Run away.

That’s got to be the piece of martial arts advice I hate the most. It’s so full of smug assumptions about what constitutes a self-defense situation that I feel only envy for the life of people who think it is good advice.

Of course, when we are talking about self-defense, context matters. So if you are talking exclusively to men involved in some sort of social display that mostly has a positive or negative outcome that affects social status, but risks life and limb? By all means take this excellent advice, which could also be summed up with “Don’t be an idiot.”

For the rest of the situations that might happen to us, the kind we frequently read about in the papers and inspire us to consider lessons in self-defense? By the time the event is happening, if we had the opportunity, we would have run already. Or otherwise taken steps to avoid or defuse the situation. If you want an excellent break-down on the types of situations you can run into (and beautiful tools to deal with all of them), hit up amazon or your library and search for “Rory Miller.”

The self-defense world is full of bullshit. It’s easy to find courses anywhere that offer to teach you all kinds of gritty, down-and-dirty hurtin’ tricks…but those same courses focus so much on the techniques that they never deal with what it takes to make the decision to use them. Aside from the obligatory tough-guy posturing of “Do you WANT to be a victim?!?” or the even worse telling of gory tales of horrible fates that have befallen others. I suppose you are expected to be so impressed by the swagger that you will remember it and be inspired when it comes time to pop an eyeball out. Uh huh.

Want some good advice? Cultivate an actionable awareness. That’s the most important self-defense skill.

You have to learn to analyze and understand the world around you HONESTLY. This means throwing out all of your biases and assumptions. The most successful dirtbags that predate on people do so by knowing your own biases and assumptions better than you do, and know how to exploit them. And yes, that means racism, sexism or other bigotry. Those are exploitable biases. Open your eyes and learn to see the world around you.

This is a skill you must learn. You cannot just do it. You have to learn how to see patterns in everything, and how to understand when a change in the pattern is worth noting, and when it is time to act. You have to learn to see what is around you, and what stands out as a potential threat. If you find teachers who stress this, then you know you are taking a real self-defense class.

And that’s just awareness. The actionable part comes in knowing not what you can do, but what you can do. Can you call 911 or are you terrified that doing so will make you a victim of the violence happening to someone else? Do you know what your other options are? Have you called 911 before and do you know what to expect? How about that moment when you are starting to feel afraid of something bad happening, but you are also worried that it’s really just nothing and you don’t know if you want to waste the time of the 911 service? Do you have the local police non-emergency saved on your phone? Have you called it before and do you know to expect? Have you practiced calling for help?

Beyond that do you know how to defuse an unstable situation? Do know how to tell if it can be defused or not? Can you talk down an angry or depressed person from harming you or themselves? Have you practiced it? Do you know how to recognize the signs of someone drunk or high? Do you know how to recognizes when they are in an excessive state of intoxication? Do you know the risk of violence they might represent? Or self-harm? What about the various kinds of mental illness that might present themselves to you in a threatening fashion? Are they a threat or are they not? And when is the situation such that you must, or when you should act?

And when violence happens, do you know where the violence lies on your local legal systems use-of-force spectrum? Are you able to see each level as permission to act, and have you rehearsed the appropriate skills for you to use at each level? Do you know the consequences of your actions and all the appropriate follow-ups, including reporting and self-care? Do you know how to defuse a situation after you have acted that is safe for all parties involved? Are you comfortable and have you practiced keeping someone in custody for when the police arrive? Do you know when you should let someone else run away from you? Can you take care of a person that you have just rendered unconscious, or horrifically wounded? Do you know what your legal requirements are? Do you know if you have just committed self-defense or assault, and can you explain it as such when the police arrive, and later in court when all the evidence is presented in the cold light of day before a dispassionate judge?

If you can answer with some sense of what is correct in various situations that might touch on all of the above, then you have a fairly actionable awareness.

You cultivate that actionable awareness with daily practice, by taking all sorts of classes. You don’t have to make it the focus of your life, but you will know the value in taking first aid refresher courses, weapon handling classes, martial arts classes, psychology and self-help classes, and a myriad other set of things to ensure that your awareness is a skill set that you can depend on throughout your life.

Cultivate an actionable awareness. It’s the closest most of us will ever get to a super-power, and it’s attainable by all of us. But you won’t find it in a two-hour poke-em-in-the-eye and run away class. You’ll have to put the work in and find a place that will teach you all of these skills, and be prepared to spend at least a weekend on just a basic introduction course.