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Self-defense is mostly
about what you don't do.

Self-Defense Explained:

On this page:
What IS self-defense? | Accurate Information | Four Boundaries of Self-Defense | Is The Danger Physical? | The Danger Is NOW! | Participation | When The Danger To You Stops

This page is a layman's explanation of what self-defense is and -- most of all -- isn't.

Get yourself a cup of coffee and call your brain cells front and center. What you're going to read here is a simplification of an extremely complicated subject. But even though it's simple and easy, that doesn't mean it's going to be fast. You got yourself some reading to do -- unless you're looking forward to jail time and thousands of dollars in fees and fines.

Sometimes it seems that defining self-defense is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. Not just because it's so easy to cross the line from self-defense into fighting, but because every fight I've ever broke up both sides claimed they were 'defending' themselves. Now if that isn't complicated enough when it comes to self-defense the old quip "It isn't that people are ignorant, it's just that they know so much that ain't so" really applies.

A huge part of that last problem is the term self-defense is a lot like the word racism. While it actually means something very specific, it's been twisted around by people intentionally misinterpreting the term. This makes what they're trying to sell as 'self-defense' suspect(1).

But, no matter how much people try to twist it around for their own purposes, self-defense means what it means. That's because: Self-defense is a legally defined term.

Nobody, not you, not martial artists, not instructors, internet forums nor the guy in the street gets to redefine self-defense. It is what it is and it's not anything else. Like gravity, the legal definition is a reality you're going to have to deal with. And sticking with the gravity analogy, what we're trying to do here is help you from running off any cliffs.

So let's say this right up front:
In order for what you do to be self-defense, your actions must stay within legal standards and boundaries.

Whether you think of these as lines, boundaries, standards or cliffs you can fall off of, it DOESN'T matter. You have to stay within these parameters. If you cross these lines -- and it doesn't matter why -- then you are no longer legally defending yourself or others.

And that is where most people get into trouble. They can't -- or refuse to --color within the lines.

What IS Self-Defense?
Self-Defense means some pretty specific things. We'll explain them. Something else we'll do is explain what self-defense DOESN'T mean. Because thinking "Oh that means this too" is where people get themselves into trouble.

The 'Lectric Library defines the 'Self Defense Defense' as:

A defense to certain criminal charges involving force (e.g. murder).

Use of force is justified when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary for the defense of oneself or another against the immediate use of unlawful force. However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances.

Force likely to cause death or great bodily harm is justified in self-defense only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.

Let's start with the fact that the self defense defense is an affirmative defense.

Go back and read that again, it's important.  An affirmative defense means, by claiming self-defense, you are coming out and saying "I did it."

Specifically, you are admitting to actions that are normally a crime.

Read that again, you're admitting to what is 99% of the time, a crime. But, you are saying that you did those actions in order to stop the same criminal act from being unjustly done to you.

Once you claim 'self-defense' you can't go back and say "Well, I didn't mean that" when -- and if -- things start going badly for you. You've confessed already. Even if it started as self-defense, if you crossed the line, you've just plead guilty to it.

Let's add another term to your legal repertoire: Burden of Proof

By using the self-defense defense, the responsibility of proof is on you! You're no longer innocent proven guilty! By confessing, you're guilty until YOU can demonstrate differently! YOU have to PROVE that what you did was not only self-defense, but justified. It isn't self-defense just because you say it was (Remember both sides in a fight claiming it was 'self defense?'). So right off the bat, you're going to have some explaining to do.

This is why it is important to know where your actions stop being self-defense and turn you into an aggressor. If, upon investigation, it is found that you crossed the line from self-defense into assault, you've confessed to that too.

Identifying Accurate Information
What we just told you is the first step in staying out of prison. It's also the first step in not getting ripped off while searching for self-defense instruction.

Not only will the information on this page keep you out of jail, but it will also help you spot when someone is giving you dangerous information. There is a lot of bad information being taught as self-defense. While this misinformation sounds great in the safety of the school and internet, if you ever find yourself in a live-fire situation, there are only two problems:
   1) If it doesn't work
   2) If it does work(2).

Unfortunately most of what is being sold as 'self-defense' fits in one of these categories. Things like reality based self-defense, mixed martial arts and military combative systems actually manage to do both at once. What they're teaching as 'self-defense,' will
  1) get you thrown in jail for using them in a bar fight and
  2) leave you bleeding in the street if you try them against an
      experienced criminal.
What they're telling you to do is too much for one scenario and not enough for another. (Incidentally, those same groups are who are most guilty of trying to redefine self-defense to mean you can go monkey-poo on someone. See footnote 1.)

