense will hopefully never be necessary.

But if the fight becomes necessary and you know it comes down to you or him, fight like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do in your life.

If you don’t, it could be.

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