Hard Target: How to integrate the 7 layers of personal safety

Wait, what? For some time now, you’ve heard me preach the four phases of self defense. Now you wonder where the heck this seven layers of personal safety came from!

The four phases of self defense still exist, and awareness and avoidance are indeed the two biggest pieces. But those two pieces cover quite a bit of ground. In fact, if you aren’t familiar with the term, you should read up on the 4 phases of self defense first.

So where do the seven layers of personal safety come in?

Awareness and avoidance are umbrellas covering the entirety of the seven layers of personal safety. The seven layers themselves cover much more than what you may consider “self defense class” material.

These seven personal safety layers begin far outside of yourself. Think of them as concentric circles with you standing in the middle spot (physical defense), which is layer one. Layer seven is the furthest circle from you, like the image below.

The seven layers of personal safety. You stand in the middle with physical defense.

But these circles aren’t independent knowledge bases. Instead, one bleeds into the next. Plus, they each utilize certain phases from the 4 phases of self defense. Let’s take a look at each one, beginning on the outside with layer 7.

For each layer, I’ll list the following info:

  • Layer
  • Which level of attacker you’re defending against
  • Which of the 4 phases of self defense are involved
  • Important information about the layer

Ready? Here we go…

Personal Safety Layer 7: Permanent Defenses

Defense against: opportunistic predators

4 phases skills: awareness & avoidance

Layer 7 deals with defenses you put in place once and leave, such as burglar-proofing your home.

Your first step is awareness of potential threats. Is your neighborhood safe? Are there a myriad of break-ins, thus constituting a home security system? Does your car need an alarm, a GPS, or an anti-theft system? How do you protect your ID, and also your credit information? 

Door lock with multiple deadbolts as home security.

Permanent defenses are those you set and then pretty much forget about. Maybe you check on them now and then, like changing alarm batteries, or checking your credit for bogus accounts. But for the most part, once the permanent defense is in place, you let it do the work for you.

Keep in mind, things may change. For example, you live in a neighborhood with no history of home break-ins. Ten years later, though, drug use is encroaching and break-ins are becoming more common as users look for money. 

Maybe you never considered the need for a home alarm before, but now you feel it’s a necessity, along with better locks on your windows and perhaps some thorny bushes underneath the windows.

Personal Safety Layer 6: Lifestyle

Defense against: potentially dangerous situations

4 phases skills: awareness & avoidance

Personal safety layer 6 involves your overall lifestyle– where you live, work, and recreate; how you interact with others; types of relationships you become involved in.

This layer is about moderate and long term risk aversion. If you believe you can do whatever you want in an ideal world without someone victimizing you, know that I’m right there with you. But the truth is, every choice you make regarding safety brings you one step closer to danger, or one step further from it.

Only you can decide the correct balance for your life.

Here’s the thing about Layer 6. Sometimes you can change your lifestyle, sometimes you can’t. 

For instance, you can choose which neighborhood you live in. You can take the longer drive to work because it keeps you out of a high crime area. 

If you like to party on the weekends, do you head out alone, or take a few friends to watch your back? Another example is choosing how much or how little personal info you share with someone you’ve just met.

On the other hand, maybe you’re a social worker who goes into homes where child abuse complaints arise. It’s work you have passion for, and changing jobs is out of the question. Or, you could work security for a company who specializes in building security in high crime areas. 

In cases such as these, you either can’t– or don’t want to– change jobs or careers. So, what can you do? Maybe you can learn more about reading body language and using “verbal jiu jitsu” to prevent escalating a situation. Or maybe you need to learn physical self defense skills.

When it comes to the Lifestyle safety layer, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Can I change the circumstance?
  • Should I change the circumstance?
  • If not, what habits can I form for better safety?

Which, by the way, brings us to Layer 5.

Personal Safety Layer 5: Habits

Defense against: potentially dangerous situations

4 phases skills: awareness & avoidance

For our purpose, habits consist of daily activities as you go about your lifestyle (layer 6).

Let’s say a few years ago you installed a home security system. For the first few months, you turned it on religiously. But nothing ever happened at your house, so eventually you started skipping the alarm, just locking the door and going to bed instead. 

That isn’t a hard habit to change, right? Just create a new nightly routine. Lock the doors, windows, and turn on the alarm.