It is incredibly easy to cross the line from defending yourself to something that will get you arrested. That is where most people get into trouble. Using their kung-fu, killer commando, ultimate combative fighting system, they go on the offensive. Then they whine they were thrown in jail for defending themselves.

This is not true. Even though they thought they were defending themselves, they got arrested for what they really did.

Usually they were fighting, but often they've crossed the line into outright assault. This is especially true if they used some kind of weapon. That's why they end up sitting in the back seat of the police car. Oh yeah, and for admitting that they did it by claiming it was 'self-defense.'

The Four Boundaries of Self-Defense
What makes self-defense complicated is that most people are not actually defending their bodies. Usually they're trying to protect their emotions and pride. When you're scared, excited or angry, it's really hard to tell the difference. But there are differences ... BIG ones.

The two most important standards for what IS self-defense are
   1) The danger to you is physical
   2) It's not a maybe, could be, or 'he might...,' it's happening.

The two biggest reasons for self-defense to turn into something else are
   3) You participated in the creation and escalation of the situation
   4) You didn't stop after the threat to you was past.

If it helps think of these four points as sides of a square painted on the ground. As long as you stay inside that square, it's self-defense.

But if FOR ANY REASON you step outside of square, you're not defending yourself anymore, you are fighting or assaulting someone.

Now, let's look at the points one by one

Is The Danger Physical?
Here's a basic standard of self-defense:
If what he's doing won't cause physical damage that you can take a picture of then you're NOT acting in self-defense.

While that may sound simple, it introduces THE most misunderstood and complicated aspect of 'self defense.' To understand why this is so, we're going to have to take a round about route.  Let's start with this question: Can you put what you're fighting about in a wheelbarrow?

Pride, hurt feelings, disrespect, control, anger, NONE of these can be put into a wheelbarrow.  Often, physical items are used as a proxy for other underlying issues. But usually what we're really fighting over is NOT anything that you can put into a wheelbarrow.

Non-physical issues are usually the real causes of conflict. Sure the source of the conflict might have been over a physical object. But once we get emotionally excited the conflict is no longer about that and more about our anger, feelings, fears, pride and perceptions.

I gave you the wheelbarrow analogy to show you that most arguments are about issues that have no physical existence. However, to us -- especially when we are caught up in the moment -- we perceive these intangible issues as  not just real, but worth fighting for. And we will defend them tooth and claw.

In a very real sense, these non-physical things are more real to us than physical things. When we reach this point we are functionally blind us to other factors -- including the significance of our own words and actions. And yet, we react to perceived injury to these ideas as though they were physical torture.

Don't believe that we all do this? Even you? Well then let's try this. Answer these questions:
          1) When was the last time you were argued over something that you
          could physically touch?
          2) In comparison, when was the last time you fought over an emotion,
              an idea OR a potential? (The last is something that hasn't happened
so what you're really fighting over is what might happen.)

We cannot stress enough how powerful these non-physical issues are to us. They effect our perceptions, emotions and -- most of all -- our actions.  In fact, we tend to mistake emotional danger for physical danger. More than that we often perceive them to be synonymous. While emotional damage may be perceived as 'hurt,' it isn't a physical pain.

And yet, a terror of emotional pain is what drives many people. In fact most people more afraid of emotional pain than physical. While on the surface that might seem like a stupid statement, when someone is deep in their monkey brain, you can see it in action.  If you've ever heard someone who has just been told "Shut up or I'll break your jaw" keep on fussing, you've seen it. (Hell, you might have been the person doing the hitting or the one who got decked). The people who kept jacking their jaws are more concerned about the perceived danger to their pride, emotions, self-worth or their anger, fear and outrage than they are about physical danger.

To them it's all one big mushy ball. In that kind of mindset, emotional threats are perceived to be more real than physical dangers. So they keep on trying to defend what they think is most important. The problem is, what they are really trying to protect has no physical existence. In fact, it usually doesn't have much significance outside that person's own head(2).

Why is all this psycho-babble important? Because it will put you in jail if you physically try to protect something that doesn't have a physical existence. Because it is the defining line between what is and isn't self-defense.

  • Emotional danger has NO physical component that you can protect.
  • Physical danger, not only causes pain, but it creates physical damage to flesh.

Self-defense is about defending your flesh, not your emotions. In this case, we can use a photograph as proof of the physical existence of danger. You can not only take a picture of what you are protecting, but you can also take a photo of the damage a physical attack causes.

This is REALLY important.

A super simple way of understanding when it is self-defense is to ask the question: Can I take a photograph of what is going to be damaged?

