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The Nuts And Bolts Of Awareness – Part 3

In this post, I’ll be discussing a crucial component of Self-Defense Awareness, which is the ability to pay attention to cues and danger signs relevant to your ability to detect and recognize a potential threat.

Note: This is the 3rd of a 3-part post about Self-Defense Awareness.  If you haven’t already read the preceding posts, you can  click on this link for Part 1 or on this link for Part 2 .


Paying Attention

Attention is the process of consciously attending to a thought, activity or event. It is one thing to know what to pay attention to. It is another thing to be able to do so on a consistent basis.

Conscious thinking and attention are functions of our short-term memory.

The capacity of short-term memory is limited at any given time, to about seven “chunks” or pieces of information.

Our senses bombard us with far more information than we could ever hope to acknowledge or be aware of. The vast majority of what is happening around us is “filtered out,” and only a small portion of it reaches the conscious mind.

The mind is selective about what it pays attention to. To a great extent, the mental maps we have stored in our long-term memory determine what we notice and what we don’t.

Schemas influence, usually unconsciously, the filtering out of stimuli deemed to be irrelevant or unimportant. This further emphasizes the need to develop accurate self-defense schemas. Unless we do, the signals and cues we need to stay safe will be filtered out and ignored.

Distraction and Preoccupation

Being distracted or preoccupied can occupy the limited capacity of the conscious mind and disconnect us from what’s going on around us.

Distraction is when our mental focus is occupied with external stimuli such as loading groceries into your car, fumbling with your keys, texting or being drawn to something interesting or unusual.

Preoccupation happens when our mental focus dwells on internal stimuli such as thoughts, worries and daydreaming.

Distraction and preoccupation are inevitable. Even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t be able to eliminate them for extended periods.

If you are preoccupied or distracted when you should be attending to your surroundings, you won’t detect a predator positioning himself for an assault and you won’t be able to defend yourself.

It is important to identify situations in your life when a higher level of vigilance is necessary and minimize distraction and preoccupation during those times.

FlashlightAttention is like a Flashlight

Imagine that your attention is a beam of light. Whatever you point it at is what you notice. Inevitably when you point the beam in one direction you neglect another. Attention works something like this.

Since our consciousness is limited, we must develop the ability to aim the beam of our attention at details relevant to our safety. We need to pay attention to the “right things” (people watching or following us, potential ambush places, escape routes etc.) at the “right time.”

Interest & Importance

Schema, distraction and preoccupation are only parts of the attention puzzle. What we notice is also a result of our interests and priorities. I’ll quote Dr. Daniel Goleman to make my point.

“What gets through to awareness is what messages have pertinence to whatever mental activity is current. If you are looking for restaurants, you will notice signs for them and not for gas stations; if you are skimming through the newspaper, you will notice those items you care about. What gets through enters awareness, and only what is useful occupies that mental space.”

Goleman is not writing about self-defense but his point could not be more relevant. We notice what we consider (often at an unconscious level) important or interesting at the time we notice it.

If you don’t believe me, go for a ride with a cop (on duty or off).  A cop is trained to scan his or her environment looking for suspicious evidence and activities.  Unless you’re in the same profession, he or she will probably notice things that you will be oblivious to: dirty license plates on a clean car, people dressed inappropriately for the weather, drug deals in progress, open liquor in passing vehicles, someone hanging around a business that is closed, etc.

Here’s a war story to prove my point:  Years ago, I was driving with a friend of mine.  I should mention that I was a police officer at the time and my friend was a landscaper.

While driving in a “not-so-nice” part of town, I spotted an elderly woman walking down the sidewalk with her purse dangling from one arm.  Behind her, was a “young punk,”  matching her walking speed, paying a lot of attention to the purse and looking around nervously.

I pulled into the curb lane and slowed to a crawl, preparing to jump out and intervene to a purse snatching that I was sure was about to take place. My friend enquired, “What are you doing?  Why are you pulling over?”  Not wanting to be distracted,  I put him off, “Just a sec… give me a minute.”

For whatever reason, the kid abandoned his plan and turned off.  (Perhaps he noticed that he was being watched).  I pulled back into traffic and continued on saying to my friend, “This is a pretty rough part of town.  I’d hate to think of my Mom walking around here by herself.”

My friend’s response?  “Yeah, I know what you mean… Doesn’t anyone water the grass or prune the trees around here?”

