Our greatest fear may be the stranger who is behind us as we walk home late at night, but in statistical reality, it is the friend or acquaintance in our own home or somebody else’s who poses a greater threat.

– Gershon Ben Keren

There’s a story that goes around martial arts circles: someone asks a martial artist if they’ve ever used their training, referring to whether or not they’ve gotten in a fight outside the dojo. The martial artist replies, “Yes, I use my training every day,” referring to the mental elements of their training. Though we tend to think of martial arts mainly as a sport or an art, it actually starts in the mind.

This applies to self-defense, too. Every time you see a sketchy situation developing and remove yourself from it, you are practicing self-defense. After all, the best way to survive a physical confrontation is to avoid one altogether (when possible!). If you are interested in learning self-defense, before learning any physical techniques, you can start at the beginning by learning the mental elements at home. This should include learning behavioral red flags, understanding how violent people think, making your plan ahead of time, and committing to action. The resources below are classic works on self-defense that I refer to and recommend in my own self-defense seminars.

The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin de Becker

Despite its title, this classic is less about fear and more about tapping into and trusting your instincts—which can be expressed as fear, as well as persistent thoughts, hesitation, suspicion, dark humor, gut feelings, or anxiety. De Becker teaches readers to recognize and avoid the predators that are statistically most likely to attack them, rather than focusing on only the vague idea of a stranger in the dark. For women, a man jumping out of the bushes to attack us in a deserted field or alleyway is not statistically likely to happen. It certainly does happen, but it is not how most women are attacked, so it does not make sense to focus on what is a rare occurrence.

Rather, most women are attacked by people they know: relatives, boyfriends, husbands, friends, colleagues, classmates, and acquaintances. Most people, though, worry much more about being attacked by a stranger than someone they know. The reasons for this are many, but an important one to remember is that nobody likes to consider the possibility that they are friends with or spending time around people who are violent. That’s why people tend to gloss over red flags they perceive in others by thinking, “They’re just joking,” or, “I’m probably reading too much into this.” On the contrary, de Becker warns us: if something feels off, it often is off. Violence can be predicted when you can recognize the red flags beforehand. De Becker’s tour de force teaches you how to do just that: to recognize the warning signs that can help you recognize and avoid many different types of violent people, such as predators, abusers, stalkers, and more.

Fight Like a Girl . . . and Win: Defense Decisions for Women, by Lori Hartman Gervasi

Read Lori Hartman Gervasi’s book to prepare yourself for self-defense by making decisions, making plans, and developing a self-defense mindset. Gervasi tackles some of the initial decisions that women must make when they plan to get serious about self-defense, such as deciding that you are worth fighting for and that you will inflict serious injury or death when necessary. You must commit to these decisions. If you aren’t sure that you are worth fighting for, you may waver when literal push comes to literal shove.

You need to decide that you are willing to injure, maim, or kill someone else who is trying to injure, maim, or kill you—because it may be the only way to stop them. Escaping the situation should always be the first choice, but in some cases, it is impossible without removing the person obstructing the exit. If a threatening date has you trapped in a small dorm room, can you pick up the baseball bat in the corner and swing it at that predator’s head until they are out of your way? Your physical safety should be paramount in any situation. That thought is something to sit with and acclimate to, now, in the safety of your own home.

Gervasi then extrapolates modes of thought to adopt, such as how to be more aware, how to take ownership of your safety, how to think about protecting your space, how to be active rather than reactive, and how to think creatively about escaping from or injuring a threatening person. She also describes many examples of women who got themselves out of deadly situations and discusses the lessons we can learn and strategies to consider. While The Gift of Fear drops knowledge on assessing other people as risks, Fight Like a Girl is a reflective book that impels you to do the internal work of learning about yourself and developing the mindset that’s necessary for self-defense.

SEPS Women’s Self-Defense: The Situation Determines the Solution

SEPS, which stands for Situation Effective Protection System, is a free online women’s self-defense course created by Gershon Ben Keren, a security expert and instructor in Krav Maga (a hand-to-hand combat self-defense system) with graduate degrees in psychology. This fantastic course is divided into nine modules covering rape and sexual assault, abusive relationships, stalkers, financial predators, home security, and de-escalation. Each module features in-depth information about the nature of violence and how predators think, which is vital to understand in order to make accurate risk assessments. The SEPS program also dispels misinformation and includes surveys you can take to test your knowledge before and after completing the modules.

After reading these solid, researched books on self-defense, the next step in your self-defense journey is to enroll in an in-person class with a women’s self-defense program such as IMPACT, or a class at a local dojo or women’s center. While there are many videos online detailing physical techniques, it is a myth that you can learn a contact sport just from reading books and watching videos. (You wouldn’t expect to learn how to play football via YouTube.) In in-person self-defense classes, the instructors can help correct your technique, show you how it works in relationship with another person’s body, and you can practice actually hitting something—in a self-defense situation, you won’t be striking the air!

Not all self-defense seminars are the same. Unfortunately, there are a lot of martial artists specializing in tournament fighting who then cross over into women’s self-defense without fully acknowledging that the two modes of combat are entirely different. If you cannot attend an IMPACT course, look for a seminar taught by another women’s self-defense program or a Krav Maga school. When assessing possible courses, look for these signs of a good course and instructor:

  • The course should empower women students. There should be absolutely no victim-blaming or sexist jokes.
  • The course should discuss levels of force, including boundary-setting and verbal responses to set in place to deter predators in your life and to help you avoid having a physical altercation at all.
  • The course should be anchored in reality and statistics. The instructor should not be preoccupied with the boogeyman rapist, such as the one who jumps you in an alley.
  • The course should preferably be a series spread out over a week or a month, or a class that you can attend a few times, rather than a single one-hour class (which is the bare minimum).
  • The course should focus on combinations of simple moves to help you injure, maim, or kill an attacker, and should include easy-but-brutal techniques, such as strikes to the eyes, nose, throat, and ears.
  • The course should not focus on multiple-step wrist-locks, armbars, or aikido throws meant to “stop” an attacker without injuring them. Instructors can make them look easy because they have perfected them over the years and continue to practice them weekly or daily, but complex techniques cannot be learned in one to three hours of class.
  • The course should include some very simple ground techniques to help you get someone off you.

Basic self-defense does not require you to lift a hundred pounds, run a five-minute mile, or spend hours every day in a dojo. Rather, you already have all the tools you need, because protecting yourself is like any other skill: it’s something you can learn with knowledge, practice, and determination.