Book Review: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

4 Sep

The Gift of FearFirst, I have to say that I found the author grating.  This book often read like a promotional product for Gavin de Becker.  I also found his attitude toward survivors of domestic violence surprisingly ignorant and contradictory.  He states that the first time a woman is abused she is a victim, but after that she is a volunteer.  Not only is that victim-blaming at its finest, he demonstrates that he knows better elsewhere in the book, e.g. when talking about how children cannot be expected to advocate for themselves when they are being abused (pg. 232), and when he explains how people can be taught they are powerless (pg. 240).  (I’m not the only one who objected to this, and I really enjoyed reading Marcella’s view on abyss2hope.)

However, despite the flaws, I did find this book to be full of information designed to turn irrational fear and nagging worry into useful, quantifiable tools.  Here are my notes:

(pg. 82) Essential guiding principles of human behavior

  • We seek connection with others.
  • We are saddened by loss and try to avoid it.
  • We dislike rejection.
  • We will do more to avoid pain than we will to seek pleasure.
  • We dislike ridicule and embarrassment.
  • We care what others think of us.
  • We seek a degree of control over our lives.

(pg. 85-86)  When a woman is comfortable with a stranger in her home someone delivering furniture, for example, her comfort communicates that she has already predicted that he is not dangerous to her.  Her intuition asked and answered several questions in order to complete that prediction.  It evaluated favorable and unfavorable aspects of his behavior.  Since we are more familiar with favorable behaviors, if you list them and then simply note their opposites, you will be predicting dangerousness.  We call this the “rule of opposites,” and it is a powerful predictive tool.

Favorable vs. Unfavorable

  • Does his job and no more vs. Offers to help on unrelated tasks
  • Respectful of privacy vs. Curious, asks many questions
  • Stands at an appropriate distance vs. Stands too close
  • Waits to be escorted vs. Walks around the house freely
  • Keeps his comments to the job at hand vs. Tries to get into discussions on other topics; makes personal comments
  • Mindful of the time; works quickly vs. No concerns about time; in no hurry to leave
  • Doesn’t care if others are home vs. Wants to know if others are home
  • Doesn’t care if others are expected vs. Wants to know if others are expected
  • Doesn’t pay undue attention to you vs. Stares at you

(pg. 93) Knowing the question is the first step toward knowing the answer.

(pg. 96) The languages used to predict violence

  • The language of rejection
  • The language of entitlement
  • The language of grandiosity
  • The language of attention seeking
  • The language of revenge
  • The language of attachment
  • The language of identity seeking

(pg. 98) The decision to use violence is based on four basic predictors:

  1. Perceived justification
  2. Perceived alternatives/desired outcome
  3. Perceived consequences
  4. Perceived ability

(pg. 99)  Normal people can commit violent acts.  Normal people can treat other people badly.  If the four basic predictors are in place, violence becomes a real option.

(pg. 117-118)  Satellites — seemingly unrelated tangents intuitively included in descriptions of troublesome events.

(pg. 240)  When a child’ primary caregiver delivers both praise and brutality, it is a virtual coin toss as to which will attach itself to the child’s identity.  Terribly unhealthy families damage children in many ways, but one of the saddest is the destruction of the child’s belief that he has purpose and value.  Without that belief, it is difficult to succeed, difficult to take risks.  Perhaps more to the point, it may seem foolish to take risks, “knowing” as such people do, that they are not up to the task.

chained elephantThe way circus elephants are trained demonstrates this dynamic well: When young, they are attached by heavy chains to large stakes driven deep into the ground.  They pull and yank and strain and struggle, but the chain is too strong, the stake too rooted.  One day they give up, having learned that they cannot pull free, and from that day forward they can be “chained” with a slender rope.  When this enormous animal feels any resistance, though it has the strength to pull the whole circus tent over, it stops trying.  Because it believes it cannot, it cannot.

(pg. 292)  “Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out.”  — Karl A. Menninger

When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or the unfavorable outcome is possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention.  Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully.  When you accept the survival signal as a welcome message and quickly evaluate the environment or situation, fear stops in an instant.  Thus, trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear.  In fact, the role of fear in your life less lessens as your mind and body come to know that you will listen to the quiet wind chime, and have no need for Klaxons.

(pg. 303)  The relationship between real fear and worry is analogous to the relationship between pain and suffering.  Pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life.  Suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary components of life.  (Great humanitarians, remember, have worked to end suffering, not pain.)

After decades of  seeing worry in all its forms, I’ve concluded that it hurts people much more than it helps.  It interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens life.  When worrying, ask yourself, “How does this serve me?” and you may well find that the cost of worrying is greater than the cost of changing.  To be free of fear and yet still get its gift, there are three goals to strive for.  They aren’t easy to reach, but it’s worth trying:

  1. When you feel fear, listen.
  2. When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.
  3. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

At times frustrating, but overall a valuable read.  I don’t want to waste time on unnecessary fear, but I do want to keep myself safe; I think this book provided some excellent tools to help me tell the difference.

A few links that seem related in one way or another:

Learned Helplessness

Domestic Violence Resources

Risk Assessment for Violence


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