The Gift of Fear (or the Gift of Intution in Protecting Yourself and Lie Detecting)
A friend was recently on the phone with me walking down a New York street and she noticed a man starring at a street pole, and it didn't make her comfortable. Now, as the boys at Matchbox Twenty would put it, this is from a woman who makes friends with shadows on her wall, hears voices telling her that she should get some sleep, takes to herself in public and dodges glances on the train. What, on Earth, could bug this woman out?
After first she dismissed her reaction. Could it be because the man was black and she racial stereotyping was making it worse? No. She lives in New York, and sees blacks all of all ethical and moral stripes and sizes every day. Could it be the neighborhood? Nah. It was familiar too her. Maybe something was different about the street lights? That could be it. Eventually, I said, "Who cares, why? If it doesn't feel right, just move, move."
Gavin de Becker, a personal security professional, received acclaim for his book "The Gift of Fear" that was -- on its face -- about how fear can be your friend, your personal warning system. A psychiatrist suggested it to me -- he had given it to one of his children who was headed off to college -- after I was mentioned I did not want to fully medicate my fear and anxiety away, because, as long as they were not paralyzing my ability to function, they could be my friends in figuring out that something was wrong, even when I had not processed all the factual evidence in front of me. "The Gift of Fear" is really about The Gift of Intuition.
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. Lacking deductive reasoning, intuition gives us a sense of what's right or wrong about a person or a situation even before our minds have begun to process all the facts its absorbed and before our analytical muscles can devour the details and come to some fact-and-reason-based conclusions.
As William Patterson's character Gil Grissom put it so masterfully on the television show CSI, “You’re a primitive man on the savanna. You see something move out of the corner of your eye. You assume its a hyena. You run. You live. If you assume its the wind and you’re wrong, you die. We have the genes of the ones who ran. We’re genetically hardwired to believe [in] living forces that we cannot see.”
Intuition is one of those things that we believe in that we cannot see, although research suggests that intuition is based on thousands of pieces of evidence that move into our minds too fast for us to process and put together a full picture. And if you try to sit down and process all those bits of information, instead of act on intuition, the same thing that happened to the man who didn't run in Grissom's story can happen to you. No matter how smart you are -- you're eventually going to get eaten by the hyenas. Anxiety and fear can be your friend in that right doses.
In spite of the truth in Grissom's quotation, there is also a part of each of us that wants to be able to justify and explain our intuitive reactions. My friend in New York did not want her reaction to be based solely on racial profiling, and in the intellectual and moral debate she was having inside herself she was missing the fact that something inside her, something intuitive, something based on an accumulation of fairly accurate information she had acquired over her 50-plus years, was telling her that things were unsafe. If she took the time to debate whether she was being motivated by racism or whether her experience in journalism provided her enough accurate, fact-based information about crime to know that it was a dangerous situation on its merits, it would have been too late. She got out of there, and I'm glad, whatever the reasons.
Intuition can lead us astray if we have bad information, but, as deBecker puts it, "Intuition is always right in at least two important ways: It is always in response to something. It always has your best interest at heart ... Denial is a save now, pay later scheme."
Reliable intuition is founded on having good information in your head before you ever have to use it. DeBecker makes this point in a seminar by describing the key signs that a Kangroo will attack. He talks about how they will give what appears to be a wide and genial smile (they are actually showing their teeth); they will check their pouches compulsively several times to be sure they have no young with them (they never attack and while carrying young) and they will look behind them (since they always retreat immediately after they kill). After these three signals, they will lunge, brutally pummel their victim, and then gallop away. He asked the auidence member to repeat the signals and then asked if they were prepared to react quickly and intuitively if a Kangaroo attacked. Their brains were now wired this with information and if they were ever face-to-face with a Kangaroo they would know the signs of a attack. The only problem was that deBecker had made up those pre-incident indicators.
"In our lives," deBecker writes. "We are constantly bombarded with kangaroo facts masquerading as knowledge, and our intuition relies on us to decide what we will give credence to."
I was recently reading the work of a reputed expert in the field of lying. He discussed those magical physical signs you could see if a person was lying: their eyes pointing toward the creative center of the brain, twitching, sweating and so on. Try that on someone with ADHD or an artist and see how well that lie detecting works for you. The easiest way to tell someone is lying is to know them when they tell truths and pick up on when they are lying. In lieu of that, intuition, backed by a wide breadth of accurate knowledge, is your best friend.
After reading deBecker's book, I gave a copy to one of my client's who was about to break off an emotionally abusive relationship and was concerned about violence. My message and the message of the book: trust your instinct, trust your intuition and jettison these silly ideas about the signs that you are actually in danger for the ones that are fact-based and will serve you best when intuition needs to kick in and takeover. Trust that intuition.
I gave my next copy of the book to a psychologist who has, on occasion, had me consult when she believes a client is lying to her about something important for their therapy. I would come in to talk to the person and get an intuitive feel for their truthfulness, backed up by my fact-based understanding of the typical reactions (and reasons for atypical reactions) for people in certain circumstances. My message to her: Trust your intuition. You probably have a good idea of the answer by the time you picking up the phone to call me in.
What "The Gift of Fear" offers, in addition to its promotion of intuition, is the personal safety facts that can inform you prior to a situation where your intuition is needed and it debunks myths that can be fatal, such as the statistics that suggest a likelihood of greater violence (not to mention handing them a map of where you are going to be, including for court hearings) when you obtain a restraining order against an intimate partner or stalker. It's a must read.
Yes, I know. The concept is not a welcomed one for those who want a simple system to pick up lying or signs of violence. But if it were simple, we would have been living in a truth-telling panacea a long time ago.