Photo by Jimmy Jimmy from Pexels

Maybe you leave work every day and walk down to your favorite restaurant for lunch. While walking, you spend the time texting a couple of your friends. After an honest assessment, you realize you don’t pay attention to whose around you. How could you improve that habit?

Or how about this?

One of your co-workers has a habit of invading your personal space when speaking to you. From time to time, he even makes an unwelcome gesture like placing a hand on your shoulder and pulling you toward him. 

You don’t like confrontation, so instead of saying something, you give an awkward and uncomfortable smile because you know he’ll eventually go away. How could you handle this instead?

Habits are an easy piece of the puzzle to change. It takes an honest assessment of your actions, deciding where you could improve safety, and purposefully making the new action until it becomes habit.

Personal Safety Layer 4: Area Defense

Defense against: potentially dangerous, selective predators

4 phases skills: awareness & avoidance

Now that we’re halfway through the safety layers, we’re entering territory matching what you typically think of as self defense. 

Area defense is simply awareness of your surrounding area for potential danger. This area changes constantly as you move through your day. 

Photo by Leo Cardelli from Pexels

You remain environmentally aware, using sights, sounds, smells, and even gut feelings to assess risks. Area defense extends beyond your personal space, but can be different sizes. 

If you’re in your city square, your immediate area is several blocks you can see, plus a few more you may hear noise coming from.

Put yourself on an elevator though, and your immediate area is restricted to an 8×10 foot box.

What are you searching for in your area? The obvious answer is potential danger, but go beyond that. If trouble starts, where are your escape routes? If you need help, who could you call on or where can you run?

Are you entering a fringe area? Do you recognize the two guys ahead as setting up one of the common ploys attackers use? If so, is there an alternative route you could use? If avoidance becomes impossible, do you know the proper action to take?

Keep in mind, the goal of area defense is not to engage a potential threat, but to spot it early and avoid it whenever possible.

Personal Safety Layer 3: Perimeter Defense (personal space)

Defense against: selective predators

4 phases skills: awareness, avoidance and de-escalation

Personal safety layer 3 gets, well… personal. When thinking about your personal space for self defense, expand your bubble just a bit. 

We all understand personal space. When someone steps into it, we instinctively move away in an effort to reclaim it. But someone that close is already too close if they mean you harm. 

For self defense, we base personal space on reaction time. For the average person, reaction time is about 1/4 of a second. Ideally, you’d have double your reaction time (1/2 second) to respond to a threat. The average person can cover 10 feet in about 1/2 second, so a 10 foot circle becomes our personal space.

Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

Of course, defending your personal space begins with awareness. Just like area defense, you’re relying on all six senses. Yes, that’s your five senses plus your gut feeling. 

Protecting your personal space actually integrates with all of the layers we’ve discussed up to this point. Are you paying attention when you lock und unlock your house door? Get in and out of your car? Leave your office at the end of the work day? Leave the grocery store?

When you walk to lunch, do you cut stairways and corners close, or walk wide so you can see around them sooner?

Body language plays a large role in personal space defense (and area defense). Do you look like a target? In other words, are you distracted by your kids and phone, or are you proactively scanning your area? 

Does your stance say you’re uncertain about yourself and unlikely to put up a fight? Or are you walking with confidence, upright, looking around, and making brief eye contact with everyone as you scan their actions for subtle clues of their intent?

If someone does approach your space, what do you do? Positioning plays a role here. Do you stand right in front of them, or move off to an angle while keeping them in your line of sight? Are your arms crossed, behind your back, or in your pockets instead of in front, between you and the other person?

When they ask for directions, do you turn your back to point down the street? Do you allow them to move into the dangerous 5 foot circle where they can attack before you can respond, or do you dictate position with physical and verbal boundaries?

The actions mentioned above, such as positioning and how you carry yourself, create what we call passive de-escalation. You’re using body language to show potential threats you aren’t an easy target. 

If that fails, then we move to active de-escalation.

Personal Safety Layer 2: Verbal Defense

Defense against: alpha-ego type attacks, may not be as useful for predatory attacks

4 phases skills: awareness, de-escalation

When a threat appears and we can’t avoid it, the next step is verbal defense. Verbal defense, or de-escalation, comes in different forms depending on the situation. Generally speaking, verbal de-escalation works best in alpha ego type threats rather than predatory attacks. However, there are some exceptions.

