Individual Defense Mechanisms & A Decision-Making Tool for Self-Defense

Often when concealed carriers are not used to stressful situations when carrying their handgun, they may have a false sense of security. And their mindset may be too aggressive, and they may be quick to draw and use their gun, rather than first seeking to avoid or de-escalate a situation. If avoiding a confrontation is not successful, it is helpful to recognize the attacker's defense mechanisms and behaviors quickly. A quick, basic SWOT Analysis technique can help guide appropriate actions. Col Ben presents ideas about recognizing defense mechanisms and using the SWOT Analysis technique in self-defense.

Individual Defense Mechanisms & A Decision-Making Tool for Self-Defense
So you can handle your gun and know how to shoot accurately for self-defense. That’s great, but not being in a gunfight is even better. Your odds and survivability are significantly improved if you can avoid any deadly-force encounter before it begins. I emphasize this in my U.S. Department of Defense book Psychological Operations and include major strategy information from Sun Tzu (the ancient Chinese military strategist, philosopher, and general of the 6th century BC.)

In his influential book The Art of War, General Tzu says “The Supreme Art of War is to subdue the Enemy without Fighting.”  He conveys that not only physically resisting entering into an engagement is a strategy, but also breaking the enemy’s resistance using specific tactics other than resorting to deadly confrontation, or fighting can be the best strategy in a defined situation. Think about that. Is this really a far out, radical idea? If you can resolve the conflict without resorting to using your gun, wouldn’t that be optimal with win-win results for all involved?

Being situationally aware will help you to avoid, escape, fight less, or even be ready when the use of force is unavoidable. However, if you plan for and are prepared ahead of time with an avoidance mindset and strategy, it might avert a deadly-force encounter and help even more. Remember that the mere introduction of a gun into any situation, automatically escalates, rather than de-escalates, the confrontation.

TIP: Initially avoid deadly-force situations and encounters and only introduce a gun to fight if you have to. If it is not possible to avoid or safely escape from an encounter depending on the given situation, there may be other alternatives than introducing your gun into the encounter. Proceed very cautiously depending upon the details of each different situation.

If you cannot avoid the situation, then how do you decide about the appropriate tactic for handling the heated confrontation that may turn violent? I have some “food for thought” below for you to consider. One preliminary factor to understand in your planning is the natural defense mechanisms we all have.

Natural Defense Mechanisms

The Austrian psychoanalyst and medical doctor Sigmund Freud explained behaviors and recognized defense mechanisms. There are natural defense mechanisms that we automatically resort to within our developed “muscle memory” in any particular situation. Understanding and general advance planning for them can be beneficial in our critical problem solving and effective decision-making situations. Knowing and recognizing them before a situation will be especially useful when under duress, like when an individual or a team is in a deadly-force or emergency situation when a goal or need is blocked. We had great discussions about this when I presented a seminar to NASA supervisors at Kennedy Space Center in Florida a few years ago.

Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit

The Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) is a department of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that uses behavioral sciences to understand better the behaviors of threatening individuals and to assist in criminal investigations. It was a BAU who helped catch Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) through the use of forensic profiling and his behaviors. Body language, mannerisms, and behavioral patterns can combine to provide substantial clues and predictions. But, we as self-defenders do not have to be a BAU member or behavioral scientists to apply it to our self-defense encounters, understand our attackers, try to predict their violent behaviors, and deal appropriately with assailants. We can recognize general exhibited general behavioral defense mechanisms and their related goal or need so we can know how to begin to handle the situation.

Know Common Behavioral Indicators Before A Crisis

Take some time to learn the types of defense mechanisms, threatening behaviors, and their indicators before an encounter or emergency situation. Identify possible clues that indicate a potentially lethal situation. This could help save you some valuable time in handling an actual confrontation or a crisis if it occurs. Individuals may not even be aware that they are using these internal mechanisms or exhibiting certain behaviors which are developed and learned over time and which affect the dynamics of urgently handling the encounter.

TIP: Recognizing defense mechanisms and behavioral clues in others may help us select the best response and the appropriate strategy for getting the results we want in self-defense situations.

Some say we learn defense mechanisms from our involvement in challenging experiences. Others say they are innate for us, while still others say they are a result of a combination of both, learned and unlearned experiences. Psychologists debate this. Without a doubt, we base our defense mechanisms on our individual, unique system of goals, needs, values, priorities, behaviors, and our experiences.

Time is a Luxury for Self-Defense

Most actual crisis situations do not give us the luxury of time for quickly determining the defense mechanisms of an individual, assessing behaviors, and then making optimal quick decisions. But if we can anticipate some common, potential, often-encountered violent situations before they occur, it will help develop our strategy for dealing with them later. Demonstrated behaviors are clues precipitating a lethal or emergency situation.