  • If the answer is yes -- and that is being physically endangered -- THAT is what will allow you legally react in self-defense.
  • If the answer is no, then you aren't defending yourself, you're attacking.

Most fights are people reacting to something the other person said. Well guess what? You can't photograph that damage. But you can photgraph what happened next. The person said something that really hurt your feelings or did something that made you mad -- and you slugged him. 

And here is the real tricky part, you slugged him not to prevent the hurt from happening, but in REVENGE for being emotionally hurt.

Stop and think about that. It's important. The pain has been already delivered, the hurtful words already said. In the middle of an argument, the person says something that is just too much and POW! You react physically. In your mind, you're defending yourself, but what shows up on the security recording is you physically attacked first.

Physical retaliation for emotional distress is a VERY human reaction. You see it all the time among small children and young adults. This is also why we strongly suggest you also read the violence page. Not only does violence attract violence, but there are all kinds of ways to be violent. Knowing this it comes as no surprise that physical violence is almost always proceeded by other kinds of violence.

Also realize the initiating physical assault doesn't have to be a punch that knocks the person down, slaps, kicks and lesser punches are common. Believe it or not, it is common for the 'victim' of an assault to strike first. Such moves usually result in a higher level of retaliatory force.

This is the root of what we call the "It all started when he hit me back" approach to self-defense. And it IS a common dynamic in violence, conflict and even rape. It's also why so often when a fight is broken up both fighters will claim they were defending themselves.

Often the person who initiated the physical violence has lost sight of the difference between a physical threat and an emotional one. Worse, is the emotional pain has already been delivered so the physical retaliation isn't to prevent more emotional pain, but in reaction to it. Although another word that works here is revenge. He hurt you, you're hurting him back.

That isn't self-defense, it's initiating physical violence.

Another common dynamic is someone has such a low sense of self-esteem that he tries to build it up by attacking others. Now here's the problem with this kind of person. They are so hypersensitive that if you look at them cross-eyed, they think you're insulting them, challenging them and disrespecting them (I talk about catching these people's attention on the Bullies page). You really run across these kinds of guys when you're young and/or in certain environments, in certain socio-economic levels or in prison. Those are places and stages of life where people are intent on 'proving themselves.'

I want you to pay close attention to what I just said because it explains how someone can be a total aggressor (like the guy who punched you) and still believe he is 'defending himself.'

In his mind, he's defending himself because you dis'd him. Whether you did or not in his emotionally charged and fearful mind, you 'attacked' him first. That is HIS reality and in it, he's defending himself -- even though he is actually physically attacking.

Now realize that everything I've said here can apply to you too ... especially when you are scared, angry and intoxicated.

This is why you need to:
   1) realize that it is only self-defense if what he is doing could cause
       you physical damage and
   2) know to only use physical force against dangers that will cause
       physical harm

You do NOT get to react physically because you are emotional -- and that especially means scared or angry. We call that 'the monkey is driving the bus' and it WILL get you into deep trouble.


It's Not A Maybe, Could Be, Or 'He Might...,' The Danger Is NOW
Here's where a lot of people mess up. Putting it simply, 'he might do something' is NOT the same thing as 'he IS doing something'

He has to be doing it -- or to be more precise, on his way to doing it, before you can physically react. Your imagination about what he might do, he could do and what maybe is going on will get you in deep, deep trouble.

Let's use the example we'll be talking about later: Not stopping after the threat is past. Someone physically attacks you and you knock him down. That is self-defense. You've used force to stop an attack that would cause physical injury. So far, so good.

HOWEVER, here is where your excitable monkey brain can get you into deep, deep trouble. The guy is down on the ground and your monkey brain whispers to you "He might get up and attack again!" So what do you do? You kick him to make sure he stays down.

Except, you didn't kick him in response to what is actually happening. Your imagination is what prompted you to kick a downed person. And you kicked him regardless of what he was actually doing.

1) Was he even trying to get up at all?
   a) if he wasn't, the threat to you is past
   b) you've now crossed the line into being the aggressor
2) Did YOU close the distance to re-engage?
   a) instead of running away, you step up and kick him
   b) if so now you aren't defending, you're attacking him
   c) usually in punishment for having dared to attack you
   d) you are now no longer defending yourself, but assaulting a helpless
3) Even if he was trying to get up was it to flee?
   a) if he was trying to flee, he was no longer a threat
   b) the direction he is facing is critical to determine if he's fleeing
4) He might be getting up expecting YOU to attack him
   a) but even so, why didn't you run when you had the chance?
   b) hanging around and standing over him
        1) gives him reason to believe you're about to attack him
        2) convinces him that he's in physical danger
        3) makes him believe he is now defending himself
5) He really is trying to get back up to attack you.
    a) he is not only trying to get back up facing you
    b) HE'S closing the distance -- not you

I've given you five possibilities of what can happen when an attacker falls to the ground. Two of which, he had no intention of continuing the violence. Two of which, even if he didn't intend to continue attacking, you're either attacking or prompting him to believe you are -- so the violence will continue. Only one of the five was he going to attack you again.

