The Fallacy of ‘No Fear’ in the Fight

I am telling you up front, this is going to be a long article. There’s no way around it unfortunately. This is an important, and mostly misunderstood subject in the world of interpersonal violence. As such it needs some serious unpacking. While this article may not answer all on this topic, I hope at the very least it’s a start. If you sincere about wanting to train for interpersonal violence, and by the end of the article you agree with my argument, consider joining us in 2018 for our revamped self-preservation programs (click here to get notified when that will happen).

Self-Defense Instructors are Counting on Your Fear

Most people who teach ‘self-defense’ know that for most people fear is going to be a problem. They know that people know that fear is going to be their biggest obstacle. This is a fair assessment. Where I take issue with this topic is when many of these self defense instructors imply that they will teach their students how to have ‘No Fear’. In other words, there is promise that they will help them eradicate their fear of interpersonal violence all together. These claims are more inline with self help/pop-psychology nonsense than something that should be presented by someone who is preparing a person to survive one of the worst experiences of their life. Part of the problem here, is that most of the time, even the self defense experts don’t fully understand the topic of fear to begin with.

Without stating the obvious, but fear, at least of the physiological kind, is there for a reason. As Batson et al. (1992) explain from an evolutionary perspective fear and all other affective states “seems to reveal preference; it informs the organism experiencing it about those states of affairs that it values more than others.” Therefore, “Change from a less valued to a more valued state [for example utility] is accompanied by positive affect,” while “change from a more valued to a less valued state [for example danger] is accompanied by negative affect” (p. 298). I agree with this up to a point, however I don’t believe any affective state is negative per-say. All affective states including the physiological experience we call fear are helpful (depending of course on context).

Fear then, alerts you to danger, and primes your body to be able to address that danger. At times, depending on context, you may find moving away from danger is the best solution. At other times, or when you have no other choice, you may need to confront the danger head on. In either case, there is no way to ‘switch off’ your alarm bells (not only would you not want too, but anyone telling you that you can have ‘No Fear’ in the literal sense, is lying to your face). The physiological changes that happen in the face of a perceived threat will happen with or without your permission. From an evolutionary stand point this makes sense. If every time our ancestors were confronted with a perceived danger and they had to stop and decide if it was dangerous or not to begin with, we wouldn’t be here. That’s why, if you were walking in the Amazon Rainforest, knowing that dangers abound like snakes, and something in a tree to your left moves, you immediately jump back. Once you have, and you realize its only a some leaves moving in the morning fresh air, you carry on walking.


The Misunderstanding Starts with the Term Emotion

No to get to technical, but part of the problem as well as both researchers, and everyday people use the word emotions to describe things that are not emotions to begin with. For example Ekkekakis (2012) has noted that terms such as ‘affect,’ ‘mood’ and ‘emotions’ are often used interchangeably. Researchers themselves for example, often make no distinction between the three, or apply definitions different to their academic counterparts. Spielberger and Barratt (1972) for example, defined and conceptualised anxiety as an emotional state, which has now been labelled as a ‘mood’ by several researchers (see: Raglin et al. 1993; Bartholomew and Linder, 1998; Berger and Motl, 2000). This suggests that many researchers in the field do not universally agree upon the meaning of the terms affect, mood and emotion. Which makes getting a clear picture of the topic so much harder for everyone.

To keep the technical jargon down, I will suggest here to apply the term ‘affective states’ as an umbrella term, encompasses a broad range of affective experiences. These can include short term affective experiences, such as emotions (e.g., fear, anger or disgust) and moods (e.g., anxiousness or joy) and also stable long term feeling traits, such as those that are dispositional, where a person is generally noted to act in certain ways (“he’s always so upbeat”). In simple usable terms then, an emotion is often a short-lived ‘feeling’ that arise from a known cause, while moods are feelings that tend to be longer lasting than emotions, but have no clear starting point of formation. Unlike emotions, which is often intense and explosive, a mood is often regarded as a persistent state.

Two features — duration and intensity — are seen as the quantifiable distinguishing features between emotion and mood. As Ekman (1992) notes, “Emotions usually last only for seconds, not minutes, hours or days,” (p. 186) where moods tend to last for hours, even days. In addition, moods do not have a specific target; they are generalised feeling states, that lack the intensity to interrupt ongoing thought processes. Emotions may at times give the impression of lasting for extended periods, however, this is often suggested to be multiple episodes of emotions that are occurring in succession. Therefore, what is often seen as an emotional episode lasting for an extended period is actually a series of repeated, yet discreet emotional episodes.