Some common, possible lethal encounters to plan ahead for include situations like armed bank robbery while depositing money, armed assault while eating at a restaurant with friends, and road rage involving another driver with a gun. There are also documented real-world and research experiences for us to study and learn defense mechanisms and behaviors that may help our future responses in later encounters.

7 Defense Mechanisms of Individuals

There are seven defense mechanisms, based on Freud’s ideas, which may be employed by an individual when their goal or need is blocked in various situations. Of course, one or several may be combined concurrently in any given situation. And they are not in any priority order and are based on the details of the situation. By recognizing the defensive behavior exhibited by an attacker, we can better understand the individual’s goal or need that is blocked and use the best strategy to deal with the situation.


  1. A single warning sign or defense mechanism displayed does not necessarily warrant overt action but encourages you to look for others to validate the action.
  2. Some mechanisms are more important than others, e.g., just possessing a firearm in a holster vs. gun in hand and pointing it at others.
  3. When a cluster of multiple indicators are present, then risk becomes more serious, e.g., an attacker has shown aberrant behaviors, talks about retribution against others, has a history of mental illness, refuses counseling, and shows or wants extreme violence against others.

Here are 7 Common Defense Mechanisms:


The individual attacker wants to avoid dealing with the situation and issue at hand in the short run and withdraws to be alone. A loner. They might be trying to “buy time” to prepare and plan for a tactic that is more favorable to themselves and their goal. Or they may be not interested in carrying out the attack. (More situation details are needed.)


Based on exhibited aggressive and violent behaviors, a direct attack is imminent or in progress, so you, the self-defender, should be ready immediately to respond with appropriate means.


The attacker goes overboard in one area to make up for a deficiency in another. For example, showing several available high-powered weapons, but not having sufficient ammo to carry out their plans.


This is restraint by the leader in revealing a problem or crisis facts to the team or group members, to not lose their confidence or support for the leader and his goal.


To avoid unpleasant realities of the situation, an individual attacker may revert to immature, juvenile behaviors or their pleasant memories. This is usually an opportunity for negotiation with the attacker to focus on favorable results and treatment.


An individual attacker may attribute their feelings to someone else or another situation, or place blame elsewhere. This behavior is intended to distract from receiving negative responses and diminished support for their goal. The law enforcement officer pointed his gun at another gang member, so that is used to justify to the gang actions to avenge that apparent wrong.


Presenting the wrong reason for justifying negative behavior that is more socially acceptable. For example, stating the bank has all kinds of money so we are entitled to rob the bank and have some of it because we will not harm anyone when we rob it.

Your Self-Management System

All of us have a combination or system of ingrained values, priorities, other factors which influence our behaviors and the results of any situation we face. You must objectively know yourself, these factors, and know how and when to apply them to unique situations. This is especially very important for a life or death situation. In general, here are some factors which may combine for our self-management system.

  1. Focus on our purpose, objectives, priorities, values, and results, e.g., survive the encounter without injury or death.
  2. Ensure your responses are directly related to and consistent with your purpose and objectives, e.g., do not use a bazooka to counter a fist attack.
  3. Know for yourself, and your situation the Strengths and Weaknesses & the Opportunities and Threats (see SWOT Analysis below), e.g., objectively define your strengths and weaknesses for the situation at hand; generally, anticipate some common threat         situations and your possible responses before any dangerous encounter (e.g. bank robbery; restaurant shooting.)
  4. Practice communication, collaboration, and consensus, e.g., work with your fellow victims or team members facing your mutual hostage situation for an escape plan.)
  5. If possible, strive for a win-win, mutually-beneficial process and result, e.g., usually stopping the threat, rather than killing the attacker, often benefits all involved and legal concerns.

The Need for a Practical Technique

Remember, we are not behavioral scientists with the skills to decidedly make unquestionable use-of-force decisions about behaviors, there are many variables, and each situation has its unique aspects and time parameters. So, we need a practical technique to use for at least some help and as general guidance for starting to handle each potential lethal crisis. As you will read below, one such help comes in a basic SWOT Analysis technique to help us assess and handle the situation. Using SWOT comes after we identify the defense mechanisms and exhibited behaviors.

SWOT Analysis for Guidance in Self-Defense

If avoiding a confrontation and the use of deadly force is not successful, we must quickly recognize existing defense mechanisms and behaviors of the attacker. If sufficient time is available (and it may not be), then apply a quick, basic SWOT Analysis to help guide the appropriate actions. Practice and more practice in identifying defense mechanisms, behaviors, and using the SWOT technique will make us more comfortable with them and their applications, for our self-defense.

Regardless of what information is available in your self-management system or the situation, a very useful tool to quickly help determine what is the optimal course of action is called SWOT Analysis. “S” stands for your Strengths. “W” represents your Weaknesses. While “O” stands for situational Opportunities and “T” represents Threats inherent in the situation or self-defense encounter.

