When I think of personal safety, two things pop to mind: The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker, and the creepy man on the subway who followed me home. If only I’d read de Becker’s book back then.
I was working as a model in NYC when, after a long photo shoot that ended at dusk, I hopped on the subway. When I felt a man staring at me then looked up and confirmed he was, I did what I typically did in such cases: darted my eyes away. Then I settled further into the crowd around me so I could keep daydreaming, sans creepy-stare.
Several train transfers and blocks of walking later, I arrived at my apartment building. As I stepped onto the elevator, commotion erupted behind me. I turned to see the creepy guy who’d been staring inches behind me—being yanked back by the building’s security guard. I was okay physically, but shaken and terrified.
Years later, when I read The Gift of Fear, this experience echoed repeatedly. I saw all of the signs, in neon. I’d felt the guy staring, noticed my fear and, sadly, ignored it. Nowadays, I would have looked at him guy straight on, observed his build, approximate age and ethnicity. I’d have maintained awareness of him, rather than vanished into daydreams. I’d have noticed him trailing behind me, called out his description if need be and gone straight to an authority—to whom I could’ve described him fully—and sought safe accompaniment home.
This is only one of many experiences in which I ignored my instincts. I doubt any woman could read The Gift of Fear without nodding repeatedly.
As de Becker points out, humans are the only species that ignores instinctual fear. While animals dart away in light of perceived danger, we, especially women, often convince ourselves to stay around it. So cultured to be polite, we feel we should be “nice” to the guy who’s giving us the creeps. Good girls don’t shun others, we’re taught, unless they cause us obvious harm. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather prevent harm in the first place.
Being victimized by abuse of any kind is never our fault. Ever.
Predators prey. They stalk, seek out our vulnerabilities and, in the case of sociopaths, are highly skilled at donning sheep’s clothing. But we can learn ways to keep ourselves safe, note the red flags and prevent the worst-case-scenarios.
1. Trust your instincts.
During my series on dating a sociopath on my blog and show these past two weeks, I’ve heard from many women (and some men) who’ve been stalked, harassed and confined by the controls of an abusive partner. Numerous described the fear they felt upon meeting the person. Some only recognized it in hindsight, or mistook it for magnetism. These women, like so many of others, learned the hard way that our instincts are always to be trusted.
That gut feeling is there for a reason—you don’t even need to know the reason in order to listen or respond. Dr. Wendy O’Connor, the marriage and family therapist I interviewed in this episode, described trusting your gut as the most important red flag.
“So often people get a swirl of emotions, elations, or a deep dark feeling or the famous ‘creeped out feeling,'” she said. “Regardless if it’s positive or negative to the extreme, pay attention to it!”
2. Practice self-awareness.
As we hone in to stay better in-tune with that inner voice/gut feeling, we should also prioritize becoming more aware of our overall emotions, wants and needs. Doing so requires minimizing distraction—i.e., putting the cell phone and iPod away when we’re out in public alone, for example, and stepping into and exploring any difficult emotions that arise, rather than avoiding them.
If you sense that something is off—publicly or within a relationship—don’t write it off, suggests Dr. Wendy, thinking, ‘Am I crazy?’ Instead, respect and observe those feelings. They’re sharper than you may realize, and could help save you from harm.
3. Don’t mistake obsessive behavior for love or admiration.
Contrary to what many fairytales suggest, a healthy, loving person does not attack us with love and attention. They don’t repeatedly show up uninvited, bombard us with gifts and attention when they barely know us or facilitate constant contact (such as perpetual texts or phone calls). They respect us and our privacy.
If you’re in a relationship and something feels off, look for themes and patterns.
“Do they track your every moment or isolate you from loved ones? This isn’t normal, love or admiration. This is stalking.” – Dr. Wendy O’Connor
4. Take precautions online.
It’s easy to feel somewhat anonymous and safe while posting on social media, and I personally love sharing about my life. But without appropriate boundaries, we open ourselves up to all kinds of risk.
Here are some simple steps to minimize them:
- Don’t give others a GPS on your whereabouts. Turn your location settings OFF on Facebook and other networks.
- Avoid posting “checkins” and other social media that reveal your current location.
- When going through break up, especially if the person is troubled or abusive, reset all of your passwords—including your email, social media and bank account passwords.
- Save all texts, emails and voice messages from anyone who’s threatening or abusive, in case you need to report them.
- Don’t post your email address publicly on your blog or website. Instead, use a contact form.
- Consider blocking or un-friending anyone creepy.
- If someone reaches out to you, and your gut says YIKES, don’t feel obligated to respond. (Harmful folks often see any attention as positive, even if the attention is negative—i.e., “I don’t want to go out with you.”)
- Tell others about anything alarming. Tell a friend, a family member, your employer, a therapist—not only for support, but so others have a record as well. This can help if/when you report happenings.
5. Take a self-defense class.
Self-defense classes are empowering. We all deserve to feel safe and secure, and to protect ourselves if need be.