But your monkey brain says "He's going to get up and attack again" so you step up and give him the boot. And you kick him no matter WHAT is actually going on. Once again, you've stepped out of the square of self-defense and become the aggressor.

Crossing the lines out of self-defense can happen in all kinds of ways. Another common problem is when someone who was attacking goes "GET ME OUT OF HERE!" and turns to run. The problem here is twofold.
    1) that your fear, anger and emotions can blind you as to what is
        actually happening.
    2) it is instinctive to turn and orient on danger -- especially emotional
        threats. You're going to want to look at the cause.

This keeps you facing the person. This act is called 'orientation.' When you're oriented on someone in an excited state, it is common that you will still perceive him as a threat. No matter what way he is oriented.

Putting that in a concrete example. Even though he's trying to turn and run, you're still facing him. That means he's 'right in front' of you. In your head, in your 'reality' ... the fact that he's still in front of you means, he's still a danger to you. It doesn't matter which way he's facing. So in  -- your mind -- you're still defending against the danger.

When in actuality, you're now chasing the guy down the street and striking his back. That ain't self-defense no more. That is you attacking him.

Another common mistake is reacting to a threat about the future as it if it is happening now. There is a big difference between someone advancing towards you with a knife saying "I'm going to kill you" and someone who is backing away saying "I'm going to come back and kill you."

One is a real danger. He has the means (ability) to carry out that threat and is moving into position (opportunity) to do so. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that he is announcing his immediate intention.

The other might be an announcement of what he will do in the future. But there is a good chance he's just talking smack as he backs off. It doesn't matter what he says he's going to if he ISN'T trying to do it. Because at that moment he does not pose an immediate and real danger -- so you can't gun him down.

Here is a a cold bucket of water over the head about self-defense:
Since the results of self-defense are physical (you can take a picture), the law is LESS concerned about what is going on inside your head than it is in finding out if the danger was just as physically demonstrated. If the danger was real, then other people can see it too on the security video. Or was danger just in your imagination? Again, physical results require physical proof.

If you don't get control of your emotions and your monkey brain in a conflict, you're going to cross the line OUT of self-defense and go on the attack. And you WILL be arrested for it.

You've participated in the creation -- and escalation --of a conflict
Here is where most people seriously screw up. See violence doesn't start at the moment it goes physical. There are a lot of ways that you can participate in the creation and escalation of a conflict to make it go physical, but they are simplified  here. If you engage in these behaviors, (especially the first two and the fourth) then you are helping to create and escalate the conflict.

What happened BEFORE it turned physical is a huge determining factor on how it will be viewed. Was it a fight (consensual or mutual physical conflict)? An assault (one person brutalizing another) or self-defense (defending yourself against an assault). Most incidents that go physical were, in fact, two people in emotional and verbal conflict that escalated.

Your claim of 'self-defense' is going to be compared against what you said or did before the situation went physical(3).

It's really, really important to take a look at what I just said in light of "can you put it in a wheelbarrow?" Most conflict is people who have left the original source of the conflict and are now are arguing over something that has no physical existence. Pride, anger, hurt feelings, fear and self-esteem are not things you can put in a wheelbarrow. But they ARE what is now driving the conflict.

These are VERY important to your monkey brain. And while they serve as motivators for your behaviors, they are totally intangible. But outside of your own head, they do NOT exist. Self-defense is ONLY concerned with preventing stuff that you can take a picture of.

IF you are involved in a conflict where you are aggressively pursuing goals that can't be put into a wheelbarrow -- even if it doesn't become physical -- then you are fighting. And by that I mean you are participating in the creation and escalation of the conflict. And that is looked down upon by the law.