Fear Can Be Cognitively Subjective

As noted above, unlike moods which tend to be longer lasting, emotions are more intense, shorter and targeted. Emotions are transient, intense reactions either to an event, a person or an entity, such as suddenly finding yourself confronted by someone who wants to do you harm. Here’s where it gets tricky (and I will confess, not everyone will see it this way, however this is my personal position on affective states, especially internal states labelled as fear).
Barrett (2006) has suggested that, “People experience an emotion when they conceptualise an instance of affective feeling,” which means that, “the experience of emotion is an act of categorisation, guided by embodied knowledge about emotion” (p. 20). Here Barrett articulates this understanding of emotion, as the theory of constructed emotion. As such Sherer et al. (2001) advocate an appraisal process whereby an emotion is elicited by a subjective evaluation (appraisal) of a significant event or situation in the environment that is seen as potentially beneficial or harmful.

Say what?

Said another way, it is the cognitive interpretation of an event, rather than the event itself, which causes the articulation of what we then define as an emotion. Therefore, what we define as X emotion is a result of a cognitive interpretation, be that automatic, unconscious, controlled or a deliberate process. Personally I like to view our embodied reaction to a potential threat as simply a survival response to that potential threat. All that embodied changes that happen in that moment, like an elevated heart rate, butterflies in your stomach, clammy hands, dry mouth etc al., is your body priming itself to deal with that threat. The obvious fact of this is sometimes we are cognitively aware of all these changes happening in our body (i.e., we are able to reflect on them as they are happening), and at other times when caught completely off gaurd, there is no time to give it some meaning in our thought process at that moment, so we simply react and appraise it later. However just because you are not ‘thought aware’ of something and you react — doesn’t mean that how you react is not cognitively conditioned from previous experiences though.

Say what again?

So here is the crux of the matter. Through our life experiences we learn to interpret these embodied changes as X emotion. What I described above would be, by most people articulated as fear. So here is the thing, appraisal serves as an evaluative process to diagnose whether a situation confronting you has adaptational relevance, and in doing so you are then able to identify the nature of that relevance to produce an appropriate emotional response to it. As such emotions that are elicited can be situational (i.e., contextual), with different kinds of emotions being elicited for one person and not another. This labelling of an emotion, is influenced by the cultural and social influences being presented or what had been codified into experience previously. In all of this then, the fact that we call this kind of emotional response based on our embodied feeling, along with our cultural/social influence ‘fear’ is simply a term we use to describe our internal state change. It is for this very reason that while you may never be able to control that internal state per-say, you can learn cognitively to manage and interpret it differently.

Let me give you an example:

Two people have to give a presentation this morning. While waiting in the isles to go on stage to speak, both feel a physiological response (i.e., internal state change) happening in their body as they await their turn. In other words there is an internal change to their embodiment. Depending on how a person cognitively views this upcoming experience of giving a presentation in front of 5000 people, will then determine how they articulate how those inner state changes will effect them. One person might view the change in their physiology of butterflies in their stomach etc, as excitement, whilst the other person feeling very similar physiological changes may view those as utter fear.

What changed?

Physiologically they both felt similar inner state changes (albeit maybe one more than the other because they view the experience differently), but the real difference between the two wasn’t so much the physiological changes, but rather the interpretation of those physiological feelings that elicited a codification of the feeling into an emotion (i.e., one person says they are “excited” while the other says, “I am afraid”) It’s only ‘fear’ because that’s what we have called it in our lexicon, we could have called it ‘gongo’ if we wanted too.

Here I am rolling with my son. I am much bigger and stronger than him, but his face says, “not today!”

The Relevance to Self-Preservation

What’s the relevance here to self-preservation training then? Likely probably one of the most important reasons you are training martial arts, is because you want to learn how to defend yourself, and by extension you hope that the training you receive will help you get over things like the fear of interpersonal violence.

Obviously then, the training you are exposed too, needs to aid you in managing your ‘fear’ more effectively. This means, like it or not, as a starting point you need a process of progressive stress inoculation that will allow you to deal with varied levels of physical martial intensity. But that’s not enough, you also need training that will challenge you psychologically. Just because you train hard physically in a martial setting doesn’t mean by default that this will have any real lasting impact on your mental capabilities, especially when it comes to things like fear. To deal with ‘fear’ you need to find a way to invoke the physiological changes you experience when you say you are afraid, so that you can then be taught inner management skills to change your relationship with those feelings, by cognitively interpretively reframing them to something more pragmatic.