De-escalation involves attempting to quell an attack, but also includes avoiding acts that further instigate. If you aren’t familiar with de-escalation tactics, you may want to check out our article on the subject.

We can even back-track a bit and say de-escalation involves your body language. Showing uncertainty to an attacker could embolden them, while showing confidence could cause them to second guess if you’re worth the risk. Mostly, though, we think of de-escalation as verbal tactics.

The first level of verbal tactics is setting your verbal boundaries. This works best when confronted with an annoying or belligerent non-violent person. Maybe the guy who asks one too many times if he can buy you a drink. Or, the person on the street who insists you must have change you can part with.

The next step up is what we lovingly refer to as verbal jiu jitsu. Part of verbal de-escalation is understand TACOS (don’t Threaten, Argue, Challenge, Order, Shame) so you don’t ramp up the intensity. Again, this refers mostly to alpha ego type scenarios. In these scenarios, the aggressor often tells you how to avoid the fight: “You better stop looking at me”; “You need to leave before I…”.

Easy enough. Do what he says. But there’s also more active verbal jiu jitsu. Rather than writing it all out here, take a look at this quick demonstration from Tim Tackett, a well known Jeet Kune Do instructor under Dan Inosanto (also a good story of why you always want to avoid the fight).

Now, for the most part, predatory type attacks aren’t the time for verbal de-escalation. The attacker has usually decided on an action and will take it. But there is one type of verbal tactic useful in this situation.

Make noise. 

Thinking about noise as verbal de-escalation is a bit outside the box. But predatory attackers don’t want to get caught. The more attention you draw to your situation- whether yelling for help, screaming, or even cussing– the more chance they see you as too much trouble.

Through any de-escalation, remember: remain aware of your surroundings. Are you backing yourself into a corner? Is an accomplice approaching you from behind? 

One other thing you should watch is body language of the attacker. Certain cues will send the alert you’ve reached Layer 1.

Personal Safety Layer 1: Physical Defense

Defense against: highly motivated attacker

4 phases skills: awareness, defense

The pinnacle. The eye of the storm. The tip of the pyramid. The summit. Except this is one summit you never want to achieve.

Layer 1 involves using physical techniques, weapons, and your environment to defend yourself from harm. Pretty cut and dry, right?

Physical defense is a fight, but it’s not a fight. In other words, it’s not a fight due to ego. You’re not in it because someone called you a name, or to prove you’re tougher. You’re fighting for your life, literally.

It is a fight because, make no mistake, it’s a fight. Meaning the most aggressive person, the one who creates the most damage the fastest, wins. But the only trophy you get is going home 1) alive, and 2) without stopping off in jail first.

Physical defense involves not only an understanding of techniques, skills, improvised weapons, and using your surroundings, but also what kind of force is legal under different scenarios.

Using your surroundings means items you can pick up and use as weapons, but also actions such as moving so a table is between you and the attacker, or inching toward the exit so you can make your escape as soon as possible.

Legal issues include understanding what constitutes self defense versus a fight (by law, not just because you claim self defense), the difference in physical force versus physical deadly force, and when you can legally use the latter.

And sometimes, physical defense doesn’t involve a fight. If someone sticks a gun in your face and demands your wallet, the best physical defense might just be giving them your wallet.

Remember, awareness is still critical. Once a physical altercation begins, don’t count on it being fair. The attacker could pull a weapon you didn’t see before, or his buddy could jump in and help.


Now you know how the 4 phases of self defense and 7 layers of personal safety tie together. You may notice awareness (the first phase of self defense) permeates every single layer of personal safety. Avoidance isn’t far behind.

You also have a better picture of why fighting is a very small part of self defense. It already looks small when placed in the 4 phases, but when you see it within the 7 layers, something should become clear…

If you’re in a fight, a lot of things have gone wrong to get there.

I encourage you to honestly assess each one of these layers in your own life. What are you doing well? Where can you improve?

Nobody will ever be perfect– not even those of us who teach the subject. Life has too many moving parts, and you can’t control them all. But taking charge of what you can control gives you an advantage over the majority. Each positive change you make reduces your risk.

Add enough together, and you become a hard target.

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