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If/Then: Challenging Prescriptive Solutions Around Personal Safety

It happens every few months, a social media post goes viral instructing people what to do in a specific situation in order to keep safe. The most recent one was what to do if you were lost while hiking or your car broke down. It listed a series of detailed steps of what you should do with your cell phone if you found yourself in a dire situation, alone, and not knowing if you could get help.

Many in my social media circle shared and reshared the post with comments like “I think this is a good piece of advice,” and “Good to remember.” The post went viral, with my feed showing many repetitions of the same post on the same day. Then, by the next day, emergency responders and other professionals around the country had refuted and countered the advice. Many put out corrective guidance, indicating their thoughts on better, safer, and more logical courses of action.

This type of thing happens all the time on social media—a post goes viral imparting some prescriptive advice on how to act or what to do in a set of circumstances around safety, ie. “If this happens to you… then do this…”. When something is prescriptive, it instructs people what they should do, rather than simply giving suggestions. I’ve noticed that often the advice is soon disproven in some way, or at least it’s not advice that I would feel comfortable sharing with my circle as a self-defense instructor. This last post started me wondering why we are so quick to share these prescriptive posts, especially when it comes to personal safety.

Well, why not? It feels natural for us to want to share “advice” when it comes to protecting the safety of loved ones and ourselves. Perhaps we all feel a little better if we know that our friends might remember the information and stay safe. I can see how eager people are for quick fixes and easy solutions for every other part of our lives, why not safety as well?

In addition, much of the history of personal safety, especially for women and children, has been in this if/then prescriptive format. Who hasn’t heard the advice: If you’re walking alone to your car at night, then hold your keys between your fingers? I clutched my keys like this for my entire time in college, spending more time afraid of who was around the corner ready to attack me than enjoying the stars in the sky. What child hasn’t been told not to get lured into a van by a stranger? I was afraid to walk by parked vans and minivans as a child, going around them into people’s yards or into the street in order to risk not being pulled in.

Experts in empowerment self-defense know that safety doesn’t come in neat if/then formats. If there was a simple formula or piece of advice that would keep everyone out of harms’ way, then nothing bad would ever happen to anyone. Instead, violence is an ever-present reality for people all over the world. Using Department of Justice Statistics, we know that violence most often comes in the guise of someone we know—an acquaintance, friend, teacher, mentor, family member, etc. We know that there is a spectrum of violent behaviors, including verbal, mental, cultural, and emotional abuse, harassment, racism, neglect, gaslighting, and grooming alongside what people more generally think of with violence, such as sexual assault, physical abuse and attack, strangulation, and gun and knife violence and threat.

We know the tools and strategies to address violence are also on a spectrum. Humans don’t just respond to threat with the fight, flight, and freeze responses, we actually have a myriad of intuitive and reasoned reactions. We don’t usually knee our racist boss in the groin, so we may use verbal strategies, body language, and/or self-care in order to express our boundaries in a way that most honors our needs. We also may not want to use a physical technique when confronted by someone who is very heightened and angry. Maybe deflecting them away from us is the best solution in the moment.

The key is that only you know what to do if something happens. Only you know how to respond because no two situations are the same. You, the environment, and the circumstances all make a difference in how you will react.

IMPACT Personal Safety programs are non-prescriptive, meaning that our goal is to help you be able to think through situations that arise, to use the tools you inherently have, and to do what is best in that moment to keep yourself safe. We help you learn how to think through the adrenaline, fear, and numbness that often accompany a perceived threat, be it an uncomfortable experience or a dangerous encounter. (We help you distinguish the difference between discomfort brought about by an unaccustomed situation and actual threats to safety.) While we believe everyone should have the experience of taking an IMPACT class so you can have as many tools as possible, we also honor the fact that everyone already has a great deal of strategies, tools, and responses that they can use.

So next time, if you see a social media post that is a prescriptive if/then solution around personal safety, take a moment and reflect. Could there be other solutions to the situation? Do a little research on the topic, or wait 24-hours to see what contradictions arise. We want everyone around us to be safe, and let’s agree to challenge the fear-based narrative that women, children, and others are helpless and don’t know what to do if they are in unsafe situations. Remember, only you know how to respond.

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