I was recently asked how I go about helping the passive and meek develop the intent to cause injury. This opens up an interesting debate about whether self protection is nature or nurture…

Is intent innate, or can it be taught and learned?

There’s evidence for both sides. The most unlikely people become human demolition machines with a little self protection training, while the biggest, baddest guy in the room faints at the mention of gouging an eye and can’t bring himself to stomp people when they’re down. Size, stature and presentation say nothing of what’s really deep down inside. You can’t tell, just by looking, who’s got a hard core and who has cream filling, especially when the hard core will act demure to hide that fact and the sponge-cake crew will bluster and scowl to mask their fear.

Some people show up for training pre-set with intent for self protection. All I have to do is show them where to put it. I’ve had others take a year or more before suddenly throwing the switch and doing good work the way it needs to get done on the mats.

So is it nature or nurture? It’s equal parts of both.tim-larkin-quote-self-protection-intent

On the nature side, everyone’s a killer. Our eyes are on the front of our heads, we hunt in packs, and we have teeth purpose-grown for tearing flesh from bone. We’re the species that hunts orcas in sealskin kayaks. Outsized predation is our birthright and our bane.

On the nurture side, we’re taught to suppress the predatory reflex, especially when tempted to turn it on each other. Adhering to the letter of the social contract gets us pyramids, space shuttles and four-way-stop intersections. Not hurting each other is pretty much the definition of the Good Life.

Problems arise when that social contract is seen as inviolable, real, or universally upheld. Some are blind to it; others use your adherence to it to their advantage. The reality of the social contract is that it is a hologram of suggestions rather than laws graven on stone tablets. As an “intent governor,” it’s great for social interaction, but not so much in the realm of violence or self protection.

So how do we get people to tap into their predator heritage?

The obvious method would appear to be through a heightened emotional state with adrenal stress training: screaming at them, smacking them around, and daring them to strike back. Push them into a corner emotionally in order to make it more likely they’ll explode out of it in a frenzy of rage. The only problem is that this approach is at odds with watching those with real intent work.

What do they say about mass murderers? They are reported to be calm and methodical — they take their time with flattened affect. They put themselves into a headspace that is on the opposite end of the spectrum from panic. If they can incite panic in everyone else, that leaves them free to work in a target-rich environment.

Tapping into that predator headspace is not the same as becoming enraged. Intent is not frenzy. (Watch an animal hunt and fight and you will see two different animals.) Intent is not about a heightened emotional state; it’s about focus, desire, and will.

Building that intent is not something that can be done overnight in those who appear to lack the capacity for it. It’s a calendar-time process that involves re-patterning the internal behavior and response to that moment of violence.

So we take a look at how to become the winner in violence.

Those who have a problem with intent see themselves as the victim in the violence equation. Being the one doing it, owning it, and dominating in that arena are antithetical to their sense of who they are. The topic itself induces fear and anxiety. They’d rather hide from it than face it.

Instead, they need to see themselves as a doer in violence, to stop empathizing with the victim and start identifying with the winner. Anyone can do this.

When viewing real violence in the news, you will see a winner and a loser. Because you’re sane and have all your empathy circuits intact, you will look down at the loser and feel his pain on a visceral level. You will be repulsed and motivated to figure out how to help that guy, you’ll try to reverse-engineer a plan of action to prevent what you see. This is where self protection techniques come from — the desire to save the victim from what has already occurred.

What you have to do is force yourself to look up at the winner and figure out what he’s doing right. Why is he winning? You don’t have to like him or laud him. You simply have to recognize the mechanical fact that he’s the winner. It doesn’t make you a bad person to use what works to survive.

Next, be critical of his performance. What’s he doing wrong? Is he off-balance, missing targets, waiting when he should plow in? This part of the process lets you own the information and show your brain the difference between correct and incorrect in the application.

But by itself, this exercise doesn’t build intent, it just gets the process started.

You need physical self protection practice in order to stick it to something real.

That means mat time. You wouldn’t expect to learn how to swim without getting wet, and the equivalent here is target practice on a real human machine. Regardless of your fear or anxiety you need to go where the winners go, do what they do and see what they see. This is how you pattern your brain for what you want it to do for you in that moment of violence. Doing it over and over and over again burns new pathways and makes them the most likely action you’ll take.

You will perform as you practice — no practice means no performance.

Repeatedly putting yourself through the man, injuring him, seeing the reaction to that injury, and then choosing to take advantage of the fact he’s injured sets you up to operate just like that.

I’ve watched people throw themselves at this work with great reluctance, anxiety and fear — only to come out the other side confident, dominant, and resolute in their physical ability to execute at will. Again, this doesn’t happen overnight but over a decent amount of calendar time.

Much in the same way the physical act of smiling can lift your mood, so the physical practice of winning in violence can build intent. Far better than screaming, smacking or trying to goad an emotional response out of someone ever will.

Intent in self protection and violence is about wanting injury to the exclusion of all else. It is motivation that lies beyond emotion.

It’s the means to physically execute for a desired result. It’s what the Olympic diver has when her feet leave the platform, the race car driver when he unconsciously downshifts, the marksman as he pulls the trigger. And you only build it by doing it.


Tim Larkin

Self-Protection Expert & Founder of Target Focus Training
Author of When Violence Is The Answer

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