SWOT is credited to Albert Humphrey, who tested the technique in the 1970s at the Stanford Research Institute. Organizations of all types have adopted SWOT analysis as a basic aid for quickly visualizing and helping to make critical decisions in various situations. It was initially developed for use by businesses to save time and to solve problems.

4 Elements of SWOT:

  1. Strengths. Internal attributes and resources that support a successful result in a situation.
  2. Weaknesses. Internal attributes and resources that work against a successful result.
  3. Opportunities. External factors that an individual or group can capitalize on or use to its advantage in a situation.
  4. Threats. External factors that could jeopardize the individual’s or group’s success.

SWOT Analysis is a simple but powerful supplemental tool to help you quickly develop the responses for your survival strategy.

SWOT Relies On Both Internal and External Factors

You should already know your internal personal and situational strengths and weaknesses since you have objectively identified and planned for them. Of course, these are internal elements you have some control over and can change, i.e., available resources, mindset, carrying an extra magazine, having a backup gun, a location visited, cover used, etc. Recognize that in a particular situation you must also know the strengths and weaknesses of others involved.

Focus on External Opportunities and Threats

So given your knowledge of your own and the situation’s strengths and weaknesses, you must then primarily focus on identifying the external opportunities for your self-defense or escape and dealing with the existing threats of the situation. You cannot change these external forces, such as existing laws, the environment, number of other people and their weapons, etc. Not an easy task, but your advance planning and preparation using SWOT help and hopefully will save you some time.

Once your strengths and weaknesses are identified (from your prior preparation), match them to each opportunity to optimally and quickly resolve and deal with each threat. This SWOT Analysis technique is nothing more than an orderly way of arranging and matching the four major defined variables in any situation.

TIP: If properly used, a SWOT Analysis organizes your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats into a manageable list to save time in your decision making and problem-solving.

SWOT Analysis is merely a basic framework for your orderly thinking. It is for identifying and analyzing the key internal and external factors that can have an impact on the results of a dangerous or emergency situation.

CAUTION: SWOT itself is not a panacea for resolving problems and making decisions, but merely one tool, an organizing, and guidance technique, among others to consider. It is but one basic technique in your toolbox for resolving problems and making decisions. It may not be the best option for all lethal situations so you may choose not to use it. 

How To Do A Simple SWOT Analysis

A SWOT analysis generally requires decision makers first to specify the objective they hope to accomplish for themselves or their group.

An example objective: Leaving this bank, which is being robbed, without injury or death to our employees, by the close of business today.

Next, the Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as Opportunities and Threats, are summarized or listed for the situation and involved individuals. If possible, there should be involvement of all team members, but perhaps only the team leader will have the time and chance for this.

Recognize that due to the limited-time pressure and lack of a chance to communicate with all team members individually, there are limits for SWOT success. The SWOT process may not include all relevant factors for all four elements, given the limited time factor. And because it only captures factors at a particular point in time, it does not allow for how those factors could change over time. So while it is a very simple way of organizing thoughts and the factors quickly, there may be limitations to positive results and other factors must be considered. So, use it judiciously and very carefully.


Often when concealed carriers are not used to stressful situations when carrying their handgun, they may have a false sense of security. And their mindset may be too aggressive, and they may be quick to draw and use their gun. Rather than first seeking to avoid or de-escalate a situation and understand the situational variables, defenders may first immediately engage a threat with deadly force, and that may not be necessary. Of course, each situation is different.

Each confrontation has its own set of considerations, changing variables, exhibited defense mechanisms, opportunities, and threats. If avoidance is not possible, it is of paramount importance to first strategically analyze the particular situation, identify your personal and situational strengths and weaknesses, and quickly identify existing opportunities and threats, before taking quick action to draw your weapon. The SWOT Analysis is but one basic and simple technique that might help you quickly do this. But practice it first in non-deadly-force situations and in common scenarios in a non-threatening environment in advance. Also, consider which technique you feel comfortable with and which is best for your unique situation and possible threats. Recognize that there are other strategies and techniques which might be best for your specific situation.

Continued Success!

Image licensed by i156 LLC.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2019 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at

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"Col Ben" is retired with 30 years service in the U.S. Air Force, with joint services Special Ops duty and training, and is Air Force qualified as "Expert" in small arms. He is a Vietnam-era Veteran. Ben is an experienced NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, NRA Range Safety Officer, and FL Concealed Carry License Instructor. Ben recently wrote the book "Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection" (second printing) with 57 comprehensive Chapters about concealed carry and handgun principles, techniques, and tips for both experienced and new shooters. His reference book is endorsed by several organizations and is available on his website at Contact him at
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