Obviously my friend and I were operating from different mental maps and priorities.

You may be interested to know that many of the safety and survival strategies developed for law enforcement officers, the military and other high-risk professions are intentionally designed to adhere to the principles that I’ve written about.

Responsibility Increases Awareness

Have you ever heard of the, “I-never-thought-it-would-happen-to-me phenomenon?” I’ll bet you have and it was probably in relation to someone who did have something happen to them.

At the core of the awareness issue is the need to take full responsibility for your own safety. Until you acknowledge, “it could in fact happen to you,” pre-incident cues may not register as important or relevant enough to notice. They will go undetected.

Unless you acknowledge a need to be aware, you won’t be.

Awareness is a deterrent to assault

As I’ve written in posts on victim selection, a predator’s primary targets are people who are unaware of their surroundings and lax about personal safety.

One of the most proactive things you can do to reduce the probability of being victimized is improve your awareness skills.

Once the predator realizes that you have noticed him, he’ll move on to a less observant prey. The fact that you are reading this and exploring the issue of self-defense, in my opinion, decreases the likelihood that you will fall into the category of a “soft target.”

Points To Remember

  • Your ability to recognize a dangerous person or situation makes you safer.
  • Awareness involves knowing what to look for and disciplining yourself to pay attention.
  • The ultimate success in self-defense is when nothing happens.
  • The earlier you detect and recognize a potential problem, the more options you have to resolve it.
  • Detecting and recognizing danger is based on accurate mental maps.
  • Attention involves adjusting your conscious focus toward what is relevant to a particular situation.


I have discussed the nuts and bolts of awareness and attention: what they are, how they work and why they are important.

As you learn more about the components of a comprehensive self-defense, you will develop a clearer, more accurate map to increase your awareness and reduce the probability of a confrontation.

Follow this link for Part 1

Follow this link for Part 2

How do you think you would rate yourself on our awareness skills?  Please feel free to comment with your questions, feedback or opinions.

About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • JJ Holmes

    Interesting articles…thanks for the info. I am interested in your perspective on my unique situation. I live in a foreign country where it is very obvious I am a foreigner. As a result, I get a lot of strange looks when out and almost always feel people looking me up and down. Sometimes I have to force myself to ignore the extra attention and I find it more difficult to filter threats. Any recommendation on how to narrow my focus since my “flashlight” can’t shine everywhere at once? I would imagine law enforcement sometimes finds themselves receiving similar attention just because they stand out.

    There is a high potential for opportunistic crime and people attempting to distract you while someone else works you, so I am probably overly attentive when out by myself.

    • You’re right JJ. In law enforcement, it goes with the territory. When you walk into room in uniform, everything stops and all eyes turn your way… often with the drunks pointing toward their companions… “He’s over here ‘oshiffer,’ take him away!” followed by giggles and booze-driven laughter. (I guess it’s funnier after a dozen beers ;-). When you drive in traffic in a marked cruiser, you either get people staring or refusing to look your way; eyes fixed forward… both hands on the steering wheel. It’s often called “the fish bowl effect.”

      When you describe yourself as being a “foreinger,” are you referring to wearing traditional garb that is different than those around you? If so, it’s just like being in a uniform, people are going to look. I’m not suggesting that you change what you wear or any other cultural symbols you might choose to display. If you do though, you are just going to have to get use to the attention. That’s just the way the world works.

      As far as awareness from a safety perspective is concerned, it sounds like you have a good handle and staying aware of what’s going on around you. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re probably pretty good already at differentiating between someone who is just curious versus someone intending to set you up as a victim.

      I hope that makes sense… Thanks for your comment.

  • JJ Holmes

    Thanks for your response… it is my skin color that sets me apart no matter what I wear… I live in a third world country where lighter skinned folks are rare and sometimes have a negative reputation due to past history in the country. I totally understand the reaction, but it does make it harder to differentiate between someone looking because of cultural differences or because they have ill-intent.

    • It sounds like you have a good handle on things JJ… I’m sure you’ll figure it out… You’re aware of the situation and looking for solutions. You’ll also find that “predatory behavior and body language” is not the same as “curiousity.” If you can’t already, I’m sure its a skill that you’re developing. Good luck and keep in touch… Feel free to email me if you have any questions or concerns.

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