And here lies the hardest part of ever learning to effectively defend yourself, for two reasons: for one, it is hard to create the right kind of environment in training that will elicit the physiological responses that may be endured in a real fight, and secondly, everyone wants to learn how to defend themselves, but they don’t want to be made to feel cognitively uncomfortable. In other words, “Please teach me how to overcome my fear of interpersonal violence, but by the way, don’t make me scared.” It’s a catch 22 situation really. Because of these limitations, most self defense training has limited utility for that which it is being trained for, which is real, in your face, raw, interpersonal violence.

But all is not lost. We all, to varied degrees feel what we call fear in our lives. For some it may even be weekly. That whole example of standing up in front of a crowd, may be the very thing that makes you feel what you call fear. It is in what we may call everyday life moments that we actually have the best chance of preparing ourselves for interpreting physiological changes in a way that wont get in the way of us succeeding in life, or on the street in self defense. I write this with a caveat too, researchers have long noted the difficulty that people have in assessing, discerning, and describing their own emotions. Whilst researchers themselves as Frijda and Scherer (2009) note struggle to define clear criteria when emotions are present or not. As such It has been suggested that, “The term ‘emotion’ may be one of the fuzziest concepts in all of the sciences” (Frijda and Scherer 2009, p. 142). This isn’t at all surprising if you have been following me thus far. For one person something may be defined as fear, but yet for another, the same experience may be defined as excitement.


Coming Back Full Circle

Which brings me back full circle to the crux of the matter. There are going to be times when your body’s alarm system goes off seemingly outside of your own conscious awareness of it. At other times, you create the alarm by what you are creating in your own thinking mind. In either of these cases, aware or unaware, there is a cognition state that has, or is being created that is defining the parameters of the feeling state you are in.

In that sense, Victor Frankl was right on the money when he noted and the quote that changed my life, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” As hard as it might be for some to agree with this, the outcome of a physiological response to anything, is going to come down to your attitude about it. You may never be able to change the physiological responses you have to a specific experience, like interpersonal violence, but you always have a choice on how you interpret those physiological responses.

This is what I meant by interpretive cognitive reframing mentioned earlier on. What you say to yourself in the moment when someone is about to attack you (or in instances when you are caught off gaurd and there’s no time to think, what you have told yourself repeatedly about how you will react when it does) — will have a huge impact on how it will likely unfold. Taken from this position, what you train physically martial arts wise, or physically defensive tactics wise etc, isn’t nearly as important as compared to what you say you are going to do when faced with the real event (Now if you are able to match that up with the right physical response even better).

The truth is, much of how self defense is taught, where people always seem to win the fight with their physical techniques, is likely a sure fire way to lose the fight to begin with.


Just because you may be physically losing at one point in an altercation, doesn’t mean you cannot come back and win. What will turn the tide is likely not going to be your physical technique in the moment (after all in that moment you losing physically anyway) but rather, what you say to yourself in that moment and how it in turn primes your body, or what you have drilled in moments cognitively when you are losing a fight, that will likely turn the tide!

One of the things that I am big on when teaching my own students to win in interpersonal violence, is to focus more on how they are engaging mentally with the training, than physically. I have seen people with crap technique win a fight not because of anything other than their mindset. Coming back to the article title then, No Fear: there’s likely no such thing, at least for normal healthy functioning human beings. Every normal person that encounters a situation where someone wants to physically hurt them will physiologically change in that very moment to deal with that threat. Those physiological changes may be become less pronounced with training, but they will likely never go away. The thing we then call ‘fear,’ is only our way of interpreting those physiological changes into description that makes sense to us, and others who we may want to tell about our experience (or for some, a convenient excuse for failure).

The thing to realize, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, is that those physiological changes are primers to survive violence. They are needed both to survive, but equally to eliminate the threat. What will be hard for some to swallow then is that just because you are feeling a certain way, doesn’t by default mean that it will end up badly. This is why, right now somewhere on the planet a person is being faced with someone who wants to physically hurt them, and they win out, even though they never took a day of martial arts training in their life. That person cognitively reframed that situation and decided “on this day I am not going to fucking die, and you are going to have to kill me to end this.” While all the while, just like anyone else who would be faced with a such a situation, this person who survives has all the physiological changes that someone else would in such a situation, except that other person gave up and this survivor didn’t.

In other words, there is no overcoming ‘fear in the physiological sense’ but there is cognitive interpretive reframing of the ‘fear in the cognitive sense’. So, if you are training with someone who says they will teach you how to survive interpersonal violence, yet spends little or not time with you on your cognitive interpretive reframing of the experience of interpersonal violence, you may be fighting a losing battle. Like it or not, many times, learning how to defend yourself, may make things worse, not better.

As a parting note, imagine since childhood fear was defined differently, not as something bad to avoid at all costs, but rather needed to achieve success in anything. How would the world look then?