When a conflict becomes physical it can go four basic ways.
  1) As an extension of the goals of the conflict a blow is struck
      a) although there is physical contact, this is more a threat display
      b) it is not a full out committed assault
      c) it is more 'see how far I'm willing to go if you don't stop?'
  2) A fight - even though one person attacks first, the other counter attacks
      a) both parties are STILL focused on 'winning'
      b) both parties are willingly participating in the physical conflict
      c) neither party is attempting to escape
  3) An Assault - one party is using overwhelming force
     a) having overwhelmed the other's defenses he presses the attack
     b) although originally a 'fight' one party tries to break off and flee
     c) the aggressor continues to attack even though there is no
         further resistance
  4) Against an assault, the defender prevents physical damage to self
      a) then escapes from the scene
      b) ends the danger to self without becoming an aggressor (turning
          SD into assault)
      c) does not attempt to 'punish' the other for attacking (again, turning
           SD into an assault).

Think of what I just said in the context of navigating your way through river rapids. If pick the right course you're fine, if you pick the wrong course you're going to crash. Choosing the right course keeps you in the self-defense 'square.'

When you leave the square (pick the wrong course in the rapids) you are no longer defending yourself. It's difficult NOT to give into your emotions, fear and anger in a situation. Both before the situation goes physical and especially after it has, but it is critical to maintain yourself control.

Remember, if you claim self-defense you are admitting that you engaged in behavior that is usually a crime. Now you have to prove it wasn't.

When the danger to you stops
Here is where people seriously screw up. Everything I've told you thus far comes into play. Even if the person didn't initiate the physical violence, this is where they cross the line from defense into being an aggressor. It is no longer self-defense or even a fight, they turn it into an assault.

This is incredibly easy to cross this line while you're excited, adrenalized and pumped up.

I know of an incident where an attorney was dealing with a person who was extremely upset that he was being prosecuted for 'defending himself.' The attorney explained to the guy why he was being charged for assault.

The attorney told the defendant that he understood the other guy attacked him. He understood he knocked the other guy down in self-defense. It was when the defendant kicked the other guy while he was down that he'd crossed the line from defending himself. That was when he had become the aggressor. That is why he was being charged with assault

Oh BTW, it didn't help that the defendant told the arresting officer that he 'wanted to get his licks in.' Wanting to punish someone for daring to attack you is one of the fastest ways of crossing the line.

In closing let us point a some VERY important points.

  • In the eyes of the law, it isn't you vs. some dirt bag who doesn't deserve to live. It's two citizens in dispute. Two citizens with equal rights and protection under the law. And if you have left the square of self defense  then you have transgressed against that other citizen's rights. You will be prosecuted as the aggressor or for having participated in mutual conflict
  • Roughly 99% of the time, when the cops arrive at a situation, it is the aggressor who is standing over loser. Very rarely does the aggressor say "Yeah, I threw him a beating because he pissed me off," if the assault isn't out right denied, it is invariably justified as 'self-defense.' You have a lot of work ahead of you to prove it was self-defense.
  • Before you decide you know what is and what isn't self-defense get some training on use of force. At the very least, consult with an attorney.
  • If you ever DO find yourself in a self-defense situation be prepared to go to court and spend thousands of dollars -- just to stay out of county jail or prison.
  • And you'd BETTER be able to explain both the police, attorneys, judge and jury why what you did WASN'T stepping out of the self-defense square.

With everything we've said on this page, are you now beginning to see why we have problems with all the 'eye gouging, head butting, kick-him-when-he's- down-so- he-won't-get-up, if you're attacked whatever you do is justified because it's better to be judged by 12 than carried by six' training that is out there? Hopefully, you're now interested in knowing the standards you need to look for in self-defense training.

Return to top

1) Usually the people playing verbal Twister are:

1) I personally witnessed a neck break from behind on a downed, helpless opponent be justified as 'self-defense.' The instructor in a martial art school was showing the technique, him saw my horrified expression (about him teaching a homicidal technique) and quickly justified it as self-defense. What he didn't realize is this appalled me even more. That technique was murder, plain and simple. Return to Text

 2) A simple example: Think of the greatest accomplishment that you've ever done. Something that doesn't have a physical existence, but something that you are proud of having done. Even though this is a defining accomplishment in your life, it means very little to a total stranger -- especially one from a different lifestyle. In the same vein the pride, self-esteem and emotional issues of a total stranger is of little import to you.
While this can be limited to individuals, it also applies to lifestyles. Issues of significance to one social/ethnic/cultural group, seldom carries the same significance to those outside the same lifestyle. Return to Text

3) Some states have what is called 'the fighting words doctrine.' Simply explained, you can't say certain things and NOT expect to be attacked. While they're not saying he was right for assaulting you, if you said that, your claim of self-defense is going to be seriously undermined. The attitude is if you said it, that meant you were ready to fight.
The confusion arises because the Constitution's protection of free speech is about infringements by the government. Although many have tried to interpret to mean so, freedom of speech does not include disputes between individuals or private corporations. Return to Text

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