I personally recommend IMPACT, if you have access—though any class that teaches self-defense is worth it. Ideally, the class will teach ways to prevent the need for traditional self-defense tactics, and make both prevention and defense so automatic, it’s muscle memory. This is vital, because once adrenaline kicks in, you’re probably not going to be thinking clearly enough to locate and use your mace can, for example. And holding your keys between your fingers as a “knife,” as many women do, won’t cut it. (No pun intended!)
6. Seek support.
Even if you feel whatever’s happening is “nothing,” feel incapable of getting out of an abusive relationship, or even that you don’t really want to get out but know on some level that you should, professional support is a primo idea. You have nothing to lose by trying, and possibly far more than you realize by not.
Dr. Wendy suggests working with a licensed professional for feedback and to come up with a good game plan, then staying connected with them for a period of time. Meanwhile, don’t hold back.
“Often people will lie to their therapist about the most basic things,” she said. “Develop trust with your therapist and talk about your resistance, lack of insecurity, talk about secrets and your desire to learn how to open up to another. Any good professional will be non-judgemental, caring and trusting.”
National Center for Victims of Crime Hotline: 1-800-851-3240
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
U.K. National Stalking Helpline: 808-802-0300
Safety and Protection Resources, via Gavin de Becker and Associates
The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker
From “Soul Mate” to Soul Sucker: My Relationship with a Sociopath
In “Love” with a Narcissist/Sociopath: Althea’s Story
I Dated a Sociopath, Part I on Girl Boner Radio: True Stories of Hurt and Healing
I Dated a Sociopath, Part II on Girl Boner Radio: Hope and Healing
The Borderline and Narcissist Love Relationship by Dr. Wendy O’Connor
Does Real Love Exist on the Internet? by Dr. Wendy O’Connor
Huge thanks to all of you who’ve followed along with my ‘dating a sociopath’ series. Due to its popularity, I’ll revisit it occasionally as time goes on—so stay tuned!
What steps do you take to ensure your personal safety? Which step will you prioritize? When has trusting or not trusting your instincts affected your safety? I love hearing from you! ♥
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I have so much weird self “programming” with some of this–I’ve really had to work hard on not being tough and not afraid. To let myself listen to my gut.
I once got in a van with my ex, after work, in an empty parking lot, to talk about some things. I felt sorry for him. Lesson learned.
August McLaughlin says
One thing that’s helped me is learning to honor the fear—that gut feeling that something’s off. I swear, it’s life changing – and potentially lifesaving.
Gayle Carline says
One of the more interesting things I run across is “good” men who know there are “bad” men out there, but get incensed when women cannot immediately tell the difference. I’ve known more than one man who warns his wife against getting into an elevator alone with a strange man. When I ask them if they’d get on alone with a strange woman, or be offended if the woman refused, they protest. “But I’m not a bad guy.”
*sigh* Not helpful.
August McLaughlin says
Ugh. No, that isn’t helpful. Trusting and acting on our instincts takes practice. Guys should learn to embrace theirs, too.
Alice White Author says
Reblogged this on Alice White Author and commented:
Another super blog by my friend and fellow author, August McLaughlin.
I would add to part three to be wary of people who suddenly look to you to be their sole social outlet. You’ll find that sometimes the person who needs to monitor you and/or isolate you from everyone else has little to no life outside of the spark you bring in.
August McLaughlin says
Very good point!
Rhonda Hopkins says
Awesome advice! That “gut instinct” is very important. It’s saved me several times over the years. Don’t ignore it.
August McLaughlin says
Here here, Rhonda! So glad you’ve relied on yours.
This is great advice, August. I have spread word about this all over the place. I think it is important to take precaution!
Even I am not going to take the challenge and I’m normally very careful in what I do and what I reveal about me.
August McLaughlin says
So glad it resonated with you, AJ. Thanks for spreading the word!
Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
Author and Girl Boner founder August McLaughlin has posted a blog with advice on how to protect yourself from predators. I think it is an impressive and extremely important blog post for many of us.
As a former body guard, a current prison officer and father to a princess I really enjoyed reading this post. I see so many sexual predators in my line of work that it has me fearing for my young daughters’ safety when she is older. I have told her that when she is old enough to date she will be taking her four brothers along as chaperones. Thanks to Aurorajeanalexander for reblogging and sharing this.
August McLaughlin says
Really touched that this struck you. Thanks for weighing in! If I had a daughter, reading The Gift of Fear would be mandatory.
Rayne Parvis says
Great tips !
No is a complete sentence. You can’t say that better!
The Gift of Fear is a fantastic book that I’ll probably soon write a review of on my own blog. I have a lot of respect for de Becker and am friends with one of his former detail leaders whose initials appear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book.
Daphne Shadows says
I really love this post. Its not something we talk about enough. Often, especially women, are discounted as too emotional and unreliable. So why on earth would we think its important for us to listen to our emotions, our instincts?
I’m glad people are finally spreading the word that we NEED to listen to our instincts. It’ll keep us safe.